Stormdancer (Lotus War # 1) by Jay Kristoff

A richly woven tapestry of intoxicating Japanese Mythological elements (Iron Samurai with Chain-saw Katana? Golly yes! Thunder-Tigers? Never heard of those, but give me some more please!!) and elaborate Steampunk fantasy; featuring a precocious 16-year old coming into her own – Jay Kristoff's explosive much-talked about debut Stormdancer was well on its way to be a runaway success even before the book launched. The hype and explosive premise surrounding the book was higher than the lethal volcanic fumes from Mount Doom of Mordor.

So imagine war and politics, love and magic colliding against a bewitchingly exotic backdrop of Japanese steam-punk where loyalties shift with the direction of the ever-howling winds and the reddish bloody skies are forever wreathed in clouds of betrayal. Stormdancer goes a step further than all of this. Love it or hate it, this book is in-your-face – World-building at a scale hitherto un-imagined. It’s perhaps YA – in its treatment of the heroine but the themes that run underneath of environmental decline, tyranny and even perhaps a nod to the caste systems ( Clans! The people are either part of the four clans of Tiger, Dragon, Phoenix and Fox or the lowest of the society being clan-less) are adult and topical. The pacing is like a see-saw and goes off-kilter at times with Jay getting into detailed flowing expositions about the “sweaty bodies draped in silk” or “paddy fields shrouded by choking scarlett pollen” - but ultimately, what matters is his execution of this premise. Personally I loved the sheer audacity of such an attempt at taking Steampunk outside of Victorian London into the choking, dying streets of a Japanese-inspired world. It takes talent and a lot of cojones to do it and do it aesthetically right.
“The lotus must bloom”. And how.

So Stormdancer features some of the most inventive worldbuilding elements I’ve ever read about– Imagine a Japan on the brink of environmental decline, running on steam and gear-clogs and ruled by a megalomaniacal demented Shogun. The world of Shima where the story takes place is an accursed place – on the brink of death and decline. (“Did you know that skies used to be blue once, Yamagata-san? Brilliant blue like a gaijin’s eyes. And now? Red as your lotus. Red as blood.”)

The people or elements that populate this strange world are just as twisted and delicious. Take for example, the fearsome Oni. Onis are nightmarish demons armed with studded-war clubs – last heard about in your grandmother’s tales – but here terrifyingly real – as real as the azalea petals and snow-flakes that you imagine Japan for. Take the Iron Samurai with their chainsaw Katanas – loyal to a fault and bound by this bushido code to the demented Emperor. Then there are these Guild artificers with their exoskeletons and 'mechabacus' that enables them to do engineering and data-transmission – who actually run the whole capital. And are the chief architects of the environmental decline. Due to a bio-fuel – called Chi - generated from the seeds of the lotus bloom that powers the army, the sky-ships and the motor-rickshaws . The soil of Shima is rendered sterile – the only crop being cultivated is the red lotus - groomed for the purpose of extracting fuel. The air is foul with the exhaust that causes blacklung and eventual death; the skies are blood-red with fumes of chi and industrial wastes. It’s altogether a slow death-trap – and on top of that, the morbid citizens fear for their lives - because of the fanatic priests ( called “purifiers”) who string up and burn innocents by the dozens on a whim. Basis their beliefs – a twisted vile interpretation of the Book of Ten Thousands (perhaps their Bible?)
You get the idea. The book is chocked up full with such strange wonderful beings and Jay Kristoff certainly doesn’t shy away from letting his imagination take wings. The world history and mythology is packed in through myriad stories and certainly completes this neat package – a mesmerizing account of Gods and their follies and their children – I am thinking the story of Mother Dark isn’t over yet – and we will see the myths and the overall plot only becoming murkier; All for the better I say.

In the midst of all the hullaboo surrounding the quasi-Japanese dystopian settings, I almost forgot about the story. Yes there is a good story buried in amongst all this. A coming-of-age story of a sixteen-year old girl destined to take on the might of an empire. It’s a tale we’ve heard a thousand times before – but Jay spins the tale capably well. Couched in exotic settings and draped in vivid vibrant descriptions that brings alive this world – Yokiko must battle her own personal demons on one hand – a substance-addicted father, mysterious circumstances of her mother’s disappearance, the angst and raging hormones of teenage, broken hearts and betrayals from best friends – and the might of the Iron-Samurai. Taking on the Shogun of Shima himself. Not to mention the impossibility of the challenge. Jay certainly doesn’t believe in doing things by half and into this mad chaotic mix, he drops in a twisted romantic threesome. Admittedly, it’s a little too much to handle. The lid of the blender comes flying off towards the mad climax – where battles and madness and betrayals break loose and crowd the pages. 

So I’ve already crooned about the gooey stuff I LOVED about this book. The fantastic premise held for as long as Jay didn’t go about molly-coddling his heroine. But as soon as the hormones kick in – ( and trust me – it does and it does so at inopportune moments – like in the middle of a fight with an Oni – with the war-club scything towards her head, Yokiko starts wet-dreaming about a certain boy with sea-green eyes. FTW!!) things start unraveling.

Much has been spoken about the cultural mis-appropriation. I don’t care much on that front – as I’m no expert on the afore-said culture. But as I reader I cared that things didn’t jar too much. Especially going in for an aesthetic amalgamation of two disparate genres. But I sure got irritated with Jay’s pacing. Especially the earlier portions of the novel where he goes to unnecessary lengths to establish Shima’s environmental decline. His literary skills are astounding and while it did one good to actually read about the vivid prison-city of Kigen and the myriad sweaty populace residing within, it got tiresome as he heaped tons of info and kept on doing so. The issues are resolved way too fast for my liking. Like for example, the bond between Yokiko and the fearsome Arashorita was established way too fast. Yokiko being the destined child – quickly assuming the weight of the whole rebellion on her tiny shoulders – even as the fates of her father and his friends is hanging in the air – was again done without much trouble. It was like life for Yukiko is a cake-walk. After all, with a Thunder-Tiger for a best friend/brother – there is nothing that can stand in their way.

Anyways – these minor quibbles aside, Stormdancer, part one of the Lotus War is a fantastically gripping novel that will blow you away with its sheer audacity to mesh together Japanese mythology and Steampunk fantasy. An attempt that has won Jay hearts and fans all over the world and also distanced the elitist critics and culture-lovers in equal measure. So where do I fall among these two factions?
I remain a book-lover and as a rabid fan of fantasy fiction, this book is a definite treat. I am strapped in for the rest of the ride. For the future of Shima and Yokiko. Let the Lotus fuckin’ explode.


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