During a holiday I picked up a book called Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff in a Maltese bookstore, which had quite a nice collection of fantasy and science fiction novels. The front page of the book depicted an Asian-looking girl and when I turned to the back cover for the blurb, there was an author's recommendation by Patrick Rothfuss (whose book The Name of the Wind I also got at the same store), stating that the novel is a steampunk novel set in imaginary Japan. This depiction was convincing enough for me and I bought not only Stormdancer, but its following book, Kinslayer, on the spot as well.
Having now read more than half of the Stormdancer, I can honestly recommend it to everyone who likes a) steampunk, b) Japan, c) female protagonists, d) mythology, e) political pondering and f) a good story. For the novel has all of these and more.
I don't know exactly why I like steampunk. I suppose the philosophy of machines being helpful but not intelligent, steam-powered but not all-mighty is a compelling juxtaposition for man's struggle in the world, where both they and their machines can be anything and everything, but usually not without a cost. The setting in Stormdancer is similar - there are trains, airships, warfare, weapons and metallic suits, all powered with the energy of Chi, distilled from poisonous lotus flowers that scourge the earth they are grown on and make it uninhabitable for everything else. Therefore, naturally, the lotus growers must move to new areas in order to maintain and expand the production, which leads to an eventual environmental catastrophe visible to anyone reading the book from a modern person's point of view. Indeed, the environment issue is even visible for the people of the novel's world, but as the class system and shogun-run empire depend so heavily on their fuel, there are but a few who dare to resist its spreading.
Japan is not as a country so strongly present, for the world in which the novel is set is completely imaginary. However, a lot of the vocabulary, customs and habits of the people are directly linkable to their Japanese counterparts and the general atmosphere of the novel brings to mind the expansionist politicies of Japan from that period of its history. Why Japan is something I instictively like is again another question I cannot quite answer - I suppose its mostly due to the facts of me having immersed myself with the popular culture and history of Japan and idealizing the country as something far removed, but not so very distinct, from my own. Anyone acquinted with Japan will surely find this book a pleasure to read.
I don't usually mind one way or the other which gender the main character in a story happens to be, so long as they're intelligent, independent and stubborn. Yukiko, who leads the way in Stormdancer, is something of an idealist, a daughter born in a priviledged family who has seen both sides of the life in her homeland of Shima. To be born into the right family can make your life, as easily as it can break it. Compassionate, lonely and determined, Yukiko sometimes comes off nai'ive, but when faced with some of the decisions and problems brought about by the rulers of the country, being a little nai'ive is the least of her worries.
The mythology of Shima/Japan is one of the central points of the novel, as the protagonist group is charged with hunting down a griffin, or a storm tiger, for the shogun's stables. The religion of the world is made clear in the inter-character discussions and once the story gets going, the fabled storm tiger is not the only myth that comes into being. The novel also explores the fine line between history and religion through the human mind, by asking whether one instance that turns out to be true makes it the same for all the rest of them.
The political atmosphere of the novel is set up from the beginning. On the top there is shogun, who is served by the samurai - there are also the Lotusmen who control the chi, and who are on the other end of the see-saw with the shogun on who it really is who controls the country. The ordinary people are not visible as such, but are alluded to in the characters' dialogue and the reader can surmise are not much removed from the foreign slaves working on the Lotus fields. The main characters of the novel all belong to the upper crust, but naturally understand the plight of their countrymen - a somewhat cliché which one can expect from the heroes and heroines of a story. It might have been more interesting to have more characters who are virtually blind for the social dilemma of the country, rather than have them rub it in with the reader as much as they do. But as fictional characters go, the ones in Stormdancer are not too appalling to follow.
Of the story, I will not say much - something must be discovered for oneself, after all. But it is enticing, at least to me, even if it seems at a first glance to be another journey of growth and realization. There are, however, some ideas and settings that are clearly either steampunk or Japan at heart and those make this one different than most of the ones I've laid my eyes on before.