This is part of a series of reviews, my attempt to cover all nine finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Award before the winner is announced at the end of October. I'll be approaching these books in a slightly templated fashion: plot summary, good stuff, not so good stuff, conclusion.
Jay Kristoff's Stormdancer (2012) took the DGLA lists by, er... storm... achieving the shortlist in all three categories: novel, debut and cover art. Although certainly popular, there's a certain sense that this book has punched above its weight. Is Stormdancer the best book? Novel? Cover? All three?
Let's find out, shall we?
Well, for the third book in a row, Stormdancer is based around a non-European fantasy presence.
Yukiko is a sixteen year old woman, a member of the Fox Clan and the daughter of the Shogun's last "monster hunter". When rumors of a thunder tiger, a magical creature long thought extinct, surface, Yukiko and her father are dispatched to bring it back. Their quest may be impossible, but disappointing the Shogun would be fatal.
Meanwhile, the land is in the throes of change. Clockwork (steampunk) industrialisation is sweeping the land, the sinister Lotus Guild have their claws in everything and the Shogun's decisions are no longer to be trusted. To add further tension, Yukiko is in possession of a strange psychic power - and were it to be discovered, her life would be in danger. (Not that it isn't already, what with the monsters and revolutions and all.)
Hey, that sounds pretty imaginative!
And, you know - it is. Psychic steampunk ninjas, yo - plus a chosen one with a unique magical power and an impossible quest. Epic fantasy buzzword bingo!
Stormdancer setting allows for both magic and machine, and Mr. Kristoff is meticulous in his world-building, accounting for every conceivable facet of the landscape and history.
One of the themes that steampunk can tackle well is the idea of industrialisation and how it connects with resource deprivation and a certain form of cultural "progress". That is to say, "factories and griffins don't co-exist, so what happens to the latter?". This has been done very well elsewhere (The Iron Dragon's Daughter, The Light Ages...), and still, it remains one of the strengths of the form. (A few years ago I took to calling this "flowerpunk" - partially after Tad Williams' The War of the Flowers, but mostly because the trend in this area was towards "fairy-fuel" - industrialised magical kingdoms that juiced fairies into petrol. In hindsight, perhaps "ScourPunk" would've been better - it all comes from "The Scouring of the Shire" after all...).
Mr. Kristoff is not particularly subtle in the way he tackles this theme, but he is thorough. To be clear: magical creatures are glorious packages of wonder. Industrialisation is polluting, oppressive, soul-crushing, war-mongering, drug-laced eeeevil. Saruman would be rubbing his hands in glee.
Stormdancer is also packed with romantic imagery, beginning with the last of a tragic/noble/dying breed of artisans (in this case, creature hunters) chasing the last specimen of a tragic/noble/dying breed of magical creature. On top of this, we have the tension between a conservative feudalism and an industrialising culture, a rebellion and a war and... all sorts of epic stuff all stomping along together, reminding us that everything Yukiko does is incredibly important. The fallacy at the center of all epic fantasy is the "great man" theory - that no matter how catastrophic or overwhelming the forces of history (industrialisation, class warfare, progress, environmental change, etc), it is all caused and/or averted by the efforts of a single person. This is, perhaps, the largest element of escapism in all of epic fantasy, but a largely harmless one: knowing that one person can make a difference is what makes us feel good.
In this case, Yukiko is positioned to make every difference. In her hands rests not only her own fate, but that of her land and, arguably, the health and history of the entire world. Again, this only reinforces the "tragic nobility" theme to Stormdancer - the idea of a single young woman, alone against all the forces of history and inevitability.
Despite my rhetorical acrobatics above, there's actually very little I liked about Stormdancer and a lot that I found deeply problematic.
Stormdancer's ham-fisted cultural appropriation has already been well-documented elsewhere. There's a lazy, hand-wavey use of language (with no thought of context or grammar), for example, and, even more puzzling, the conflation of Chinese and Japanese culture. Given the (slightly over the top) dedication to detailed world-building, these elements are simply perplexing - if not outright worrisome. If anything, Stormdancer only reinforces Throne of the Crescent Moon's success in demonstrating how effortless non-Western settings can be.
Stormdancer is also painfully, agonizingly self-conscious - using italicised vocab words to highlight its awesome exoticness, yo. Yet, "exoticness" isn't the answer; in fact, this only reinforces the problem. As long as epic fantasy treats non-Western settings as the other - and, while we're at it, portraying them inaccurately -it perpetuates the ridiculous insularity of the genre. And, let's face it, if there's a real language, say Japanese, that's used with less research or rigour than, say Elvish, that's not exactly a sign of cultural respect.
AND YET. To be brutally honest... Is Stormdancer that much more culturefail-y than the epic fantasy norm? Sadly, no. Howard, Tolkien, Eddings, Brett, Sanderson, etc. etc. etc... the road to Mordor is paved with lazy stereotyping, ham-fisted appropriation and appalling subtext. This isn't to say that Stormdancer should be forgiven (far from it - it should be hammered), but why is it so awful?
Because, if there's thing you absolutely cannot be in epic fantasy, it is this - boring. If a book can't even fall back on pure entertainment value, it has nothing. And I didn't just find Stormdancer boring, I found it excruciating. The world-building is minutely detailed, because it goes on for hundreds and hundreds of pages. (Which, incidentally, makes the weird lack of research all the more galling.) There's enough infodumping in here for a half-dozen books, and enough exposition for a dozen more. Nor does the book ever rise above it: Stormdancer is further damned by repetitive prose, forgettable characters and a predictable plot.
OH AND ANOTHER THING
The puzzling Patrick Rothfuss blurb...
“What’s that? You say you’ve got a Japanese Steampunk novel with mythic creatures, civil unrest, and a strong female protagonist? I’m afraid I missed everything you said after 'Japanese Steampunk.' That’s all I really needed to hear.”
... which makes it sound like he never read the book. (Nice dissection of this from Neth.)
AND ONE LAST THING
Even setting aside the book's shamefully clumsy cultural appropriation, I think there's a basic expectation that fantasy will provide entertainment. "Fun", "escapism", "more-ishness", "immersion": whatever you want to call it, it ain't here. Stormdancer isn't just bad, it is dull. And that is simply unforgivable.