Review: The Lotus War: Stormdancer

I don’t normally pay attention to cover quotes on books. I rarely agree with the opinions of others, especially reviewers. I prefer to make my buying decisions based on the book itself, not what people are saying about it.

Cover art for "The Lotus War, book one: Stormdancer" by Jay KristoffBut one quote slapped onto the cover of Stormdancer, the first book of a series called The Lotus War by Jar Kristoff, caught my eye:

“What’s that? You say you’ve got a Japanese steampunk 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.”-Patrick Ruthfuss.

For the first time in my life, I bought a book based on the cover quote.

And that quote pretty much sums up my thoughts on the book, too. Its strength is entirely grounded in its setting, a spectacularly intricate and original blending of dystopic steampunk and feudal Japanese culture.

The story takes place in the Shima Imperium, an island nation that has undergone an industrial revolution fueled by a toxic plant known as the blood lotus. Blood lotus is used to make chi, which can fuel any number of wondrous and terrible machines.

But this advancement comes at a great cost, as the the fields of blood lotus poison the land, rendering it barren and infertile, and chi exhaust shrouds the entire nation in toxic smog. The people of Shima wither and die in the gutters, ground beneath the military dictatorship of the shogun and the inhuman fanaticism of the cybernetic Lotus Guildsmen.

The strength of the setting is what carries this book. That’s not to say that the actual plot is bad; it’s just not on the same level of quality as the setting, and the best parts of the story are those that take full advantage of the grim horror of life in Shima.

Stormdancer follows a young girl named Yukiko. Along with her father, a legendary hunter fallen from grace, she is sent to help capture a legendary gryphon at the whim of Shima’s deranged shogun. Every member of the party expects to die, for everyone knows that gryphons are extinct, and to disappoint the shogun is a death sentence.

But this is fantasy. If something is thought to be pure myth, then it’s guaranteed the characters are going to stumble across it sooner or later.

Yukiko possesses a special gift, the ability to psychically commune with animals, and she uses this to form an uneasy understanding with the gryphon. Alongside the gryphon, lost in Shima’s last piece of unspoiled wilderness, Yukiko comes to understand just how corrupt and twisted her world truly is.

Art of Yukiko and the gryphon Buruu from "The Lotus War, book one: Stormdancer"Aside from the setting, I think the gryphon is the main mark in Stormdancer‘s favour. Kristoff does an excellent job of convincingly presenting him as a beast, with a different thought process than humans. He’s simple, but not stupid — uncomplicated in the way that animals are. He sees the world through the harsh lens of a predator’s eyes, in stark shades of black and white. He believes that most any problem can be solved with his talons, and he sees no greater joy in the world than being able to soar free among the thunderclouds.

The rest of the cast is strong, as well. Yukiko is a very effective protagonist, good-hearted but fierce, and the other characters are all interestingly imperfect yet still ultimately likable.

However, I did find that the way the characters’ stories were handled could be odd at times. Characters that seem to be important early on will vanish for much of the story, and sometimes characters behave in ways that feel forced or make little sense.

I sometimes get the impression the author was so caught up in the story he simply forgot about some plot threads and left them hanging.

7.9/10 Worth reading purely for the amazing depth and originality of the setting. Everything else is just gravy.

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