Review: The Lotus War, Book Two: Kinslayer

For the last little while, life has been too hectic to afford me much time to read. Now, I’ve finally managed to get into some books again, and the first one I dove into was the second book of Jay Kristoff’s Lotus War series, which I had been looking forward to since I finished the slightly flawed but mostly impressive first book.

Cover art for "The Lotus War, book two: Kinslayer" by Jay KristoffIt wasn’t worth the wait.

Kinslayer wastes no time in establishing a new set of problems for the heroes to deal with. Still consumed with grief from the loss of her father, Yukiko finds the Kenning, her ability to telepathically commune with animals, is growing agonizingly strong, her mind and body breaking under the strain, and she and the gryphon Buruu fly far into the north in search of a cure.

Bereft of Yukiko’s protection, the renegade Lotus Guildsman Kin finds himself increasingly unwelcome among Shima’s rebels, and when another Guild renegade joins their cause, bloodshed is inevitable.

Meanwhile, the Tiger Clan and the Lotus Guild scramble to prevent civil war following the shogun’s assassination by Yukiko. They settle on Hiro, Yukiko’s treacherous former lover, as a replacement ruler, having brought him back from the brink of death with the aid of Guild machinery.

I noticed almost immediately that the author seemed to be trying too hard to be dark and gritty. The constant and often overwrought descriptions of Yukiko’s endless physical and emotional torment quickly became wearing. And that was just the beginning.

Book one wasn’t exactly cheery. This is a dystopia, after all. But it still had some moments of levity and humour, and some very endearing characters.

Art of Yukiko and the gryphon Buruu from "The Lotus War, book one: Stormdancer"Kinslayer has largely lost that. It’s just an unrelenting spree of pain and misery from beginning to end, and it is equal parts depressing and repetitive. You can only cram so much rape, torture, and tragedy into a single book before it stops being entertainment and becomes an endurance test.

Kinslayer also leaves one with few people to root for, few characters to pin their hopes to. It is made abundantly clear that the rebels Yukiko has signed on with are not in any way better than the corrupt culture they seek to bring down.

I appreciate a story where the line between the good guys and the bad guys is blurry, but there’s a difference between some moral ambiguity and just not caring about anyone, hoping that they all just kill each other. Stormdancer stayed on the good side of that line, but Kinslayer most definitely does not.

Even on the level of individual characters, there’s little to inspire. Yukiko devolves into a ball of anger, bitterness, and pain, only overcoming this very late in the book and with no real explanation given as to how or why. Kin is twisted from an idealist to a cold-blooded killer, though at least in his case it’s hard to blame him. Buruu remains likable, but is given a disappointingly small role.

Overall rating: 4.7/10 Rarely have I seen a series go from so promising to so disappointing so quickly.

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.