Get ready to be surprised. This book may not be what you are expecting. It wasn’t at all what I thought it was going to be, and yes, I was pleasantly surprised. First of all, it’s not a young adult book. I’ve seen it all over the blogosphere on YA blogs, but the truth is Stormdancer is an adult novel. Yes, the protagonist is sixteen. And yes, she has an animal side-kick (of sorts). But this book is violent; and bloody; and gruesome. And the themes it explores are serious and complicated. But it’s also a wonderful story filled with relationships that will make you cry. Should teens read this book? Maybe. But any reader who appreciates amazing world-building, unique relationships, and a story of epic proportions should ink in time to sit down and read Stormdancer as soon as possible.
Yukiko is a young girl living in a future, heavily polluted Japan, ruled by a ruthless Shogun named Yoritomo. Their feudal society depends on the blood lotus, a plant whose seeds provide fuel for the sky ships and other mechanical devices in Kigen City, but is a potent and addicting drug as well. The unfortunate downside of the plant is that the production and use of its noxious fuel has turned Kigen City into an almost unlivable place, where the air, city streets, even the water are black with pollution, and residents must wear breathing apparatuses and goggles every time they venture outside. Yukiko lives with her father Masaru, the official hunter for the Shogun, a man who hides his bitter grief about the disappearance of his wife behind the poisonous smoke of his lotus addiction.
After hearing rumors that a thunder tiger, a creature long believed to be extinct, has been seen in the skies above the Iishi Mountains, the Shogun orders Masaru, Yukiko and a few of their friends to find the creature and bring him back. Sailing through the clouds in their sky ship, the crew locates and captures the beast remarkably quickly, but a devastating lightning storm sets fire to the ship and threatens the lives of everyone aboard. In a cinematic and hair-raising sequence, Yukiko escapes the inferno on the back of the thunder tiger, whose name is Buruu. The rest of the story is a tense and wondrous journey filled with danger, betrayal and some very uncommon friendships.
If I had to sum up Stormdancer, I’d call it a mix of Mad Max, Waterworld, Firefly and China Mieville’s The Scar. Kristoff’s world-building is good enough to stand up to any of those finely developed worlds, and every time I came up for air I felt dazed and out-of-sorts. Kristoff’s descriptions of the horrible world of Kigen City are relentless. Citizens are not only oppressed by the strict laws of the Shogun, but their world is literally falling into ruin. “Chi,” the fuel that is harvested from the seed of the blood lotus plant, keeps the machinery of the city running, but it’s ruining the air, water and health of its people. When Yukiko and Buruu land near the Iishi Mountains after the sky ship crashes, the wonderfully clean air and water there is a relief from the grim existence of those who live in the city.
I loved everything about this story, but my favorite parts of Stormdancer were when the characters took center stage. The relationship between Yukiko and Buruu is one of the finest ones I’ve read in a long time. Because Yukiko has a gift called the “kenning,” she is able to read the minds of animals and communicate with them. When she meets Buruu for the first time, he hates her and the other humans who have captured him. But that hate slowly turns into admiration and trust, and finally to love. And Buruu himself is a wonderful creation. With the body of a tiger and the head and wings of an eagle, Buruu is a griffin-like creature who is able to create an electrical current by cracking his wings. He only communicates with Yukiko, and only in his thoughts, and Kristoff has him speak in all capital letters, which not only makes him seem scary, but sets his voice apart from Yukiko’s. Another favorite character of mine was Kin, a Guildsman who is fated to spend his entire life encased in a metal suit. But when the sky ship crashes, he is gravely injured in the crash and must remove his suit for the first time. It was painful to read about Kin and his hopeless situation, and Kristoff makes him even more tragic by having him fall in love with Yukiko.
The story is filled with Japanese words, which might cause distress for some readers, because there are a lot of them. I felt I had somewhat of an advantage reading this book because I speak some Japanese, so it didn’t really bother me. But I have read other reviews, some of them quite vocal, about how the amount of Japanese words slowed down the story. I have to disagree. I feel sorry for readers who are looking for an “easy” read, and who won’t take the time to savor a book that is actually beautifully written and slowly developed. This is such a book. There is action aplenty in Stormdancer, but in order to get there you must journey through some lush and careful world-building first. Don’t give up, or you might miss one of the best books of the year. Good things come to those who wait, or in this case, to those who keep reading. Kristoff saves some of his best surprises for the end of the book, including details on how the blood lotus got its name. Stormdancer is the first in the Lotus War Trilogy, and I can’t wait to read what’s next for Yukiko and Buruu.