A DYING LAND
The Shima Imperium verges on the brink of environmental collapse; an island nation once rich in tradition and myth, now decimated by clockwork industrialization and the machine-worshipers of the Lotus Guild. The skies are red as blood, the land is choked with toxic pollution, and the great spirit animals that once roamed its wilds have departed forever.
AN IMPOSSIBLE QUEST
The hunters of Shima’s imperial court are charged by their Shōgun to capture a thunder tiger—a legendary creature, half-eagle, half-tiger. But any fool knows the beasts have been extinct for more than a century, and the price of failing the Shōgun is death.
A SIXTEEN YEAR OLD GIRL
Yukiko is a child of the Fox clan, possessed of a talent that if discovered, would see her executed by the Lotus Guild. Accompanying her father on the Shōgun’s hunt, she finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in Shima’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled thunder tiger for company. Even though she can hear his thoughts, even though she saved his life, all she knows for certain is he’d rather see her dead than help her.
But together, the pair will form an indomitable friendship, and rise to challenge the might of an empire.
WARNING WARNING. UNPOPULAR OPINION INCOMING.
This book made me really fucking mad.
I’ll admit, I was a little leery of Stormdancer from the start – Japanese steampunk sounds cool, but coming from a white western author, the chances of problematic weeaboo fuckery are high. Exoticization. Romanticization. Plain old appropriation. Yet for some reason, I didn’t really peg Stormdancer as a weeaboo outing. I don’t know why. There was no good reason, and yet, I expected Kristoff to be a scholar of some sort, or at least, to do some very in-depth, scholarly research, borne of a deep interest in, and respect for, Japanese culture. And while even that could have also potentially yielded something problematic, at least it would have been sincere. What I thoroughly did NOT expect to get was a book informed by fucking Wikipedia and anime, set in Japan for the sake of novelty. That came as a genuine shock. And a dramatic rise in blood pressure. WHAT THE FUCKITY FUCK?
The thing is, that Wikipedia part? You can kinda tell. I mean, the first hundred pages or so of Stormdancer, basically until the airship crashes, are a chore to wade through, mostly because of the Wikipedia-esque info dumps. It takes almost exactly half of those pages to make any progress on the plot. The first fifty are just about showing off the world and detailing every little aspect of it, which is why it takes like twelve paragraphs for Yukiko and her father to walk down a street: we have to hear about the architecture, detail the clothing being worn (because we’re using Japanese terms here, and not many readers will know offhand what a fucking hakama looks like), and explain the exact geographical setting, right down to which rivers cross where, and the ~exotic smells~ in the air, even though none of it is actually relevant to anything that’s going on at the moment. I understand wanting to set the scene and acquaint readers with the world, but Jesus Herbet Christ, get on with it already. Work this stuff in to the action. Make me not want to put the book down out of sheer boredom. I mean, I haven’t even gotten the chance to get angry yet.
Making the world-building harder to parse are the Japanese words and terms strewn throughout the descriptions, most of which assume a familiarity with the culture that many readers just won’t have. I had to break out the Google more than once to give myself a better mental image of what was going on, and though many of the terms aren’t exactly vital to the story, it was still annoying as hell. I want to be able to see this shit in my head, to get what’s going on, and it doesn’t help when half of the words are in Japanese just for the flavor of it. It’s one thing when a word doesn’t have an English analog; it’s another when you’re including easily translatable and even borrowed words, like “sarariman” (seriously? it’s “salary-man” or even just “businessman”, kthnx), in their romaji form just to make the story seem more ~authentic~. At the very least it’s unnecessarily confusing.
There is a glossary in the back of the book that would have been quite helpful to know about while in the midst of those first fifty pages, but if you’re an e-reader like me, you wouldn’t have realized it’s there until you actually made it to that page…just after the story has ended. Perhaps print readers will be able to make better use of it.
But blah blah blah, detail-heavy writing, I can skim past that. My only issue was boredome until I started noticing all of the shit got wrong. Then my head began hitting the desk. Repeatedly.
And okay, preface: I’m not an expert on Japan, nor am I Asian. I’ve never studied the country or the language formally. I’ve got little knowledge outside of what I learned in my own weeaboo phase, from, yes, mostly manga and anime. And YET I still came across glaring errors, repeated errors, stupid errors, errors that made it impossible to read through a conversation without wanting to strangle someone, and errors that lead to questions about some very basic assumptions of the book.
Let’s start with my primary nails-on-a-chalkboard issue, the usage of the words “hai” and “sama”, shall we? Here are a few examples of these words in action in Stormdancer:
“That is more than fair.” […] “Ameterasu bless your kindness, sama.”…and so on and so forth.
“I want for nothing. Thank you, sama.”
“He slew Boukyaku, young sama. The sea dragon who consumed the island of Takaiyama.”
“Honor to you, great sama.”
“What is Raijin song, sama?”
“These cloudwalkers were men of the kitsune clan, hai?”…etc.
“I have no doubt of your success. The man who stood beside my father as he slew the last nagaraja of Shima will not be trouble by a simple thunder tiger, hai?”
“You must keep it secret.” […] “It is a gift, hai, but it is not one to be squandered…”
“The solitude is pleasant, hai?”
“I can get into the trees, hai.”
“Just deck-hands on a sky-ship, hai?”
And both together, for a double-slap to the face of any immersion you’ve managed to scrounge up:
“Sama, please. Enough for one day, hai?”
That’s not how you use those, either of those, come ON now. “Sama” is a suffix, an honorific. It goes at the end of someone’s name (ex: Masaru-sama), or title, or profession, to denote respect or a higher social status. You NEVER use it by itself, it isn’t a stand in for “sir”, or “lord”, and in fact, the included glossary explicitly acknowledges this, so how the fuck this managed to remain intact through editing I have no fucking idea.
Similarly, “hai” is not a one-to-one translation of “yes”, or “right”. A more accurate translation is “I have understood what you just said”, and it’s only used to answer a question or a request. You don’t stick it on the end of the sentence to rhetorically prompt confirmation. Believe it or not, there are actually Japanese words for that (well, not the “rhetorical part”), like “ka” or “desu”, but Kristoff doesn’t make use of those ad nauseum, just the jarringly, tellingly wrong “hai”.
I have never heard that word being used that way. Never. As a manga/anime fan, seeing it used that way struck me at a level of weird and wrong that prompted me to do some further Google research. It’s counter-intuitive, even if you don’t know it’s explicitly wrong, and simple Google search will explain why it is, in fact, wrong. So seeing really very basic words like “hai” and “sama” used incorrectly so often raises a lot of doubts, for me, about the level of familiarity with the culture, and the depth of research that went into the book.
There were other similarly wrong-feeling issues I came across. Like Kitsune? Yeah, turns out, that’s not typically a last name in Japan. Neither is Ryuu (although it can be a given), or Tora, or Fushichou. That’s like having characters in a western setting named “Sarah DOG” or “Anna HORSE”, or fuck, “Jeff TIGER” or “Mike DRAGON”. Those aren’t names, they’re words. It looks weird and inaccurate. Hahaha, but I guess that doesn’t matter, right? After all, one Japanese word is the same as another, eh? All that matters is that it sounds cool.
Also, bringing it back to “sararimen”? That’s actually a Japanese pronunciation of the word “salary-man”, which is just another term for “businessman”, and didn’t come into usage until the 1930’s. So seeing it in a book presumably set in the late 18th – early 19th century is highly anachronistic.
The thing is, this is basic shit. This is Weeaboo 101 people, we should not even have to be talking about this, especially if these characters are and are speaking Japanese.
Except…other potential “errors” bring that last statement into question. Are the characters in Stormdancer speaking Japanese? Seeing as how the book is set in Japan, I went into the story operating on the assumption that they were, and that it was being “translated” by the author to English for our benefit. One would think that this is the case, that characters in Japan would be saying Japanese words, and yet:
“Impure.” Yukiko whispered the word […] It was such a simple thing; two syllables, the press of her lips together, one on another, tongue rolling over her teeth.
“Arashi-no-ko,” she heard them whisper.
She could feel Buruu frown in her mind, puzzled by the word’s shape.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
She smiled, embarrassed, turning her eyes to the floor.
“I lo-“Mmmk. 1) “Impure” in Japanese? Google says “fuketsu”. Three syllables, no “press of her lips together”, minimal “tongue rolling”.
She kissed him, stood on her tiptoes and threw her arms around his neck and crushed her lips to his before he could finish the sentence. She didn’t want to listen to those three awful words, feel them open her up to the bone and see what the lies had done to her insides.
2) If they were actually speaking Japanese? After Buruu asked what the fuck “arashi no ko” meant? Yukiko would have said “arashi no ko”, because those are the words for “storm girl*” in Japanese. DUH. How and why Yukiko would have even needed to translate Japanese for the Japanese-speaking tiger is beyond me, and yet, if they are speaking Japanese here, what she just did is completely illogical.
*except that even the translation is sketchy. “Ko” = child, not “girl”.
3) “I love you” in Japanese, those “three little words”? “Aishiteru”, or “aishiteru yo”/”aishiteru wa”. One or two words at best.
This pretty effectively proved to me that, either by fuck-up or by intent, the characters in the book are speaking English. In Japan. What the fuck? I can’t imagine that that was the intent, because it makes no logical sense whatsoever, but even the fuck-up makes the book’s narrative frustratingly Eurocentric.
Oh, yeah, and then there’s the amalgamative “Asia-land” that Shima ends up reading as. That doesn’t help in the slightest. Despite being 99% a fantastical analog of Japan, again whether by fuck-up or intent, bits of other Asian cultures slip in. “Nagaraja”, for example, are actually Indian creatures. Likewise, somehow the lotus pollution is threatening the local panda population, even though pandas are indigenous to CHINA, which is, incidentally, NOT JAPAN. The characters also use Chinese expressions of exasperation, even though there are perfectly good and common and available Japanese ones.
And this is just the shit I’ve come across. Sei, finder of the Chinese slang, came across more errors, which she lists in her very insightful review, and Syahira has a very detailed analysis of the awkward naming conventions, and Krystle vents her rage about this “omage” to her culture.
You can see why this is problematic, right? The lack of research, the Eurocentric viewpoint, the playing fast and loose with Japanese culture, the smooshing all things Asian into the same story, the same country, because hey, all Asian cultures are all the same, right?
HAHA, NO. No. NONONONONONO. This is not how you write this shit, people. As my friend Shiori put it, Asian cultures are not fucking Sizzler. No, you don’t get to help yourself to the shit you like and leave the rest, why the fuck would anyone think that? For the love of god, please, educate yourself before you write about other cultures.
So, yeah, that was…frustrating, putting it mildly. *twitch* It was really, really difficult to put that aside and look at the book, I’ll admit, and might be at least part of why I found it impossible to connect with the characters. That being said, I wasn’t a huge fan of the plot itself, either.
The book takes FOREVER to get going. Sure, stuff happened here and there, but it seemed like the vvvvvaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaast majoooooooority of it was Yukiko and Buruu sitting around doing absolutely nothing. Thinking. Whining. Expositing. Moping. Waiting. Yukiko was painfully useless for nearly 3/4 of the novel. They try and trick you into thinking she’s more helpful that she is, writing the battle scenes in the plural (when she and Buruu fight together, everything is “we” – “we” clawed the demon, “we” severed an arm with “our” beak), but really, Buruu does most of the killing, while Yukiko hacks at ankles like an angry Chihuahua. I appreciate that she got the chance to make with the stabby-stabby, but this is not the sword-play the cover promised me, dammit, and the action scenes are few and far between.
I didn’t really get interested in the plot until, again, about 3/4 of the way through the book, because up until that point, it didn’t really feel like there was one. Buruu and Yukiko just wandered, and it took quite a while for the endgame to reveal itself. That, however, was when the book picked up. I was actually interested in the last hundred or so pages – the court politics, the secret alliances, the sneaking and backstabbing, and the characters that were coming into play in that arena. That part was far too short.
I was also cheered by the presence and abundance of female characters. Excluding Yukiko, there were four prominent female characters featured throughout the various stages of the book, and I liked that. Princess Aisha, Michi, Kaori, and Kasumi were all more interesting to me than Yukiko. I was especially interested in Aisha – she seemed smart and clever and capable, without ever having to swing a sword. She’s the kind of “strong female character” I’d like to see more of.
So of course, she dies. Presumably. Off-screen and at the hands of her cowardly, incestuous brother. Now I have even less motivation to read the sequel.
On the downside, the presence of female characters also attracts the obnoxious attention of the male gaze. I mean, for chrissakes:
She was in her early twenties, possessed of the kind of beauty that inspired poets; the kind that a man might happily murder his own brother to taste for a single heartbeat. Porcelain skin, high cheekbones, full lips, waves of blue-black velvet falling past her chin, glinting with a moonlight sheen. Her eyes were the color of water reflecting polished steel. But the scar ruined it all. Angry, red, bone-deep, it ran in a diagonal line from her forehead, cutting down across her nose to a jagged conclusion at her chin.First, gross. Second, eyes the color of “water reflecting polished steel”? Somebody’s been reading too much Memoirs of a Geisha (Linda has a fantastic post about exactly why this sort of thing is problematic in her series of thoughts on Asian fantasy). Third, yeah, that description? Totally sounds like straight, female, sixteen-year-old Yukiko, right? She’s all about the waves of velvet and moonlight sheen, and she definitely knows what kind of beauty would “inspire a man to kill his brother”.
We also get to hear about Michi’s “plump, pouting lips” and Kasumi’s “feral beauty”, despite the fact that she’s “well past the age when she should have found a husband”. Even Yukiko gets a chance to be objectified, and since she can’t objectify herself, dammit, we get to warp into the head of a kid peeping on her in the bath house to wax on about her naked breasts and the way the light “creates shadows on the valley of her back” or some shit.
She is SIXTEEN. This is really gross and creepy, adult author. But hey, that whole plot point couldn’t have been revealed ANY OTHER WAY, OKAY?
Also attracted by the abundance of female characters doing stuff? Tragic rape backstories, emphasized father-daughter relationships, and dead mothers. Because, y’know, how else do you get strong female characters? But it’s all about GENDER EQUALITY, BRO, because the men also run on a steady diet of angst and dead wives and MANPAIN. But not rape. That’s just for the wimmenz.
Ughhh, what else was there? Yukiko? I appreciated Yukiko’s character arc. I appreciate that she had one. However, I didn’t really find her terribly compelling. I suppose most of that could be attributed to the plot not giving her much to do until the final act, but even then, Yukiko rarely got the chance to shine on her own. It was always about Yukiko and Buruu.
Buruu was occasionally funny, but again, I didn’t have much attachment to him either. Kin and Hiro were one-dimensional, and the presence of a “love triangle” struck me as unnecessary, especially since the relationships themselves were weak. I did like that Yukiko got to have sex without being shamed for it, and that when someone tried to shame her for it, she didn’t buy in. That was nice. However, I swear to God, if Yukiko ends up getting together with “friend-zoned” Kin, I’m going to punch several non-existent Japanese griffins.
Also, that wrap-up? Great big deus ex machina. I mean, sure, Yukiko’s power had to come from somewhere, but then why the fuck hadn’t Masaru used it earlier? Like maybe before his friends were being stabbed to death while trying to rescue him?
Yukiko’s level up there in the end totally counts though. LOL WUT, YOUR ANIMAL TELEPATHY CAN NOW KILL HUMANS? YEAH OK.
And then the epilogue, just, OH GOD. The message gets HAMMERED INTO YOUR BRAIN, and more than an environmental message, it becomes an anti-Iraq War message and an anti-one-percent message, and so very mired in western society and politics and popular buzzwords. While all very good in theory, the usage of an Asian culture to make this point just bothers the shit out of me.
So yeah. I’m sorry, but I don’t have the patience for this. I don’t get the hype. There’s nothing in this book we haven’t seen in before. The dynamics are all the same. You could cut the Japanese terms out and easily transplant it back to Europe. The only differentiating thing the book has going for it is the Asian setting. Is that all it takes to make something “fresh” and “original” anymore?
Despite a few good points, ultimately, this book just kept pissing me off. The thoughtless, cavalier cultural appropriation is problematic, the errors are distracting, the story is boring and meandering for a really long time, the interesting part is short, and the message is painfully heavy-handed.
You want awesome fantasy actually written by an actual (female!) Japanese scholar? Read Moribito. Its translation was cancelled after two books. Lotus War is getting three. I just don’t even.
Assorted thoughts on Stormdancer:
- Author Karen Healy & Tumblr pinpoint some of the more problematic aspects of Kristoff’s interviews.
- The comments in Linda’s review have yielded a very interesting discussion, and several good links on the subject.
- The Book Smugglers review Stormdancer and share their thoughts on their interview with Kristoff, in which he spouts more problematic bullshit.
- Silver Goggles has a funny and wonderful reaction to the inevitable question: “does this mean we’re not allowed to write outside our ethnicity?”
- Zoe Marriott discusses the difference between diversity and appropriation.
- Calm Down, It’s Only Fantasy: Ladybusiness over at Livejournal has a response to the “Ignorant White Person 101” defense of Stormdancer. This is one of my favorite posts to come out of this whole mess. The response to the predictable “But but other fantasy authors change other (non-minority) cultures for their books, why aren’t we riding them? WHAAAAAAAA!” in the comments is an excellent, well thought-out smackdown.
- Finally, for conflicted fans of Stormdancer, behold! How to be a fan of problematic things. Spoiler: not that hard.
Meanwhile, there’s the continued response from Kristoff, the gist of which being “BUT FANTASY, why should I be held accountable? You’re taking it TOO SERIOUSLY.”
- The aforementioned Book Smuggler’s interview with Jay Kristoff, where he explains that “if you can wrap your head around the idea Shima and Japan might look a lot alike, but aren’t the same place, you’ll have fun.”
- The Stormdancer website FAQ, in which Kristoff explains how much he doesn’t give a shit if you care that he got shit wrong, because “this is fantasy, folks, not international frackin’ diplomacy.” Charming.
- A guest post at Fantasy Faction on world-building, with lots of “pros” that not-so-subtly explain why his book is TEH AWESOME and “cons” that casually give the middle finger to and shits on anyone who called him out on his bullshit.