071 – Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

Stormdancer cover 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 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:

Sama:
“That is more than fair.” […] “Ameterasu bless your kindness, sama.”
“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?”
“Forgiveness, sama.”
“Apologies, sama.”
…and so on and so forth.

Hai:
“These cloudwalkers were men of the kitsune clan, hai?”
“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?”
…etc.

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?”
headdesk


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.

Storm Girl.
I lo-

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.
Mmmk. 1) “Impure” in Japanese? Google says “fuketsu”. Three syllables, no “press of her lips together”, minimal “tongue rolling”.

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”.

fake smile

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.

One Star

More Links


Assorted thoughts on Stormdancer:


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.


 

57 Responses

  1. Juli Rahel

    August 29, 2012 11:19 pm, Reply

    Oh damn, I thought this book would be really good, don’t ask me why. I love books set in Japan like, ‘Across the Nightingale Floor’ for example, and now I am simply dreading this one. How can an author make such glaring mistakes and not be edited the shit out? Desperation aside, I really like your review style. It was both funny and interesting to read 🙂 Thanks for the review!
    Juli @ Universe in Words

    • Kayla + Cyna

      August 30, 2012 12:15 am, Reply

      I have nooooooo earthly idea, you’d think some of this easy shit – like, y’know, all of it – would have been caught, but nope, guess not. You should check out Moribito if you’re a fan of Japanese novels. It’s very good.

      And thanks 🙂

  2. Barbara W.

    August 30, 2012 5:11 am, Reply

    You just stop it right there with your intelligent reviewing and smart figuring it out thingamabobs whatever it is you do! *stomps* Authors don’t need to be held to those silly whatchamacallits…standards. :*

    Another absolutely brilliant review. I loved reading your updates and I was never so glad to be able to turn down an invitation to read an advance copy as I was with this one. Time saved, bullet dodged. 🙂 Sorry you had to take one for the team, though. You seem to do that a lot.

    • Kayla + Cyna

      August 30, 2012 10:43 pm, Reply

      Books are so much better if you don’t think about them critically!!! Then they’re ALL good!!

      Hahah, thanks Barbara. ^^; I’m glad to have saved you the trouble. And hey, that’s my job lol. Most of the time it’s fun xDDD

  3. kara-karina@Nocturnal Book Reviews

    August 30, 2012 12:25 pm, Reply

    I feel exactly the same when someone writes a book based on Russian culture say like The Mephisto Covenant or Shadow & Bone and warpes it up. Enraged and exasperated. Brilliant, detailed review, however I did like Stormdancer very much and I did like its message, but I totally understand where you are coming from. *went to look for Moribito* 🙂

    • Kayla + Cyna

      August 30, 2012 10:44 pm, Reply

      Ah, I’d heard Shadow and Bone had a lot of shit got wrong, but I wasn’t aware that Mephisto was Russian-based. Two more to avoid. I’d rather not support that kind of fuckery u.u

      I hope you do get Moribito, it’s very worth it 🙂

  4. Vanessa

    September 2, 2012 5:32 pm, Reply

    Fantastic review, guys. 🙂 I’ve promised myself to finish SD this evening, but at the moment, I just can’t muster up the enthusiasm to be excited for the ending. A book should never feel like a chore, y’know?

    (Also, do you mind if I add you to my blogroll? Maybe we could do a blogroll swap 🙂 )

    • Kayla + Cyna

      September 2, 2012 7:52 pm, Reply

      Thank you 🙂 I’m with you there. It took weeks for me to read because, like you said, it was a chore more than a pleasure. I look forward to your review, though.

      Sure, go right ahead! 😀 And sure, I actually really enjoyed your reviews. We may come to fisticuffs over Holly Black though S:D

    • Vanessa

      September 7, 2012 2:45 pm, Reply

      Haha, there’s no hard feelings when it comes to Holly Black! It’s just that I’ve never gotten into any of her books.

      I’ll just add you to my blogroll now! Thanks for mentioning me in your review. <3

  5. HyperCowMooing

    September 2, 2012 5:33 pm, Reply

    MORIBITO ALL THE WAAAAAAAAAAAAAY! That line made me fangirl :T

    anyway, another well written review. It’d be nice if the author actually went to Japan and researched thoroughly.

    -Sen from Goodreads

  6. Jha

    September 4, 2012 7:24 am, Reply

    Oh my goodness, someone said everything I know I’m going to say if I ever read the book so I don’t have to now. Thanks for the review.

  7. Liviania

    September 7, 2012 2:29 am, Reply

    This makes me want to revise my review. I wasn’t big on the book, but the last bit redeemed it enough that I gave it a three-star review. Then interviews came out revealing how little care Kristoff gave to the real Japan in developing his setting. I did complain about the lack of China and the opium trade in the novel.

    But honestly, I don’t think your opinion is that unpopular. Stormdancer got hype because there is a market for Asian-set fantasy, but many people aren’t reviewing the book well because it doesn’t live up to the hype.

    • Kayla + Cyna

      September 7, 2012 10:36 pm, Reply

      Kristoff’s attitude in the interviews is incredibly frustrating :/ The errors made reading tedious, but the interviews were just like, *explosion of fury* I’m glad that they’re making people think twice. 🙂 I don’t think it’s fair that the book get a pass after his lack of care.

      Haha, well when I posted it there were only a few one-star reviews, and I expected a little trolling ^^; Luckily, nothing so far, and yep, I’ve definitely seen a lot of less-than-praising reviews 🙂

  8. kallichore

    September 7, 2012 2:56 pm, Reply

    I actually really liked the book but your angle is really intriguing and, I think, worth bearing in mind for those of us who get carried away with enjoying it and don’t think too critically about the issues it has. Good stuff.

    And I’d forgotten about the bath house scene – there’s no comeuppance for that! SO ANNOYING.

    • Kayla + Cyna

      September 7, 2012 10:39 pm, Reply

      Thanks, kallichore. Like I said to Liviania above, if the interviews and/or this review making anyone think twice, I’ll be really happy. There’s a lack of care here and a lack of respect, and I don’t think it’s something he should be rewarded for :/

      Ugh, right? Like “Hmmm, how can we eroticize this naked girl scene? OOH, I KNOW, PEEPING TOM. BRILLIANT.” Gross.

  9. Ryan Lawler

    September 11, 2012 8:24 am, Reply

    The cover, the blurb, and a few positive reviews has had me excited to read this. But now after reading this review… I took Japanese classes in high school for 6 years and even though it’s been nearly 10 years since those days I still feel like I have an ‘educated’ view on Japanese culture.

    I guess the argument here is authenticity vs accessibility. I think the whole hybrid language and modern story telling works for a second world fantasy, but for a fantasy set in our world, even if it’s a steampunk fantasy, I’m not sure you can take the same liberties with the world building and expect people to be cool with it. When you create a secondary world, you are the one who knows how it works. Japan actually exists – a lot of people know a lot about the culture and expect authors to show a measure of respect by doing research…

    meh

    • Kayla + Cyna

      September 12, 2012 5:48 am, Reply

      Thing is, thanks to our shitty history of imperialism, western authors are always treading shaky ground when they write about other cultures, and there’s a lot that could go wrong. The very least an author can do is be aware of this, research their asses off to try and avoid it, and still be aware and prepared to listen to readers, especially POC, who tell them afterward if they’ve gotten things wrong. From what I can tell, Kristoff has done none of that, making a lot of stupid mistakes in the process that he shouldn’t be able to write off as ‘oh, alternate world’. Especially not when so much of his ‘world’ is grounded in ours that the mistakes stand out so clearly. Or when they’re particularly problematic.

      • Cheryl Hopper

        April 27, 2014 4:34 am, Reply

        I wholeheartedly agree. For a fanfic I’m outlining, I want one of the major female characters to be South Korean, and I’m nervous as hell, as someone who’s white, about writing her because I want to do right by (South) Korea, and East Asia in general because of all the stereotypes and bullshit that’s out there. I’ve had to weed some of that ‘submissive Asian women’ bullshit out of my mind as I’ve been shaping the character. I’m connected with a Tumblr group for Koreans (to help me learn more and to help me check my privilege), so I’ll ask them for good sources of info on S. Korea from a Korean perspective, and for someone to read my fic over to make sure I ‘do right’ by the character.

        I was thinking about the issue of appropriation the other day and how to get across to white people why appropriation is Bad, and the one thing I came away with is that white culture and English can’t be appropriated because white culture and English are EVERYWHERE. Europeans forced themselves and their ways down everyone else’s throats until European was The Way everyone did things, and then Britain came to not only rule the waves but the land as well so they forced English on everyone. Damn but Europe did one hell of a job on the rest of the world!

  10. Restiva

    September 17, 2012 4:24 am, Reply

    Ah, I’ve heard so many good things about this book… but now I don’t really want to read it at all! I wouldn’t have picked up on any of the mistakes myself – I’ve basically no knowledge of Japanese language/culture – but this sounds incredibly lazy. Especially the points you make about language. Sigh. So very disappointing.

  11. linda

    September 19, 2012 4:35 am, Reply

    I’ve been thinking about doing a link round-up of all the reviews/blog posts on this — good thing I checked back and saw that you did EXACTLY THAT and saved me all the work. Awesome! 🙂

    Here’s a new interview where he actually answers the question about research semi-seriously as opposed to humblebragging about how little research he did: Interview with YA Central. So yeah, an improvement (though unfortunately it doesn’t fix the errors in the book), and most likely in response to people criticizing his previous answers. He also talks about how he’d cast the movie with half Japanese actors and half Chinese actors. I just… what. Oh look, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi! (But no love for Gong Li?) Definitely Memoirs of a Geisha all over again. *facepalm*

    • Kayla + Cyna

      September 19, 2012 2:50 pm, Reply

      XD yeah, there are so many awesome thoughtful conversations going on, I wanted to share them! Are you still gonna do it? Id love to read some I may have missed 😀

      I’m glad he’s finally taking the question seriously xD the ‘smart-ass’ backfired on him bigtime. Still not sure what to believe…he’s amended his FAQ and whatnot to make it sound like the linguistic fuckups were intentional, but I’m noit sure how much I believe that xD ah, well.

      Ugh, nice. Sounds like he’s trying to play up the “diversity” of his land. Notice also how all of the actors are relatively well-known from western or western-imported films. No love for actors famous exclusively in Japan?

    • linda

      September 20, 2012 4:21 am, Reply

      Haha I think you got most of it. But I’ll let you know if I find anything that might be a good addition. My friend Krispy has been making awesome comments on my Stormdancer discussion thread on Goodreads, so I’m hoping she’ll turn them into a blog post soon. 🙂

      As for the language, I wouldn’t buy it even if it were intentional. You don’t get to do whatever you want with an existing language and then say “it’s ok because this isn’t REALLY X language, it’s a fantasy version of it” when it’s obviously exactly the same except for the parts you messed up.

      Yeah, it’s weird because in the same interview, he basically said he grew up with Japanese cinema, so it’s strange that those are the only Asians he could think of.

  12. bibliotropic

    October 11, 2012 11:56 am, Reply

    Regarding the language abuse… I am also beating my head off a wall at those examples. And I haven’t even read the book yet. While I’m really just starting my own journey into making a study of the Japanese language, it’s pretty obvious even to me that half of the examples of “hai” would have been better served by ending the sentence with “ne” instead (the ones that are asking more rhetorical questions, anyway). But the rest. No. Fucking. Excuse. I guess you could maybe handwave it by saying that the culture (and therefore language) is only based on Japanese, and so there’s so leeway and play-around that can be done, but that still makes it painful to anyone who’s even watched a single episode of undubbed anime at any point in their life, let alone people who fluently know the language!

    Okay, this review has pretty much determined that I HAVE to read this book for myself. This is one of the best reviews I’ve found for it (you list some pretty good examples of why it needs serious work), and it’s made me incredibly curious to see all this for myself. Down to the deptchs I go, and I thank you for taking the time to write this review.

    • Kayla + Cyna

      October 21, 2012 8:25 pm, Reply

      Well, I hope you have better tolerance for it than I did. At least you’re prepared, right?

      There’s really no excuse for the linguistic stuff – “original world” or not, he’s using a real language’s conventions and cultural trappings, so what is the point of getting it just wrong enough to be obnoxious and jarring? If he really wanted to show off how his world was ~different from Japan~, shouldn’t he just have made up an entirely new one? Blah, it makes no sense.

      Thanks, and good luck.

    • Cheryl Hopper

      April 27, 2014 3:56 am, Reply

      I guess you could maybe handwave it by saying that the culture (and therefore language) is only based on Japanese,

      He should make up his own language, then, and not use any Japanese. To my way of thinking, if you’re going to use a Real Life language, you have to play by its Real Life rules.

  13. rassaku

    October 21, 2012 8:17 am, Reply

    Haven’t read this, but misuse of Japanese culture and language is a trend I’ve noticed in other books and it ~drives me up a wall.~ Let me talk Japanese linguistics at you, because I love it so! <3

    Seconding bibliotropic, re: using ne as a sentence-final particle. -ka is more like a straight-up question mark, -ne is the one eliciting a listener response, like tacking a “right??” onto the end of your sentence.

    Also:

    – “Shima” means island (so clevar!!)
    – “Sarariman” in 18th century Japan is risible. You might as well make a reference to Sony.
    – You give a good explanation of “hai” as “yes I copy” rather than “yes I agree,” and I’d add that it also sounds quite deferential. Fucking Jim Butcher mangles this one with his broken-English-speaking Mr. Miyagi knockoff character.
    – Translating the word “love” into and out of Japanese is tricky (and FUN!), because they have a handful of different words for it but nothing that has the same cultural baggage as saying “I love you.” “Aishiteru” is indeed the best translation for communicating the nuance and gravity of confessing “I love you,” but it feels like just that — a translation. Have not ever read or heard of an actualfax Japanese person confessing love that way; they use “suki desu” for that lexical niche (and even use it for the same plot device seen in dumb romances in the west, “OMG he hasn’t told me that he loves me/suki desu!!”), but you also use suki for love as in “I love ice cream! :D” so it’s obviously lighter and has the potential to be misconstrued.
    – “Buruu” isn’t a native Japanese word and doesn’t even look like one. (I don’t think u is ever an extended vowel after r.) It’s the transliteration of the English “blue,” which makes perfect sense for it to be the name of a tiger (?) in 18th century Japan, oh wait.
    – “Ko”, as in “child,” does have a feminine cast to it (witness the many female names ending in -ko, and the zero male names), but my brain automatically translated “arashi no ko” as “child of the storm,” and it definitely implies some sort of lineage, even a metaphorical one. (For example, third-generation Tokyo dwellers get to claim the title of “Edokko,” child of Edo (aka Tokyo).) “Storm Girl” as we’d use it in English, meaning “girl who has some shit to do with storms,” would probably get “musume” instead, which means daughter but can also refer to young women in general, having more to do with the age and… girlishness of the person in question. (Like what it means to use “girl” vs “woman.”)
    – Mike DRAGON! You are correct, those not be real surnames. Incidentally, “fushichou” as phoenix is really weird too, because the kanji literally reads “undying bird” and is pretty obviously a translation of a western concept rather than an indigenous myth. (Then I googled it, and apparently they have a phoenix of their own, but it’s called the hou-ou. Not something I’d ever had cause to learn before, but the more you know, right!)

    And I acknowledge that I may be wrong on some of the nuances, because I’m a translator but not a native speaker. However, I think I’m qualified to venture the guess that if Kristoff got any Japanese in this book correct, it’s because even a broken clock is right twice a day.

    • Kayla + Cyna

      October 21, 2012 8:35 pm, Reply

      Yes, ne! So much of the hai bs could have been fixed with a copy-paste of “ne”. It would have been obnoxious and weeaboo as hell, but at least it would have been technically correct.

      “Buruu” isn’t a native Japanese word and doesn’t even look like one. (I don’t think u is ever an extended vowel after r.) It’s the transliteration of the English “blue,” which makes perfect sense for it to be the name of a tiger (?) in 18th century Japan, oh wait.

      That there is kind of an excuse for in a way I guess. She names the griffin “Buruu” after the dog she had as a child (which has its own weirdness to it, who names an intelligent, sentient creature like a pet?), but that begs the question: why was her dog named Buruu? Sure, it’s a common name for dogs in the west, but I doubt it’s the same in Japan. How did she even know the word? Why not just name it Aoi or some shit?

      This is a really fascinating comment though, and I genuinely appreciate your analysis 🙂 There is so much more nuance to your thoughts than there is in the book, and I think that’s clearly indicative of Kristoff’s general lack of giving-a-shit when it came to getting the mindset of these characters or understanding of the culture correct.

      Perhaps you can join a team of Kristoff Clue-Givers for the next installment. ;3

  14. thebookwurrm

    December 27, 2012 5:44 am, Reply

    This was so freaking awesome. Appropriation pisses me of so much and this dude seems to think it’s God given right to waltz in there and pick and choose what he wants. And for all those people who defend the dude even knowing and understand how problematic the book is…I can’t even. Ugh. Anyway, awesome post is awesome. Thank you for this.

    • Kayla + Cyna

      December 28, 2012 3:45 am, Reply

      lol right? IT’S JUST FANTASY OMG IT’S NOT LIKE PEOPLE HAVE TO DEAL WITH THIS KIND OF SHIT ON A DAILY BASIS AND HAVE HAD TO FOR PRETTY MUCH EVER. SO WHAT IF I’M PROFITING FROM BEING A DOUCHE? GOD!

      Yeah, it’s an ugly business, and I’m sure it’ll continue to be. I don’t even want to think about when the sequel buzz starts going round.

      But thanks! And welcome!

    • Cheryl Hopper

      April 27, 2014 3:52 am, Reply

      And for all those people who defend the dude even knowing and understand how problematic the book is…I can’t even.

      I’d say it’s a safe bet the overwhelming majority (read: 90%+) of his defenders are white. It’s easy to defend this shit when you’re in the position of Privileged Oppressor.

  15. director

    May 10, 2013 10:00 pm, Reply

    I noticed that your comment: “Let’s start with my primary nails-on-a-chalkboard issue, the usage of the words “hai” and “sama”, shall we?” is very similar to a review by Jai on Dear Author: Even fangirl Japanese uses the -sama honorific correctly. And maybe this was the author trying to alter language to suit the novel’s setting but no, this is not how it’s done. The vocabulary abuse drove me up the wall. It seriously was like fingernails on a chalkboard.” Coincidence? Highly unlikely. Plagiarism? The same author? You can still plagiarise yourself.

    • Kayla + Cyna

      May 10, 2013 10:20 pm, Reply

      Well, no, I am not Jia, and I’d not read her review until you brought it up. I appreciate the mention though; it’s a very good review and I’ll probably end up linking it. They two reviews do seem very similar but TBH I’m not surprised. Two reviewers picking up on the same issues while reading the same book is not a coincidence, no. It’s just evidence of obviously bad writing. I’m sure a glance at Goodreads would produce a dozen more reviews covering similar issues.

      I’m not sure if you’re accusing me of plagerism? But no, these awkwardly-worded ramblings are all mine, and were also, you might notice, posted two months before the Dear Author review. Soooooo…swing and a miss.

  16. Nicole Schaub

    November 5, 2013 7:29 pm, Reply

    Personally, the age thing doesn’t bother me so much because I know enough of Japanese culture to say with absolute certainty that the Japanese age of consent is 13. Plus, from what I’ve seen, this book seems to take place in the past, which makes it, well… Girl’s were giving birth at that age, if my memory serves true.
    However, this is me assuming that our author was aiming for historical and cultural accuracy, which doesn’t seem to be the case if her use of honorifics and even word placement is anything to go by.

    • Cyna Cyna

      November 6, 2013 5:40 am, Reply

      I’m not sure what part of the age thing you’re referring to? The only thing I recall saying about Yukiko’s age was that she was sixteen and that it was gross and creepy that the male author was objectifying her for the purpose of getting the reader off, and that has like nothing to do with Japanese age of consent laws or historical accuracy. I have no problem with Yukiko getting busy within the context of her story; I have issues with an adult male author sexualizing his underaged, Asian MC *for the reader*.

      If that was what you were talking about lol.

    • Shiori

      November 9, 2013 3:13 am, Reply

      The national age of consent in Japan is 13, however, each prefecture has different laws regarding youth protection. These bring the age of consent up to 18 in some areas (in Tokyo, for example, the Youth Protection Law states that adults cannot engage in sex with anyone under 17 years of age). So uh, yeah no.

  17. angelrenoir

    January 1, 2014 11:56 am, Reply

    I… would have grudgingly given “I love you” being three words a pass. One of the more formal forms of “I love you” is “anata wo aishiteru”. I’m not sure if it’s considered awkward or not to say it that way, but it’s technically correct.

    But considering the rest of the language fuckery, NOPE.

    • Cyna Cyna

      January 1, 2014 5:02 pm, Reply

      I think the part that I find most amusing about the whole language thing is that in most of the situations he’s off trying to wax poetic with “the press of lips” and “roll of tongue” and totally on a tangent…that is just utterly and completely wrong xD It’s like, maybe nail down the >basics< before you start trying to make it pretty?

  18. Cheryl Hopper

    April 27, 2014 3:49 am, Reply

    Weeaboo yellow fever BULLSHIT! RAWR! Pisses me the hell off, it does. I’m white, so to help me check my privilege and learn more about different cultures and races I follow several blogs on Tumblr, and one (thisisnotjapan, IIRC) talked about using honorifics and phrases/words from Japanese (but it could apply to any language, I suppose) in your writing. The mod who addressed that question said if the character(s) is speaking English, then don’t drop in Japanese words/phrases; stick with English because it will seem awkward for the character to suddenly be using a word from another language for no reason. Not only does that make excellent sense, it also spares you from looking like a weeaboo, yesno?

    If you’re going to use another language in your writing, know the f’ing language. Be fluent, and by ‘fluent’, I do not mean ‘took it for one year in eighth grade’. ‘Fluent’ does not mean ‘I speak enough to get myself laid and/or arrested on Saturday night’. If you, personally, do not know the language and you feel you absolutely MUST use it, then find someone who does and be prepared to pay them a fair rate for their translation services. Idioms, proper titles, syntax, grammar, turns of phrase, wordplay, slang, insults, regional dialect,…so many ways for someone who doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing to make a complete ass out of themselves, so many opportunities for readers who do know their shit to mock the hell out of a lazy, fetishizing author.

  19. Sam Gor C

    February 5, 2015 5:49 am, Reply

    I just read the interview he has with YA central and he says that he ‘recruited four friends who live in Japan (two Japanese-born, two ex-pats) to help me out, and I used them as my sounding boards and vetting police.’

    how is that even possible? like what? can’t even make up a good lie to save his life

  20. Ontogenesis

    April 15, 2016 5:10 am, Reply

    Oh man, I really wanted to like this book, but I don’t think I even made it past page 50. The weeaboo and slow-dragging pace slayed me, although I’m quite a fast reader. I also taught English in Japan for three years and I’ve studied some of the culture and language, so yeah, this was not the book I was hoping for. (I actually really like supernatural Japanese creatures, particularly kitsune, but yeah, this is not the book for those with actual knowledge).

  21. ZeldaQueen

    August 26, 2016 10:29 am, Reply

    So I’m still reading through this book (like you said, the beginning DRAGS) and it’s probably not good review etiquette to comment before I finished entirely, but I wanted to chime in with a few things I noticed.

    1.) You’re completely right about “hai” and “sama” and what gets me is that he DOES use them correctly some of the time… but then goes and gets them ass-backwards again! So either he’s really fucking confused about how they work, or he knows but figures that it’s a fantasy so he doesn’t have to follow real life rules.

    I’d like to point out that “sama” is a suffix for people of higher standing, so as far in as I’ve read, Yukiko actually uses it doubly wrong at one point. She calls a 12/13-year-old crewman “young sama” which, besides the obvious issues, is really screwing up their relationship to one another. The kid is younger than her and he’s of a lower social standing (he’s basically a grunt while she’s the daughter of a special soldier for the Shogun and a part of the expedition). If Kristoff wanted her to call him “little lord” as a sort of an affectionate term, I’m sure there were ways to call him that. “Sama” is not one of them.

    2.) On the topic of suffixes, Kin calls Yukiko “Yukiko-chan” the first time they met, which made my jaw drop at the unintentional audacity. “Chan” is a suffix that’s usually for babies/children, sometimes elderly people, and basically “cute” things in general (cartoon characters, puppies, kittens, etc.) It’s also a sign of affection and familiarity. I could see Kin giving Yukiko the suffix of “chan” if they’d spoken for more than once and Yukiko acted in a way that was more childlike or affectionate. As it is, it comes across as rather insultingly diminutive as a way to refer to a girl who (A) he hardly knows, (B) is apparently supposed to be treating seriously, and (C) is clearly being about as cutesy and affectionate as a porcupine. I guess one could read it that Kin’s a bit of a free spirit and him calling Yukiko “chan” so soon is a sign of that, but Yukiko herself makes no comment on it, making any point on Kin’s character moot. I’m suspecting it’s more likely that Kristoff saw anime characters calling their cute love interests “chan” and thought that’d work.

    Going off of the first two points…

    3.) Language is actually very nuanced and a bit different than English in Japan. You see, it’s not so much WHAT’S said as HOW it’s said. I don’t know if you’ve seen Princess Mononoke, but in the undubbed version, there’s a part where the monk says of a bowl of soup, “This tastes like water”. Not very insulting in and of itself, but the word choice used for it suggests disgust over its quality. The English equivalent, when it was dubbed, was, “This tastes like donkey piss”. It works the same for swearing. Japanese has the same curse words as English does, but they don’t necessarily have the same level of severity depending on their usage. The word “shit” can be mild enough that it pops up in children’s television, for example.

    I gigglesnort every time I see them use “hells” and “godsdamned” in conversation, the way we’d use “hell” or “goddamed”. I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert on swearing in Japanese, but I’m fairly certain that’s not at all how to go about it.

    (Of course, considering Shintoism has nine million spirits and deities, I’m also fairly certain folks wouldn’t pray to Izunagi and only two or so others.)

    The way a person talks also is affected by their relationship with whoever they’re talking to. Japanese is all about politeness. Suffixes are generally only dropped for people you’re very close to, so the book only applying them on and off is yet another inconsistency. Also, the longer and more elaborate a phrase is, the more polite it is.

    4.) I have no fucking clue why Kristoff decided to throw in things like “salaryman”. Not only is it anachronistic, but it doesn’t fit in with the traditional Japanese words thrown around. Words like salaryman are derived from other languages (English, in this case) and thus SOUND like their English translation. So it’s awkward no matter what.

    5.) I don’t see why Kristoff had to write this as being in a fantasy Japan. In most steampunk, it takes place in an AU version of England which is still called England and not, say, Avalon. Here, it’s Shima instead of Japan. Except most of the names and folklore and mythology and culture is based on real life Japan. If Kristoff was going for something like the world in Avatar: The Last Airbender, the series made up the world whole cloth. They had their own mythology, magical beings, cultures, regions, names, and so forth.

    Why? With all the weird shit that happens in steampunk, did he think we’d draw the line with the chainsaw katanas or something?

    Speaking of…

    6.) Am I the only one who thought the steampunk elements seemed kind of… tacked on? It felt a lot more like Kristoff wanted to write a Japanese period political drama with magical creatures and then LOOK, AIRSHIPS AND POLLUTION!

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