Japanese steampunk — say no more

Mark
Mark Vaughan-Jackson
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

I  swear it’s a conspiracy. I’m not being paranoid, honest. I can’t be — I know I’m being discriminated against.
Why? Because I’m old.
Not that old, mind you. Forty-something isn’t old, after all.

“Stormdancer,” Jay Kristoff’s explosive debut novel.

But it’s just old enough, apparently.

What I’m talking about is the vaguely guilty feeling I get whenever I’m spotted glancing over titles in a certain section of the bookstore.

And no, not that section.

I’m talking about the teen section.

Why are so many good sci-fi titles coming out with “For Young Adults” written on it, or worse, “Teen.”

Take “Stormdancer,” Jay Kristoff’s explosive debut.

I love this book. I plan to love the next two titles in the series, too.

It has everything I want and more.

And yet, because it was named one of Kirkus Review’s Best Teen Books of 2012, for example, I feel as if I shouldn’t be seen reading it, let alone buying it.

Heck with that. Enough is enough.

I’m a 40-ish sci-fi fan and I have to say that probably more than a dozen of the books I’ve read in the last three or four years (and that’s a lot of books) have been so-called teen titles.

So what? Adults can like this stuff, too.

They’re damned good, so no more sad shaking of the head when you see me with a stack of books in my hand in the teen section.

Getting back to “Stormdancer,” this book has so many things going for it, it’s scary.

Let’s start with just two words — “Japanese Steampunk.”

’Nuff said … you know it’s probably going to be good.

And when you throw in a brilliant female protagonist, the now seemingly obligatory dystopian society, wonderfully wrought characters, subplots, intrigue and some nifty plot twists, you have a combination destined to win.

And, for the cherry on top, mythical creatures. Lots of them from the bad-guy Oni demons to two tonnes of spitting fury that is the arashitora (or griffin) at the centre of this tale.

I don’t often quote the blurbs of praise on the cover of books, but in this case I’ll make an exception.

Two of them, actually.

First, from Patrick Rothfuss, author of “The Name of the Wind” and “The Wise Man’s Fear.”

“What’s that? You say you’ve got a Japanese steampunk novel with mythical 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.”

And then this, from the book trade website Shelf Awareness.

“Think Lassie, if Kurosawa had been the director and Lassie had been three tons of angry mythical demon-shredding sass bent on pushing Timmy down the well.”

Pretty much sums it up. Need more reason to buy it? OK, here goes.

Kristoff has taken the burgeoning steampunk genre off into a particular rich, vibrant offshoot.

Think feudal Japan — complete with samurai et al.

Now mash that together with Japanese mythology, clockwork-powered gizmos, smoke-belching engines powering airships and people forced to wear gas masks to escape the pervading, poisonous smog.

Picture a society crushed under a double heel — one, that of the all-powerful Shogun; the other that of the caste of Artificers, the machine-armour wearing tinkerers and engineers who fuel (and thus control) the economy.

In the past, Kristoff’s land must have been similar to the feudal Japan just as the industrial revolution was getting into gear.

But in this world, instead of coal or oil, the machinery of the state is fuelled by Chi — the almost magical substance produced from the red Lotus blossom.

(The blossom also provides the opiate the state uses to keep much of the working class stoned, subdued and, if not happy, at least incapable of rising in rebellion at the inhuman conditions.)

The artificers’ gadgets give the Shogun power and help him in his ongoing war with the foreigners, the gaijin.

The farmers are forced to grow more red lotus, which is more profitable, so food is increasingly scarce.

The more red lotus is burned as Chi fuel, the worse the pollution gets, adding environmental catastrophe to the already brutal existence.

Wildlife is gone. Clean air and water, gone. Food crops, harder to grow.

In short, a wonderfully grim vision of a society teetering on the brink.

Enter Yukiko, the headstrong daughter of the Shogun’s drug-addled master of the hunt — an ironic title given there’s no wildlife left to hunt.

When her father is set the impossible task of hunting the last arashitora (a griffin), it seems like a hopeless mission doomed to failure and the obligatory suicide the huntsman will be forced to commit having dishonoured the shogun by failing.

But when they actually find and capture the arashitora, things heat up.

Yukiko has her family’s talent of “kenning” — the ability to mentally communicate with animals.

So she starts talking to and — eventually — befriending Buruu, the arashitora.

The two friends find themselves caught in the web of intrigue, corruption and betrayal that is the Shogun’s court.

Even as they fight to survive, they find themselves moving deeper and deeper into the faction that is fighting to end the power of the Shogun and the Artificers and return the land to environmental and societal harmony.

It makes for an explosive mixture and Kristoff delivers in spades when the Chi eventually hits the fan.

This is one of those books where there are so many wonderful elements, it’s hard to know where to begin.

And then, it just gets better as, under Kristoff’s deft manipulation, those wonderful elements are distilled, combined and refined into an even more wonderful concoction of character, vivid description, smooth-flowing narrative and intoxicating pace.

A fantastic debut from this Melbourne-based author.

And I don’t care if it is in the teen section — if Santa’s listening, I’d like to find Book 2 in my stocking in a few days time, please.

Mark Vaughan-Jackson is The Telegram’s features editor. He can be reached at mvj@thetelegram.com. On Twitter: @telebookmark.

Geographic location: Japan

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page

Comments

Comments