I was ready to like Stormdancer, love it even. But when you promise me “a stunningly original dystopian steampunk world with a flavor of feudal Japan”, that’s what I should get. The dystopian label is fine; I take no issue with that. The book delivers. If this back cover blurb were more accurate, it should say “feudal Japanese world with steampunk flavor”. The book is far more historical fiction than it is steampunk, and the two elements don’t meld together very well at all. This is the basis of my objections; had my expectations not been set up differently I probably would have liked this a lot better than I did.
In some ways, I am reminded of Hunger Games. The heroine is a strong independent teenager who ends up shouldering the fate of her family and loved ones, undergoes a lot of trials, makes some ugly discoveries about how society really works, makes allies and enemies, and in the end wins a major victory but also suffers major losses. I happen to like this flavor of dystopia, with a touch of hope and optimism for the future.
The heroine is Yukiko who was born in to a prestigious family of hunters, who hunt mythological creatures like dragons etc which are considered mostly extinct. The world is toxic (at least in the city) because of the use of blood lotus, a plant processed to run the technology, and whose cultivation is destroying the environment along with the toxic refining processes. This is only generally mentioned throughout most of the book, until Yukiko starts finding out details of the Guild responsible for maintaining production, the Lotus Guild (who also happen to be the morality police). The technology element is not the focus for much of the story; it’s on the people. There’s not enough on the technology or its use for this book to be real steampunk.
The unstable and violent young emperor orders them to go get him a thunder tiger, aka arashitora, aka griffin. There are supposedly none left. Against all odds the family finds one, and captures it, but their airship goes down in a storm, and Yukiko and the griffin whom she names Buruu (after a favorite dog) are forced to team up for survival. It turns out that Yukiko inherited a family ability to communicate telepathically with animals, so she and Buruu can talk to each other. This is the main part of the story. Their journey together leads them to uncover a lot of unsavoriness but also the possibility for a rebellion, which the pair agree to join.
Along the way, they meet a Lotusman who turns out to be Yukiko’s age (and who develops a crush on her), a dashing young palace guard (Yukiko has a crush on him), the emperor’s sister whose position in the story is kind of a surprise but kind of not, and in the aftermath of the final violent clash in which a lot of friends and some enemies die, some have fates unknown, and some betrayals (perceived and otherwise) happen, Yukiko has become a major symbol (along with Buruu) of the rebellion which rapidly looks to be taking over the country.
It’s not a bad story. I like the characters and the world and the plot. I still can’t get over being promised something that I was not given. This is book 1 of a trilogy though, so if the remaining volumes keep that promise better, I might be in a more forgiving mood.