Smugglers Ponderings

Smugglers’ Ponderings: On Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

The original plan was to write a joint review of Stormdancer but considering the many issues we had with the novel, we decided to write a Ponderings post instead.

Stormdancer (Lotus War #1) by Jay Kristoff
Thomas Dunne Books / Tor UK, September 2012, Hardcover: 336 pages

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.

The hunters of Shima’s imperial court are charged by their Sh?gun 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 Sh?gun is death.

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 Sh?gun’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.

Ana’s Thoughts:

There is a story behind my reading of Stormdancer and it starts months ago when the author first contacted us to introduce his upcoming book. That email remains one of the best book pitches we have received, and the book was described as a dystopian novel in a Japanese-inspired Steampunk setting with a strong girl as its protagonist. We loved the idea, as it sounded like it was a book made for The Book Smugglers (Dystopia! Steampunk! Diversity! Kick-ass Girls!) and we reacted accordingly. In the ensuing months we were one of the many people creating hyper around the book, we participated in its cover reveal and interviewed Jay Kristoff in our September Newsletter. Basically, I was predisposed to like it.

That is, until I became predisposed not to like it.

First, there were a few very negative reviews online describing the reviewers’ reaction to the problematic depiction of Japanese culture within the book. Whilst I am able to shut my ears to all sorts of criticism before I read a book in order to make my own mind up about it, when it comes to cultural appropriation (especially of cultures not my own), I listen. A couple of interviews with the author (including, unfortunately, our own) did not assuage my fears – in fact, they may have exacerbated them. I found the expectation that readers are supposed to accept that the world of Shima (the setting in the book) and Japan “might look a lot alike but, aren’t the same place” to be disingenuous. Especially taking into consideration the fact that EVERYTHING about the book screams Japan: the language; the descriptions of the people and the culture; the very cover of the book and the character represented on it.

It strikes me that my reading experience of Stormdancer is emblematic of not only the power of reviews but also of the increasing flow of information about authors – all of that available to anyone who bothers looking for it, before we even start reading a book. Reading does not happen in a vacuum and this is more true now with the increasing amount of information available online.

In that sense it was impossible for me to dissociate myself from my reaction to those reviews and interviews and thus, I started reading the book under the weight of conflicting emotions and being hyper-aware to these potential issues.

Interestingly enough, I had several problems with the novel but none of the problems I personally had related to the Japan-inspired setting – but I will get back to this latter affirmation further down.

There is a good book idea here somewhere. The premise is fabulous. There is a believable Dystopian world (although in a less believable Steampunk setting) where an evil overlord exploits the lands and its people and they accept it all because of a cultural concept of honour and devotion to their leaders. The main character Yukiko and her arc were actually pretty interesting in its basic idea (coming of age, quest for revenge, leading a revolution) and I really did like the fact that main female is sexually empowered without being shamed for it.

So, as I said, there is a good book idea here somewhere – but the execution left a lot to be desired.

To sum up some of my feelings:

The first 100 or so pages are basically exposition and descriptions. Paragraph after paragraph of info-dump where things are described in minutia (there is a very long paragraph, for example, describing the clothes someone is wearing). I am not a fan of exposition at best of times and this drove me to distraction. As the story progresses though, the level of exposition diminishes somewhat and becomes a bit more manageable and the story flows better.

Storylines progress far too quickly, events happen at speed of light without a lot of depth or actual development. For example: the main character’s whole concept of “honour” and devotion to the Shogun which is SO important, essential even to the character to start with? She forgets all about it after a few hours in the company of a group of rebels. The same goes for relationships between characters especially the bond formed between Yukiko and the Thunder Tiger Buruu – one moment Buruu was all like “GRRR I KILL YOU” , next thing you know he is all like “MY SISTER, I LOVE YOU FOREVER”. To be honest, SO much happens here, I feel this one book’s plot deserved a trilogy of its own.

Clumsy translation issues: character thinks of something in her language and says it in JAPANESE then…translates it into English. But if her language is JAPANESE, why the translation is here in the first place? Example:

‘Ichigo’ was the pet name he’d given her when she was little. ‘Strawberry’ “

There is no place for this “strawberry” here if “Ichigo” is the word in her language!

Then the book is obviously set in this traditional, feudal Japanese world and there are the (overuse) of (presumably) Japanese words but also very contemporary English words like “shit” or “fucking hell” or “damnits” spread throughout. Jarring.[1. Thea’s addition: it also annoyed the hell out of me to see the curse “bloody” thrown around willy-nilly. Bloody, as a expletive attributive word, is decidedly British. Not Japanese. No.]

The message of BAD GOVERNMENT and GOOD NATURE is extremely, extremely heavy-handed.

In fairness, I thought it did get a little better in the latter chapters in terms of plot. But I had so many problems with characters’ arcs and story execution and with the incredibly stilted dialogue as well as the heavy handed message that…I can’t really say I enjoyed any of it.

Which brings me to the topic of Cultural Appropriation and the Japanese culture as depicted in this book. Was it well done? Was it done respectfully? Was Japan a mere source of aesthetics, superficial inspiration that exploited nothing but its stereotypes?

To be honest?

I couldn’t say.

Because I know fuck-all about Japanese culture.

And that is why I really appreciate reading those reviews and then those interviews cited above.

Because I know nothing about Japan, when I pick up a book to read that is so obviously inspired by Japanese culture, I expect the author to have done their research well. I trust the author to have done their research. This whole experience to me, speaks to the trust between reader and author. When I get a book that is inspired by Japan I implicitly trust the author to do it right. To at least attempt do it responsibly and respectfully.

But then you start reading reviews by people who DO know and they point out mistakes ranging from misrepresentation of concepts to the wrong use of language and you realise that there is something wrong with this picture. That the people behind a book (author, editor) could not be bothered with really simple things in terms of research that even people like me who are not experts at all can tell is wrong after a simple Google search. I do think when that happens and a reader becomes aware of those facts, something is inevitably lost in the reading experience that not even good writing/great characters or whatever can save a book…at least not to the extent of making it an AWESOME book. For me, it will always be something like: “this is a good book BUT…” (and unfortunately Stormdancer doesn’t even fall in that category of “good, but” for me).

Look, I don’t expect perfection from every book I read nor do I believe that authors that source inspiration elsewhere are evil White appropriators – I admire authors who try to do something different, who respectfully try to represent other cultures in their stories. “Respectfully” is the key word here. I don’t think saying that “this is only inspired by it” is enough of an excuse because you shouldn’t simply use a culture that is not yours as your source of inspiration and pick only what you think will look cool on page.

And that is what I have to say about my experience with Stormdancer.

Thea’s Thoughts:

Well, what can I say to follow that? Ana has expressed a good majority of my feelings and experiences with Stormdancer. I, too, was ridiculously excited to read this book – because Japanese-inspired dystopian steampunk world starring a kick-ass young heroine?! FUCK YES! – but I, too, started to feel that prickle of dread as the reviews started to roll in. And then it was time to finally read Stormdancer.[2. In case you don’t know/are curious, Ana and I both read things very close to publication date – given that we read a ton and have a ridiculous schedule, it’s easier for the both of us to hold off and read a book later, than it is to read months in advance. That’s how we roll.]

And, unfortunately, this was again a case of cool premise, terrible execution, and cultural appropriation taken to the extreme.

Let’s start with the cool premise part. As Ana says above, there is a good story buried within Stormdancer – in particular, I the initial exchanges between Yukiko and Buruu are fantastic (although their bond solidifies far too quickly), as is Yukiko’s overall storyarc. I also appreciate the idea of the world of Shima and the general message decrying the evils of mindless industrialization at the sacrifice of the natural world. That said, the pacing was completely off-kilter – thousands of words wasted on lengthy descriptions of crowds and clothing (fine in moderation, excruciating when protracted across paragraphs for no apparent reason), and then NO time invested in the development of emotion, relationships between characters, or characters’ watershed arc moments. And, while Jay Kristoff does have a natural skill with description, there is a whole lotta repetition going on. Example:

Branches whipped her face and tore her clothes, rain and sweat slicked her skin. She touched the fox tattoo sleeving her right arm, tracing its nine tails in prayer.

and then a few pages later:

Masaru cracked his neck and touched the exquisite nine-tailed fox design sleeving his right arm, whispering a prayer to Kitsune.

The same goes for descriptions of sweating crowds swathed in silk, or characters that bow with “hand covering fist.” Or with Buruu’s apparent love of the word “DESPOILER” (Buruu talks in all caps, in case you were wondering). These things are incredibly irritating – and this is to say nothing of Yukiko’s insipid daydreaminess about he of the green eyes.

Which brings me to the next section of this ponderings post, and the main problem with Stormdancer – the cultural appropriation. The lack of research or respect for Japanese culture (as confirmed in the author’s own words!). The – as one apt goodreads reviewer puts it – weeaboo fuckery.

I am not a scholar of Japanese culture, nor am I Japanese. That said, I do know a bit about Japan having lived in Kobe and Fukuoka for four years, and having attended a public Japanese school. While today my Japanese is rusty at best, I am comfortable saying that I know a bit about Japan. So please believe me when I say that for all that Stormdancer is set in a mythical place called the Shima Isles, this is clearly Japan. These characters speak in Japanese. They reference Japanese creatures (oni, kami, kitsune) and weapons (tanto, nunchaku) and symbols (kanji – which are irritatingly referred to as “kanji letters” and apparently no hiragana or katakana are around, even though some romaji phrases – e.g. sarariman – are used). AND YET, the Japanese used is frequently, repeatedly incorrect. To reiterate what other reviewers have mentioned, there’s the use of “hai” as the equivalent of “yes” in all its forms throughout the book (it’s as if someone did a massive search and replace in the manuscript…). This is especially irritating because had the author (or editor, or copyeditor! OR ANYONE!) gone to enough trouble to talk to someone that speaks Japanese, they would know this is ridiculously wrong. In fact, they would discover that Japanese *does* have phrases that act as a question of affirmation (so desuka, ne, and so on). Similarly, the incorrect use of “sama” has been well documented (interestingly, “chan” is used correctly as an honorific). The Shogunate (the Kazumitsu dynasty seems to have been unconvincingly modeled off the Kamakura shogunate) itself feels off, as is the use of weaponry (strange, that Yukiko uses a tanto, when she should probably have two blades) and dress (the irritating assumption that “kimono” equals “robe” and offhanded use of “obi” as a mere sash).

This is sloppy, it’s lazy, and doing the handwavy thing to say “well, Shima is a different place” is not acceptable.

Finally, I just want to put out one last note. THE GREEN FUCKING EYES. This is one of my BIGGEST Oh No Nos – you have a diverse character, who is made ALL THE MORE SPECIAL BEAUTIFUL because s/he has BLUE/GREEN/VIOLET/RAINBOW eyes. AKA, you are taking a character of color, and you’re giving them a caucasian trait/symbol of beauty that makes them even MORE beautiful than anyone else around them. I fucking go batshit when I see this. And yes, a character in this text – the lusted-after teenage samurai lord – has sea-green eyes.

And that is all I have to say about that.

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  • Andrea
    September 14, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Ever since I started seeing the wildly positive and negative reviews about this book, I’ve been looking forward to the Smugglers’ take. Thanks for the excellent analysis – cultural appropriation is frequently overlooked in reviews (if only because the reader doesn’t know enough about the culture to know that it’s being slapped on as window dressing rather than being a true depiction).

    But this… ‘hai’ and ‘-sama’ are absolute basic Japanese. To misuse them so frequently does suggest a find/replace, which is startling in its carelessness.

  • Maureen E
    September 14, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    I had exactly this reaction to Shadow & Bone, which I’ve seen a number of positive reviews for. But when I, with my basic college Russian, found several noticeable errors…just no. I do understand that writing about another culture is scary and hard and the possibility for making mistakes is high. But there’s a difference between making mistakes and being lazy about it.

    And the excuse of “But this isn’t ACTUALLY Japan/Russia/South America” gets nowhere with me.

  • slayra
    September 14, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    Oh no! I had high hopes for this book. I love Japan! Well, I suppose my expectations aren’t as high now. :/ Thanks for the ponderings. 🙂

  • ediFanoB
    September 14, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Like you I have been intrigued when I read words like steampunk, Japan, dystopian. I ordered a copy in advance.
    The more reviews I read the more uncomfortable I felt.
    And finally three days ago I canceled my order.

    I did it before your post. But after reading your post I know I made the right decision.

    I really appreciate your honest post.

    Did you receive any reaction from author Jay Kristoff ?

  • KMont
    September 14, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    Oh. Dear. So disappointed. Had thought about getting this one.

  • Kristen
    September 14, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Thanks to both of you for your thoughts on this book. I was also really excited about this one and was going to get it as soon as it was released. But after seeing more reviews, I was starting to wonder if maybe I should wait instead of running out and getting it immediately. After reading this, I’ll definitely pass and spend my time on one of the other many books on the TBR pile!

  • AnimeJune
    September 14, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    Now – this *is* interesting. I’ve heard only positive reviews so far so this is a definite different take on things.

    But as the cultural appropriation – I never would have seen it as a offensive in that context before.

    I would have thought that making it a fantasy world that was simply modeled on Japan (the way countless high fantasy worlds are modeled after medieval western Europe) would make it less bothersome – but the problem here seems to be that it said it wasn’t Japan while adhering far FAR too close to actual Japanese culture (including using ACTUAL Japanese words, and those incorrectly), while simultaneously doing it badly.

    For instance, consider a book like Eon/Eona – which had a world based on ancient China in terms of visuals, culture, and themes that nevertheless went in its own historical direction and didn’t, for example, use actual Chinese terms, religious symbols, words, or history.

    I think in that case it seems more appropriate because you’re essentially creating an original fantasy world inspired by a culture, rather than taking an entire culture wholesale (and ignorantly misconducting it) for a story and misrepresenting it.

  • Vincent Kong
    September 21, 2012 at 11:14 am

    I don’t want to belittle the issues around narrative execution and cultural appropriation, because they are definitely there. I would like however to draw our attention to the “good story, bad execution” angle. Because even that “good story” seems to borrow far too heavily from a certain Frank Herbert.

    Young noble from one imperial house/clan harnesses a legendary beast in the wilderness, meets resistance fighters, who open his/her eyes to the sins of the industrial machine addicted to a unique resource. Young noble joins the cause and becomes messianic figure.

    “The lotus must bloom.” “The spice must flow.”

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    September 24, 2012 at 1:22 pm

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  • I was so excited about this book, but now.... Why? Why did it have to contain so much fail? Not Japan? Green eyes? Misuse of terms? Obvious appropriation. Any anime, manga, Jdrama fan knows desuka or at the very least ne. So why did they think this was ok
    September 25, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    I was so excited about this book, but now….
    Why? Why did it have to contain so much fail? Not Japan? Green eyes? Misuse of terms? Obvious appropriation. Any anime, manga, Jdrama fan knows desuka or at the very least ne. So why did they think this was okay? Why? 😥
    I cancelled my order. I’ll wait to borrow it, maybe, not really.
    Thank you for the review. It saved me time and a possible heart attack. I really need to stop being suckered in by beautiful covers.

  • Sofie
    September 25, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    That was my comment above. My phone is being stupid. 😳

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  • Amy
    September 28, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    because you shouldn’t simply use a culture that is not yours as your source of inspiration and pick only what you think will look cool on page.

    I’m interested to dig deeper into why you think this isn’t okay. Isn’t this what lots of fantasy authors do ie rummage through the cultural closets of one or more cultures and pull out the stuff they like? And lots of non-fantasy fiction writers for that matter- I’m sure that plenty of murder mystery and spy novels have taken great liberties when depicting the police department or secret service of their book’s setting.

    It seems like Stormdancer is simultaneously being criticised for not being “true”, “authentic”, “accurate” to Japanese culture while at the same time being criticised for not doing enough original stuff with the setting (the Eon/Eona example listed above).

    If my impression is correct, then it pretty much comes down to personal preference, doesn’t it? Where you, the reader, are comfortable with the line between true to a culturally-inspired setting on one side and plundering a culture other than your own on the other.

    I’d be interested to read some more intelligent discussion on the topic. Some of the negative reviews you linked are a little emotional, and I don’t think those reviewers would be as open to rational conversation.

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  • Ana
    September 29, 2012 at 12:15 am


    I think the first thing that needs to be established here is that there is a huge difference between cultural appropriation and to cite your example , the depiction of “a police department”. These things are not equivalent in any way, shape or form.

    Another culture is something much more complex than merely its names, its language and its more obvious aspects (ninjas! monsters!). I believe that the author – not only in the book but also in the interviews he provided – failed to address this complexity. Now, this is his prerogative – as it is my prerogative not to be okay with it. The problem is that when it comes to cultural appropriation you also have to think about the power differential between the person who is doing the appropriation, someone who is full of privileges (he is white, male, westerner)and the culture he is appropriating from.

    (edited the paragraph below)

    And I respectfully disagree with your last paragraph. Allow me to be a bit emotional even: those reviews are awesome and you know … people are perfectly entitled to be emotional about crap like this and they are no less “rational” for doing so.

    In any case, you might like reading:

    Lady Business

  • Ed
    October 11, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    I honestly don’t get the criticisms. He made a fun, popcorn version of japan, just like a billion different medieval europe-based fantasy series that misname all weapons, nobility names, so on. Poetic liberties.

    It’s not supposed to be accurate. That’s why it’s not real-world-japan.

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  • Crandall Marsh
    May 10, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    I find these criticisms of the source material quite amusing and somewhat confusing. Reviewers spend a great deal of effort explaining how a fantasy novel misuses its real world inspiration, in this case Japanese culture, language and history. Many have noted that they were immediately suspicious or concerned because the author was not Japanese. Their suspicions were confirmed when they discovered many language and cultural errors in the book. Which begs the question, do you also apply these same standards to western authors who base their fantasies on Medieval Europe? For example, lets take a look at George R R Martin. His Game of Thrones series is clearly based in the Middle Ages. Westros is clearly Medieval England. Yet I do not find any reviewers tearing him apart because of the mistakes in language or culture. No one is saying “They would never have said that in England at that time!” No one is criticizing the fact that the dress, or cultural references, or history are used incorrectly. Why is it acceptable to give Martin a pass? He is not English. He plays fast and loose with just about every aspect of European Medieval culture. I have yet to encounter this type of criticism leveled at “western inspired fantasies.” Why? Because it’s fantasy and we give them the freedom to mix, change, or even make stuff up? Yet when Mr. Kristoff says his book is fantasy, he is accused of being disingenuous! Let’s use a level playing field here. If you are going to call out Stormdancer for flaws in language, cultural, and history, do the same for all in this genre.

  • Amy
    May 19, 2013 at 11:08 pm

    Hi Crandall!

    I agree with you 100%, and in fact I’ve used the Westeros example in RL discussions of this topic.

    The treatment of source material (ie real-world Japanese history) has been a recurring theme in the negative reviews of Stormdancer. This review is one of the most positive/constructive I’ve come across criticising the book. I’ve been apprehensive about commenting on other negative reviews in an effort to explore this very interesting subject further, because the reviewer seems so vehement I’m concerned I’ll become a target too. I tried to engage with the authors of this review . . . and got shut down (though very politely, which I appreciate).
    Anyway, I’m still struggling to understand why it’s offensive for an author to draw on a culture that isn’t their own. As an avid reader, I don’t want to support authors who are doing something unethical. I want to learn. However, whether the use of another culture is respectful and appropriate or fetishistic and exploitative seems really subjective.

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