Stormdancer and Kinslayer by Jay Kristoff (Books 1 and 2 of The Lotus War-Thomas Dunne Books, Sept 2012 and Sept 2013)– Kinslayer, the 2nd novel in this series, is out next week, so I figured it was time to give this one a chance, and I’m so glad I did. Now, I’ve already read Kinslayer (I’ll get to that soon), and having read them back to back was a highlight, and I’m glad I waited to do that. To introduce you to the (for me) very different world of Stormdancer a bit, we have to go back to feudal Japan, take those concepts and plop them down amongst a land devastated by the poison from the Blood Lotus, which provides fuel for just about everything, including the machines that pillage the land and the trains that traverse it. It’s that whole poison thing that’s the big issue. It’s ruining the land, poisoning its people and has created addicts out of the percentage of the population that smokes it. As in most dystopian, there is a huge divide in the haves and have-nots and on this note, enter the Shogun of Shima, Yoritomo: young, impetious, very powerful and perhaps most important of all, ten shades of crazy. Batshit crazy. About 10 cards short of a deck. You get the point. He has tasked 16 year old Yukiko and her father to capture a griffin (arashitora, or, stormtiger). Yep, big man baby wants a griffin, and dammit, if he doesn’t get one, he’s gonna stomp his feet and well, kill people (it’s pretty much one of his favorite past-times and for the most part, is a great motivator on the part of his underlings.) The magnificent arashitora has the head, forelegs and wings of an eagle, and the hindquarters of a tiger. They’re also called thundertigers, and as you’ll discover, there’s a good reason for that. So, Yukiko, her father Masaru, and loyal friend Akihito set out on an airship (along with a particular Guildsman that will be very important to the story) on what what they consider a fools journey, but to refuse, or to fail, is to die. Of course, as you have probably already guessed, they find what they’re looking for, and this is when the really good stuff starts.
Yukiko, as we come to find out, has a little something extra extra, and the bond she develops with the griffin, who she names Buruu, forms the basis of what I thought was a superb series start. I’ll admit that it took me about 50 pages or so to get into Stormdancer. The reason for this is, for me, Jay Kristoff has created such a rich, different world in Shima, its people, and its contraptions and getting used to some of the Japanese terminology took me a bit. Don’t let that scare you away, however! In fact, there’s a handy glossary in the book, and I’d actually urge you to look it over before you read. Anyway, so yes, there’s Yukiko and Buruu, and you didn’t actually think she was going to just hand him over to Yoritomo, did you? He’s a determined fellow, though, and always gets what he wants. Too bad for him that there are seeds of rebellion being planted all over Shima and beyond, and Yukiko will become a huge part of this, starting with a group of dissidents that call themselves Kage and have made a place for themselves in the dense, beautiful woods beyond Shima called the Iishi.
I am not a seasoned reader of fantasy, but reading Stormdancer was a singular experience for me. It reduced me to emotional rubble on more than one occasion and the ending left me a mess (hence the reason I was glad I had Kinslayer on hand.) I’ve seen a couple of people point out that it was jarring to see a nearly devastated ecological system within a culture that traditionally reveres nature, and that’s fair, but keep in mind, this is a fantasy, and a big part of the story is how to put a stop to, and reverse, the damage that’s been done. But that aside, Yukiko is a wonderfully sympathetic and fascinating creation, and of course Buruu…just…amazing. Yes,the author’s writing is beautiful, he has created a scarily detailed and rich dystopian world, and characters to both loathe and root for and love (and some action that kicks such serious ass it’s not even funny), but it was the bond between Yukiko and Buruu that completely did me in (in a good way) and made me want to sit down and bury myself in this book until it was over. When a book resonates with me in such an emotional way, I consider it a complete win.
Now we come to Kinslayer, and if you haven’t read Stormdancer, I’m not going to give away anything that isn’t in the readily available synopsis of the book, BUT, you’ve been warned…there will of course be inevitable spoilers for Stormdancer.
Kinslayer picks up about two months after the events of Stormdancer. Yoritomo is no more, and the rebellion is in full swing. Yukiko has been with the Kage in their forest idyll and Kin, her rebel Guildsman, has joined them as well, but he’s not trusted by the Kage, although their leader, Daichi, has come to trust him in a limited way, and this will continue to be an issue. Can you tell I’m trying not to give too much away? Back in Shima, a very important wedding is to take place very soon, cementing another madman in a position of power, one that very much hates Yukiko and desperately wants vengeance. What better way to get it than while wielding an iron fist, yet again, on the people of Shima? The Kage have people everywhere though, and this new Shogun’s ascent isn’t going to go as smoothly as he hopes. Before she can hope to stop the wedding however, Yukiko must learn to control the power that began when her bond with Buruu formed and has only grown. It’s dangerous and unpredictable, and she fears that she may endanger everyone she loves, so she attempts to seek answers at a secluded monastery where monks are said to hold the answers to her questions about her burgeoning power. She’ll find answers, definitely, but they may not be ones she’s looking for, and the danger will be unimaginable.
While Stormdancer was primarily about the building of Yukiko and Buruu’s bond, Kinslayer focused more on the civil war that threatens all of Shima. We spend more time away from Yukiko and more time with the various citizens in the city that are doggedly chiseling cracks in the establishment and laying the groundwork for the uprising planned on the upcoming wedding day. I’ll admit that I missed Yukiko and Buruu a bit, but it gave me a chance to get to know some other characters, among my favorites being a lowborn girl, Hana, whose job it is to empty the waste generated by the palace residents (her nickname is Shit Girl…nice, huh?), but is using her “invisible” status to help the Kage.Also, if you fell in love with maidservant Michi in Stormdancer ( I did), you’re in for a treat. She’s one of the strongest, determined, and frankly scary female characters I’ve seen in a while.
Kinslayer is quite a bit more violent than Stormdancer, which didn’t bother me in the least, but may bother some. Kristoff’s description of the filthy streets of Downside put you right there among the shit and refuse and the people that toil in it every day. The author pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to the reality of a brutal regime that will do anything to cement their power, and the stakes are dire. Keep in mind, though, among the muck, there is much beauty to be found in Shima, and this comes in the form of the people that fight for the little guy, and the small kindnesses that can lift someone out of the mire, at least for a moment. Yukiko is in full warrior mode here (she’s intense, folks, intense), with everything that comes with that, and while she’s obviously a very important part of the rebellion, her main struggle in Kinslayer is within herself, with her power and the emotions that threaten to overtake her very existence. Also, Buruu has some secrets of his own. I didn’t get as emotional while reading Kinslayer as I got with Stormdancer, but make no mistake, it’s just as good as the first and is a very worthy follow up. There are also a few shocking revelations in this one that will certainly change the course of the story, significantly.
The Lotus War series is one of the most unique and intricate I’ve ever read and Jay Kristoff is a tremendously talented author whose books will fascinate you, terrify you, and yes, if you’re like me, they’ll break your heart. I simply adore these novels and the next installment really can’t come fast enough. I also think reading these back to back was a particular plus (even though there is a very handy catch-up guide included with Kinslayer.) If you want more, after reading these two, there’s an e-novella set before the events of Stormdancer called The Last Stormdancer. And more, when it comes to this series, is always a good thing.