I finished Stormdancer, a novel by Jay Kristoff, over the weekend. It tells the story of Yukiko, daughter to a huntmaster in not-really Japan, though with plenty of steampunk laid over the top of Japanese myth. I picked it up for the same reason listed on the cover by Patrick Rothfuss:
“What’s this? A Japanese Steampunk novel with mythical creatures and a strong female protagonist? Yeah, I’m all over that. Though honestly, you had me at ‘Japanese Steampunk.’”
I’m not a very good critic. There’s a lot I don’t notice when I’m reading a book. Was the Japanese proper? I have no idea, my knowledge of the language comes from games like Persona 4. How was the writing? It seemed okay, I guess — the opening of the book was a bit of a slog, with a lot of world detail getting in the way of actual characters. But there were three things about Stormdancer that I didn’t like, and as someone who’s trying to write himself, I wanted to get them down in words.
There are spoilers here for Stormdancer, so the two people that read this never-updated blog can be warned.
Violence In Steampunk
I love the aesthetic appeal of steampunk. Buckles and goggles and airships and age of exploration with the industrial age laid on top of it. I like that a lot. I’ve played plenty of videogames that use that design idea. I’ve read a decent number of books that explore steampunk as well — Stormdancer, The Court of the Air, and The Falling Machine come to mind right now — and I picked up a few short story anthologies, creatively named Steampunk and Steampunk 2.
I’ve come to expect a few things in steampunk literature. Class conflicts, absolutely — the rise of technology makes life terrible for the lower classes, and that plays into the Victorian era, as I very badly understand it. Aerial feats of derring-do, yes. Airships, certainly. Goggles, of course, you can’t not have the goggles.
Stormdancer doesn’t drink deep of the blood of its enemies, but it goes into some body horror territory with the Guardsmen, and Yukiko is very often elbow deep in the blood and guts of her enemies. The book ends with a tremendous body count, with her father, her father’s love, and Yukiko’s ill-advised love interest dying within maybe ten pages of each other.
The Falling Machine went overboard in its violence. I understand that it’s steampunk superheroes, but the scene with one character on a chair being forcibly transformed into a mechanical creature is the kind of thing I’d be hammering on the start button to skip, were I playing it as a game. It stopped being descriptive and started just being cruel.
The Court of the Air gets downright nasty at times, though I admit my memory of it isn’t very sharp. I remember some incredibly horrible things being mentioned in the setting, like ripping off some child’s arms so he would be a king or something. I don’t know. I just remember thinking, “What the hell, author.”
Maybe this is just me talking, and maybe I’m not reading the right books, but this just seems unnecessary. You don’t need to swear hundreds of times to make your work edgy, and you don’t need to take glory in the torture of your protagonists and supporting characters to make them troubled, or make your work stand out, or whatever.
This one is very particular to me, very much a personal taste, so I’ll keep it short.
There are ways to challenge characters without killing people. You can still hurt a character, make them suffer, make them grow and overcome, without killing people.
By the time Stormdancer ends it has killed every single member of Yukiko’s family — three in flashback if you count her dog, and one and a half in the story proper — Kasumi (father’s lover) and Masaru (father). Masaru has a touching final moment with Kasumi, giving him motivation and loss, and then he goes and dies inside of three pages saying Yukiko from getting killed by Yoritomo.
Character dies. Other character mourns. There’s nowhere else you can go with that now. There’s no resolution, there’s no payoff, it’s just a dead end. It ties it up neat and easy, removes any chance for that character to have happiness in that aspect of her life, and then you move onto the next bit of suffering.
I’m not against character death, but I feel like every character death needs to happen for a reason, an actual reason, and really serve the story. That’s my personal take on character death. I understand that not everyone agrees with me, and it’s a matter of personal taste. Perfectly fine with that.
This one is very particular to me, and I will not keep this short.
Patrick Rothfuss said “strong female protagonist” in his recommendation on the front cover of the book. Yukiko is a pretty strong protagonist, I’m not going to rant about her here. I think she did pretty well, and he did a good job writing her as a warrior and a girl, and how those aren’t mutually exclusive, nor do they overwrite each other. She remained a character, not a tool.
Too bad all the other women in the story were fucking victims.
Why is the emperor a bad man? Because he’s a terrible abusive rapist. Oh, and he desires his sister sexually because why not, let’s make sure everyone dislikes him so when he gets his mind crushed by Yukiko at the end everyone is cheering. There’s a throwaway line with the second-in-command where he says that the consort for the emperor will be sent home once the signs of his… eager attentions fade. Because of course that line’s there.
What happened to Yukiko’s mother? Oh, she was killed, while pregnant, by the emperor, so he could continue chewing cardboard scenery and give Masaru some motivation. Because of course she does.
Yukiko runs into another woman in the Kage village. She has been horribly disfigured by the emperor because, I don’t remember, the emperor is a Bad Man. Because of course he is.
Kasumi dies because of course she dies, she’s the woman. She is there only to provide motivation to Masaru. The last guy in that group, whose name I don’t recall right now and I apologize, he lives. Because of course he does.
The emperor’s sister, a strong ally in the plan to take down her brother, dies offscreen at the end. Killed by her brother. I don’t remember if he said he enjoyed her death, or how, or if I just filled that part in because of course he did.
When it’s time for someone to yell at Yukiko, what do they call her? Slut, whore, filth, bitch, because of course they do. Of course they do.
That undoes — that more that undoes any success your protagonist had. You can’t say that you’re writing a strong female protagonist if she’s the only one who doesn’t get horribly murdered or raped for the crime of being a woman in your story.
It’s lazy at best. It’s hateful at worst.
Regardless, it has no place in contemporary writing.
Final verdict — sorely disappointed, vaguely disgusted.