Saturday, November 24, 2012

What We're Reading: Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

What if you were given an impossible task by someone who held the power of life and death over you? If you succeed at the task, you would be rewarded, but failure means certain death for you (and possibly your entire family). And if you state that the task is impossible, you would certainly be killed. This is the difficult situation that opens the adventure in Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff.

When Yoritomo-no-miya, Seii Taishogun of the Shima Isles, has a dream that he is riding an arashitora (a “stormtiger” also commonly known as a griffin), he orders Master Hunter Masaru and his team to capture one so he can ride it during the bicentennial celebration of his family’s rule (he is sure this is why he dreamed the dream). Masaru and his team, including his daughter, Yukiko, board an airship to search for the creature. There is one problem: Arashitora are believed to be extinct. While there have been rumors of sightings by drunken airship crew members, no reputable sightings have been recorded for years. Masaru and his team are in a precarious position: If they state that the search is pointless, they will be killed. If their search is fruitless, they will be killed. And if they attempt to flee Yoitomo’s kingdom, they will be killed.

Suddenly, during a fierce storm, an arashitora is sighted, and Masaru manages to capture it and drag it aboard the ship. He drugs the beast and clips its wings with his kitana. When the drugs wear off, the beast is so enraged that it severely damages the airship. While the crew attempts to keep their ship in the air, lightning strikes and starts a fire. As the crew and hunters make their way to the lifeboats, Yukiko races back in an attempt to free the caged arashitora. Separated from her father and the airship’s crew, Yukiko desperately tries to communicate with the arashitora with the aid of a special telepathic gift for speaking with animals that her family has forbidden her to use (if it were discovered that she has this gift, it would mean her quick and painful death). Yukiko and the arashitora survive the crash of the airship, but are separated from the group and are both vulnerable--in different ways--to the dangers lurking in the forest. As they work together to navigate these threats, they forge a bond that could challenge the ruler who sent her father on an impossible mission.

Stormdancer is a classic fantasy tale (ordinary young girl with hidden gifts pairs with a magical creature to battle impossible odds) told in a wonderfully imagined alternate Japan. The culture is rich, embellished with some fascinating steampunk-tinged facets. Kristoff steers his story through all of the levels of the social strata of his world, from the slums of the inner city to the inner courtyards of the Shogun’s palace and on to a more natural or organic settlement in the forest, showing the sharp delineations between the culture’s inhabitants and setting up the developing social unrest that underlies all of the action.

Like Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone from earlier this year, Stormdancer is a familiar story, but told so deftly and with such style that the reader is happy to take the journey. Stormdancer is the first book of a new series, with the second book to be released in mid-2013.

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