Aside from dystopian, apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic trends in adult and YA literature, steampunk is becoming the next big thing. What is steampunk exactly?
According to steampunk.com, steampunk stories usually take place in an alternate 19th century Victorian world and include the supernatural, airships and steam-powered and advanced machines. But steampunk isn't exactly new. The concept has been around a long time. There are also steampunk graphic novels, games, movies and television shows and conferences. And let's not forget steampunk fashion -- corsets, goggles, canes, top hats, gloves, and granny boots.
For hardcore steampunk fans, a new book has arrived -- Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff. He describes Stormdancer as this: Telepathic Samurai girls and griffins in a Japanese-inspired feudal steampunk dystopia.
Stormdancer is an intoxicating joyride into steampunklandia with a magical dose of mythology, the supernatural, violence, dystopian themes, and a top-notch brassy heroine who rivals Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games. Yes, I did say that!
The debut novel brings a new twist to steampunk and dystopian fiction that leaves readers clamoring for more. Like many writers, the idea behind Stormdancer started with a dream Kristoff had of a griffin with broken wings, and a little boy trying to teach it to fly.
Yet, Kristoff says the 'I had a dream' explanation authors sometimes give is somewhat of a cliche. So, he likes to invent more interesting answers... such as:
"Usually [those] involving ninjas. Sex ninjas, sometimes. Although I'm not 100 percent sure what it is sex ninjas do..."
"I loved the steampunk aesthetic, but I felt like Victorian England as a setting had been done already, and done well. There seemed to be very few authors playing with a steampunk aesthetic in cultures outside England or Colonial America from what I could see. A lot of steampunk seems to look back on the advent of industrialization as some marvelous, liberating event in history, and gloss over all that unpleasantness about child exploitation and slavery that came with it. I wanted to tell a story where the machine was the enemy. Where technology wasn't just killing people, but the land they lived in."
Kristoff jokes that he's not yearning for the days of rural bliss where people had to grow their own potatoes and died of a tooth infection at age 24, but sex ninjas are involved somehow in the novel. His bawdy humor is evident throughout Stormdancer.
The first book in the Lotus War series is about Kitsune Yukiko, a young member of the Fox clan, who is asked by the Imperial Court of the Shima Islands to locate a legendary creature known as the thunder tiger. The supernatural being hasn't been seen for years, but the Shogun has heard rumor that it has recently been spotted in the wilderness. He demands Yukiko and her crew, who feel they are on a lost and deadly mission, to find the thunder tiger. But Yukiko is never one to back down, especially when the government requests her services, no matter the risk. Of his protagonist, Kristoff says:
"[Yukiko's] father is a drug addict, so she's grown up with a fierce independent streak and a disdain for authority. She also has a rare talent that lets her speak telepathically to animals, which sounds like a cool special power until you realize the industrialization of her homeland has resulted in mass extinction of almost all its wildlife. That, and the fact that anyone discovered to possess her gift, is burned alive."
After a terrible accident, Yukiko, now alone in the frightening forests filled with monsters and not so friendly humans, finds herself face-to-face with a surprising ally, Burru, the thunder tiger. He resembles a griffin and speaks to her through telepathy. The two form an unlikely friendship. The novel even features a handy glossary for the Japanese terms littered throughout the story.
The world Kristoff, a former graphic designer, created in Stormdancer is absolutely stunning. Heavy on description, the novel is as cinematic as any CGI-infused action flick. The Shima Isles, including the city of Kigen, is filled with colorful sights, sounds and smells - from geishas in goggles to the polluted streets filled with beggars infected by Black Lung to the Samurais of the Imperial Palace who are frightening in their iron armor. Kristoff says:
"When you're building a world that's inspired by a real-world culture but not actually set in that culture, you're walking something of a tightrope--particularly when you begin making alterations in areas like mythology or religion or language. Even if you make it abundantly clear your world is a fantastical one, some people are going to take offense or assume author ignorance. But my theory was, if people born and living in the culture I used as my touchstone were happy with the changes I was making, that's good enough for me. Stormdancer is, after all, not set in Japan. Just a place that looks somewhat similar under blood-red light."
I asked what Kristoff what he would like readers to take away with after reading Stormdancer. He replies with a word of warning:
"I think it's dangerous to start thinking like that. I don't want this book to be thought of as a soapbox, or me as an author with an agenda. First and foremost, I'd like people to come away loving the characters and the story, and wanting to know what happens next. Sure, there are deeper themes in the book if you want to go looking for them. But that's up to the individual. Really, I just want to make you cry."
The Australian born Kristoff wishes he could say that he always wanted to be a writer, but in retrospect the always wanted to be a rock star. (Yes, he looks like Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, he's heard that a million times.) But as he got older, writing became more of a hobby. He wrote his first book which began as a scene that he scribbled down when he was bored at work. It took him 18 months to write that first novel, which he says was a screaming train-wreck, but it taught him the process of fiction writing and publishing.
His favorite place to write is on the couch with his feet in Ugg boots on the coffee table, and his dog in his lap. Kristoff quips: "This is my rock and roll author life."
He enjoys reading just about anything -- sci-fi, horror, historical fiction, biographies, and literary fiction. He loves being a writer, and says it's the best thing he's ever done. Even though he stresses it's hard work, Kristoff says:
"The best thing so far has been seeing people get excited after reading Stormdancer. Sending me mail, creating artwork and poems and songs. It's incredible. I mean, I'm amazed anyone other than my mum wants to read this thing, so having people spend eight or more hours reading in this little world I built, and then spending more time and energy to spread the word about how much they loved it - that's truly amazing. That's one of the best feelings in the world."
Stormdancer was released on September 18th. Pick up a copy and enjoy!