WARNING WARNING. UNPOPULAR OPINION INCOMING.
This book made me really fucking mad.
I'll admit, I was a little leery of Stormdancer from the start - Japanese steampunk sounds cool, but coming from a white western author, the chances of problematic weeaboo fuckery are high. Exoticization. Romanticization. Plain old appropriation. Yet for some reason, I didn't really peg Stormdancer as a weeaboo outing. I don't know why. There was no good reason, and yet, I expected Kristoff to be a scholar of some sort, or at least, to do some very in-depth, scholarly research, borne of a deep interest in, and respect for, Japanese culture. And while even that could have also potentially yielded something problematic, at least it would have been sincere. What I thoroughly did NOT expect to get was a book informed by fucking Wikipedia and anime, set in Japan for the sake of novelty. That came as a genuine shock. And a dramatic rise in blood pressure. WHAT THE FUCKITY FUCK?
The thing is, that Wikipedia part? You can kinda tell. I mean, the first hundred pages or so of Stormdancer, basically until the airship crashes, are a chore to wade through, mostly because of the Wikipedia-esque info dumps. It takes almost exactly half of those pages to make any progress on the plot. The first fifty are just about showing off the world and detailing every little aspect of it, which is why it takes like twelve paragraphs for Yukiko and her father to walk down a street: we have to hear about the architecture, detail the clothing being worn (because we're using Japanese terms here, and not many readers will know offhand what a fucking hakama looks like), and explain the exact geographical setting, right down to which rivers cross where, and the ~exotic smells~ in the air, even though none of it is actually relevant to anything that's going on at the moment. I understand wanting to set the scene and acquaint readers with the world, but Jesus Herbet Christ, get on with it already. Work this stuff in to the action. Make me not want to put the book down out of sheer boredom. I mean, I haven't even gotten the chance to get angry yet.
Making the world-building harder to parse are the Japanese words and terms strewn throughout the descriptions, most of which assume a familiarity with the culture that many readers just won't have. I had to break out the Google more than once to give myself a better mental image of what was going on, and though many of the terms aren't exactly vital to the story, it was still annoying as hell. I want to be able to see this shit in my head, to get what's going on, and it doesn't help when half of the words are in Japanese just for the flavor of it. It's one thing when a word doesn't have an English analog; it's another when you're including easily translatable and even borrowed words, like "sarariman" (seriously? it's "salary-man" or even just "businessman", kthnx), in their romaji form just to make the story seem more ~authentic~. At the very least it's unnecessarily confusing.
There is a glossary in the back of the book that would have been quite helpful to know about while in the midst of those first fifty pages, but if you're an e-reader like me, you wouldn't have realized it's there until you actually made it to that page...just after the story has ended. Perhaps print readers will be able to make better use of it.
But blah blah blah, detail-heavy writing, I can skim past that. My only issue was boredome until I started noticing all of the shit got wrong. Then my head began hitting the desk. Repeatedly.
And okay, preface: I'm not an expert on Japan, nor am I Asian. I've never studied the country or the language formally. I've got little knowledge outside of what I learned in my own weeaboo phase, from, yes, mostly manga and anime. And YET I still came across glaring errors, repeated errors, stupid errors, errors that made it impossible to read through a conversation without wanting to strangle someone, and errors that lead to questions about some very basic assumptions of the book.
Let's start with my primary nails-on-a-chalkboard issue, the usage of the words "hai" and "sama", shall we? Here are a few examples of these words in action in Stormdancer:
"That is more than fair." [...] "Ameterasu bless your kindness, sama."
"I want for nothing. Thank you, sama."
"He slew Boukyaku, young sama. The sea dragon who consumed the island of Takaiyama."
"Honor to you, great sama."
"What is Raijin song, sama?"
...and so on and so forth.
"These cloudwalkers were men of the kitsune clan, hai?"
"I have no doubt of your success. The man who stood beside my father as he slew the last nagaraja of Shima will not be trouble by a simple thunder tiger, hai?"
"You must keep it secret." [...] "It is a gift, hai, but it is not one to be squandered..."
"The solitude is pleasant, hai?"
"I can get into the trees, hai."
"Just deck-hands on a sky-ship, hai?"
And both together, for a double-slap to the face of any immersion you've managed to scrounge up:
"Sama, please. Enough for one day, hai?"
That's not how you use those, either of those, come ON now. "Sama" is a suffix, an honorific. It goes at the end of someone's name (ex: Masaru-sama), or title, or profession, to denote respect or a higher social status. You NEVER use it by itself, it isn't a stand in for "sir", or "lord", and in fact, the included glossary explicitly acknowledges this, so how the fuck this managed to remain intact through editing I have no fucking idea.
Similarly, "hai" is not a one-to-one translation of "yes", or "right". A more accurate translation is "I have understood what you just said", and it's only used to answer a question or a request. You don't stick it on the end of the sentence to rhetorically prompt confirmation. Believe it or not, there are actually Japanese words for that (well, not the "rhetorical part"), like "ka" or "desu", but Kristoff doesn't make use of those ad nauseum, just the jarringly, tellingly wrong "hai".
This is Weeaboo 101 people, we should not even have to be talking about this, especially if these characters are and are speaking Japanese.
Except...other potential "errors" bring that last statement into question. Are the characters in Stormdancer speaking Japanese? Seeing as how the book is set in Japan, I went into the story operating on the assumption that they were, and that it was being "translated" by the author to English for our benefit. One would think that this is the case, that characters in Japan would be saying Japanese words, and yet:
"Impure." Yukiko whispered the word [...] It was such a simple thing; two syllables, the press of her lips together, one on another, tongue rolling over her teeth.
"Arashi-no-ko," she heard them whisper.
She could feel Buruu frown in her mind, puzzled by the word's shape.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
She smiled, embarrassed, turning her eyes to the floor.
She kissed him, stood on her tiptoes and threw her arms around his neck and crushed her lips to his before he could finish the sentence. She didn't want to listen to those three awful words, feel them open her up to the bone and see what the lies had done to her insides.
Mmmk. 1) "Impure" in Japanese? Google says "fuketsu". Three syllables, no "press of her lips together", minimal "tongue rolling".
2) If they were actually speaking Japanese? After Buruu asked what the fuck "arashi no ko" meant? Yukiko would have said "arashi no ko", because those are the words for "storm girl*" in Japanese. DUH. How and why Yukiko would have even needed to translate Japanese for the Japanese-speaking tiger is beyond me, and yet, if they are speaking Japanese here, what she just did is completely illogical.
*except that even the translation is sketchy. "Ko" = child, not "girl".
3) "I love you" in Japanese, those "three little words"? "Aishiteru", or "aishiteru yo"/"aishiteru wa". One or two words at best. *Although I'm informed it could also be "kimi ga suki". BUT STILL.
This pretty effectively proved to me that, either by fuck-up or by intent, the characters in the book are speaking English. In Japan. What the fuck? I can't imagine that that was the intent, because it makes no logical sense whatsoever, but even the fuck-up makes the book's narrative frustratingly Eurocentric.
Oh, yeah, and then there's the amalgamative "Asia-land" that Shima ends up reading as. That doesn't help in the slightest. Despite being 99% a fantastical analog of Japan, again whether by fuck-up or intent, bits of other Asian cultures slip in. "Nagaraja", for example, are actually Indian creatures. Likewise, somehow the lotus pollution is threatening the local panda population, even though pandas are indigenous to CHINA, which is, incidentally, NOT JAPAN. The characters also use Chinese expressions of exasperation, even though there are perfectly good and common and available Japanese ones.
And this is just the shit I've come across. Sei, finder of the Chinese slang, came across more errors, which she lists in her very insightful review, and
Syahira has a very detailed analysis of the awkward naming conventions, and Krystle vents her rage about this "omage" to her culture.
You can see why this is problematic, right? The lack of research, the Eurocentric viewpoint, the playing fast and loose with Japanese culture, the smooshing all things Asian into the same story, the same country, because hey, all Asian cultures are all the same, right?
HAHA, NO. No. NONONONONONO. This is not how you write this shit, people. As my friend Shiori put it, Asian cultures are not fucking Sizzler. No, you don't get to help yourself to the shit you like and leave the rest, why the fuck would anyone think that? For the love of god, please, educate yourself before you write about other cultures.
So, yeah, that was...frustrating, putting it mildly. *twitch* It was really, really difficult to put that aside and look at the book, I'll admit, and might be at least part of why I found it impossible to connect with the characters. That being said, I wasn't a huge fan of the plot itself, either.
The book takes FOREVER to get going. Sure, stuff happened here and there, but it seemed like the vvvvvaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaast majoooooooority of it was Yukiko and Buruu sitting around doing absolutely nothing...
Read full review at You're Killing.Us.
Assorted thoughts on Stormdancer:
Linda on the Green-Eyed Asian Love Interest, plus her series of thoughts on Asian fantasy.
- Author Karen Healy & Tumblr pinpoint some of the more problematic aspects of Kristoff's interviews.
- The comments in Linda's review have yielded a very interesting discussion, and several good links on the subject.
- The Book Smugglers review Stormdancer and share their thoughts on their interview with Kristoff, in which he spouts more problematic bullshit.
- Silver Goggles has a funny and wonderful reaction to the inevitable question: "does this mean we're not allowed to write outside our ethnicity?"
- Zoe Marriott discusses the difference between diversity and appropriation.
- Calm Down, It's Only Fantasy: Ladybusiness over at Livejournal has a response to the "Ignorant White Person 101" defense of Stormdancer. This is one of my favorite posts to come out of this whole mess. The response to the predictable "But but other fantasy authors change other (non-minority) cultures for their books, why aren't we riding them? WHAAAAAAAA!" in the comments is an excellent, well thought-out smackdown.
- Finally, for conflicted fans of Stormdancer, behold! How to be a fan of problematic things. Spoiler: it's not that hard.
Meanwhile, there's the continued response from Kristoff, the gist of which being "BUT FANTASY, why should I be held accountable? You're taking it TOO SERIOUSLY."
- The aforementioned Book Smuggler's interview with Jay Kristoff, where he explains that "if you can wrap your head around the idea Shima and Japan might look a lot alike, but aren’t the same place, you’ll have fun."
- The Stormdancer website FAQ, in which Kristoff explains how much he doesn't give a shit if you care that he got shit wrong, because "this is fantasy, folks, not international frackin' diplomacy." Charming.
- A guest post at Fantasy Faction on world-building, with lots of "pros" that not-so-subtly explain why his book is TEH AWESOME and "cons" that casually give the middle finger to and shits on anyone who called him out on his bullshit.