Stormdancer benefits, first and foremost, from having pretty much the greatest concept ever—feudal Japan-inspired, eco-dystopian steampunk. What’s not to love? And it is that the development of that concept, and the attendant world-building, that carry the book.
The curiously-like-Japan-but-created islands of Shima are dying. The skies choked by exhaust from chi-powered airships and not so much as a horse is left in the capital city. Yukiko is the daughter of the Shogun’s hunt master, which makes for an idle and rather objectionable life. That is, until the Shogun awakes from a vision to demand his hunt master bring him a (live) “arashitora,” or thunder tiger (apparently when Raijin was not engaging in mortal combat he created the griffon).
The choice of a griffin as the central mythical figure is, like so much else of the concept, inspired. There is little if anything that hasn’t been done with dragons. Griffins, on the other hand, haven’t been much utilized in modern fantasy (and are underutilized as a high school mascot, I might add, despite my pleas to high school administrators way back when). Kristof is free to build a mythology of his own, and he takes full advantage. Kristof gives the griffin (which Yukiko rather humorously names Buruu after her childhood dog) a unique voice. His dialogue with Yukiko is a definite highlight.
Kristof isn’t shy about the greater implications of his world. The blood lotus has multiple analogues to oil, complete with a myriad of uses that pervade society (lotus is as “vital to the Shogunate as oxygen to a drowning man”). It also has a directly addictive aspect to boot (shades of both tobacco and opium). Kristof occasionally resorts to pedantic pontification or overly obvious analogies (the Guild stronghold is described as “pentagonal”), but more often draws the lines (albeit clearly) and lets the reader see the picture, or slyly has a ship captain speak with “the feigned helplessness of a man who profits from the status quo.” It works better if you take it as given, rather than trying to turn it into an allegory of the modern world. Even giving it that benefit of the doubt, it does sometimes appear to embrace foolishness from time to time (is that Malthusianism I see?). More on point, the environmental degradation is part-and-parcel of massive rent-seeking (the government even takes land “under the guise of environmental protectionism”).
Stormdancer shows the influence of diverse works of speculative fiction. As I’m sure every other work of speculative fiction in the Young Adult space released in the past couple years does, the influence of The Hunger Games is obvious. Yukiko’s relationship with Buruu, at least initially, shows shades of Pi’s relationship with the tiger Richard Parker in Life of Pi. There is a distinctly Soylent Green-esque element and a shout-out to the titan of eco-speculative fiction, Dune: “The lotus must bloom.”
Kristof’s prose is clear and evocative, a tendency to drop into overly short sentences at times notwithstanding. It’s heavy on imagery and description, which I see as a plus, especially given the concept, but your mileage may vary.
This is Kristof’s first novel and it shows in the plotting. There is nothing inherently bad or fatal, but he is unable to keep the plot as “tight” as a more experienced writer could have, and the plot is overly predictable. He also borrows an element from the Hunger Games trilogy that I didn’t like there and don’t like here, because it’s too implausible and robs the protagonist of too much agency (hard to say more without giving significant spoilers for both). All of those flaws are minor though, and don’t prevent Stormdancer’s strengths from carrying it.
Stormdancer is book 1 in the, now complete, Lotus War trilogy. I haven’t read the other two.
Disclosure: I requested an ARC from the publisher and received an e-version.