What You Know and What You Don’t

The other day I was having a conversation on Twitter with my reviewer friends Paul Weimer (of SF Signal and Functional Nerds) and Sally Janin (of Qwillery) about a recent debut novel that is causing waves in the publishing industry. The book in question is called Stormdancer and is Jay Kristoff’s first book in the (billed to be) Lotus War series. The premise of the novel is that it is a coming-of-age story of a young girl in a setting that is touted as Japanese Steampunk, and explores her relationship with her somewhat-estranged father and an arashitora, or thunder tiger, or griffin. Our point of discussion was the cultural appropriation by Kristoff in the novel, his particular approach being severely unpalatable to me as someone who, while not very well-versed in, is still quite familiar with Japanese culture. The discussion extended to whether or not a reviewer’s familiarity with the settings/cultures portrayed in a speculative fiction novel play a big part in our perception of how good/bad a novel is.

Personally, I consider the book to be a failure, and my reasons are several. The most prominent among these is that Kristoff has failed to convince me of his setting. In his own words, his only research into Japanese culture consisted of “reading all six volumes of AKIRA in a week. Maybe I’d picked up a lot of detail through film and manga that I’ve consumed down through the years, but Wikipedia was really my go-to-guy. I have a friend who lives in Japan who I bounce ideas off too. I pay him with the promise of booze.” I’m incredibly sorry, but when you are writing a book that is meant to be challenging genre stereotypes in terms of location and culture and setting, that is not what you do, especially not with a culture as vibrant and incredibly nuanced as Feudal Japan!

I can’t speak to the grammatical factuality of the novel when it comes to Japanese terms, but the most striking reasons for why the novel is a dud are that Kristoff misuses the words sama and hai in his dialogue. Sama is used as the Japanese equivalent of the English “sir” and hai is used in the same way as the English “yes”. Neither of which is correct. Sama is more a formal, respectful term of address that is added at the end of a person’s name – Anjin-sama for example or Akira-sama. And hai is pretty much used on its own, not within a sentence!

And the characters never act as if they are Japanese characters. Their actions and attitudes are all European. Japanese society, especially Feudal Japan, has a strong core of respect to it that is entirely absent from the novel. The young girl protagonist insults her father in front of his drinking buddies. She rarely, if ever, shows any deference to her elders, especially her father. The way it is all written, I could very well be reading about a saucy Western teenager girl from the 21st century!

Now, one defense that several readers have offered is that Kristoff’s setting isn’t Japan itself, but is inspired from it. Fine, but that still doesn’t mean that he, or any other author, can project cultural values on their inspired setting that are almost inimical to the source! If you tout your book as Japanese Steampunk and pay only the barest amount of lip service to the first half of that description, then I don’t think you can call it that with any kind of validity. The culture in Kristoff’s novel is not Japanese, and its not European either. It is a bad mix of the two where the former is outweighed by the latter by a factor of 99-1.

That raises the question of how good a novel this is for someone who is versed/not-versed with the source material. For someone like me, if I’m familiar with these things, then how the author portrays it all makes a very big difference to me. I’ve read a few “Arabian” novels this year and none of them have convinced me that they are what they purport to be. It was mostly that they didn’t convince me that that was their influence apart from names of characters, not that the author screwed up the whole “inspiration” thing. There’s a key difference there: insufficient use of source material versus incorrect use of source material. Kristoff’s novel gets both things wrong for me.

I’ve repeated the same thing so far several times and the post is more rambling on than being coherent but that’s the thing about it. I’m just not able to crystallise my thoughts properly on this subject, which is why I haven’t reviewed the novel yet. The topic of discussion on Twitter was quite clear, and my stance on it is that familiarity with different cultures plays a big part in a reviewer’s take on the book.

When I read Aliette de Bodard’s Acatl novels, I knew zip about Mexican/Aztec culture besides the obvious blood sacrifice thing. I went in with a clean slate, and I came back thinking that she had done a marvelous job of portraying the culture because of her attention to detail and her writing in general. Within the confines of the cultural setting at play, the characters all acted as they were supposed to act. You get the feel that yes, you are reading about the Mexica, and not some random generic “barbaric” or “exotic” culture. de Bodard self-admittedly did a ton of research on the subject because she was driven by a need to get things right, all the more important for her because she is French-Vietn amese and primarily writes fiction set in the Chinese and Vietnamese cultures. Her own cultural background is quite different to that of Kristoff, and she worked tediously at falling into the typical pitfall of “western author writing exotic eastern cultures but injecting western sensibilities into the story”. Or even the other way around.

The biggest comparison I can hold against Stormdancer is James Clavell’s Shogun. Part of his grand Asian saga, Shogun is a defining novel, especially one written by an English writer who tackles Feudal Japan. Much as with de Bodard’s Acatl novels, Shogun shows off the Japanese culture to great effect: relationships between a samurai and his lord, the politics of Feudal Japan, relationships between a Japanese man and his household (particularly his wife, and the reverse), how difficult it is for a Westerner to fit in to Japanese society, the food and eating practices, sexual preferences, personal and household hygeine, the nuances of the culture, Japanese stage performances, the language, the larger global political backdrop etc. As a reader, if anyone asks me for a good fictional book on Japanese culture, Shogun would be the choice I put forward. If a writer wants to do minimal research on the culture because he/she wants to focus on the story more than accuracy, even then I would say that your first stop should be Shogun. Clavell’s in-depth exploration is just plain amazing.

The thrust of my argument is this: you cannot write a fantasy steampunk story in a world inspired by Feudal Japan when your primary research source was a manga series set in a post-apocalyptic Japan. That’s just not how it works. The cultural shift is just too great.

That brings me back again to the main topic of discussion: as a reviewer, how much does what we know affect our reading?

When I read Clavell’s Shogun, I knew squat about Japanese culture other than some tidbits about samurai and ninjas. The novel, a pretty hefty tome to be reading for someone in tenth grade, opened up a very different sort of world to me, to someone who was used to reading YA stuff like Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew, Animorphs, or The Lord of The Rings, or various works from Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov to use as a few examples. Alongwith Frank Herbert’s Dune Chronicles novels, Shogun was very much responsible for broadening my reading horizons. The attention to detail, in hindsight, was spectacular. I loved the novel! As I’ve said, the same happened with de Bodard’s Acatl novels.

Coming to Stormdancer, I was fairly well-versed in the Japanese culture. I’ve watched several anime over the years, both fantasy and science-fiction oriented. I’ve seen movies like Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. With that kind of a background, Stormdancer was pretty much of a shock. Combined with the general bad writing, I just couldn’t bring myself to even finish the novel. As several of my friends remarked when I put down some initial thoughts about the book on Goodreads, I rarely take a novel (or audio drama for that matter) to task and call it plain, flat-out among the worst fiction I’ve read (or listened to).

If I was a blank slate in terms of my experience with Japanese culture, there is a slight chance that I could have finished the novel. But then the big stumbling block would have been the writing itself. I can certainly see why so many people just adore the novel. They all primarily loved the fact that it was set in a secondary-world Feudal Japan instead of Europe, as is common in either Fantasy or Steampunk. And the arashitora of course. Paul himself rated the novel highly for a debut novel. I don’t remember from the Twitter discussion with him and Sally what his experience with Japanese culture is, and he doesn’t remark much on the setting itself in his SF Signal review for the novel, but he did express a need to reevaluate the novel based on our discussion. For me, that’s really interesting: how does a reviewer’s perspective change when they are confronted by such a…. glaring error (glaring for someone like me of course)?

In closing, some of these reviews may help you gain a better understanding of my issues with the novel:

http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/408636751

http://www.staffersbookreview.com/2012/09/stormdancer-by-jay-kristoff.html

http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/381307118

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Posted on October 28, 2012, in Book Reviews, General, History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Thanks.

    The comparison to Aliette de Bodard is a good one; I’ve only read a couple of her stories to date. Perhaps had I read one of her novels, I would have a better hook and baseline, as you did, to compare the Stormdancer experience.

    Live and learn.

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    • I definitely suggest reading them 🙂 They are excellent novels that I really enjoyed reading. On the same level to me as Clavell’s Shogun or Frank Herbert’s Dune in terms of the world-building 🙂

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  2. For me, a deeper knowledge of the setting or era or language, etc. effects my expectations for a story. I am reasonably certain that it makes me more critical. It’s hard to be positive about a novel when you are constantly thinking an author has got it wrong. That begs the question of whether we should only review books for which we have the corresponding knowledge base or whether we should avoid those books completely? How will the novel be viewed by someone who has no specialized knowledge? It’s something I think about and for which I have no good answer. Thank you for a terrific post.

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    • I don’t think we should, that is, we should read as widely as it is possible within the genres we enjoy, not just the settings. I don’t like limiting myself, and the more widely I read, I think I grow more confident as a writer and a reviewer. Its also interesting to see how different authors handle the same cultures. I already have the comparison of Clavell and Kristoff before me, when it comes to Feudal Japan. I’m going to be reading Lovegrove’s Age of Aztec soon, which is contemporary military SF and to see how it compares with de Bodard’s Acatl novels, which are historical fantasy set before the Spanish came to the Mexicas, should be quite intriguing.

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  3. I saw an Indonesian martial arts movie recently, set in the 19th century. All the villains were supposed to be Dutch, and all played by… Indonesians in really bad blond wigs, running around doing Snidely Whiplash and rolling their eyes and I’m told talking Bahasa Indonesia with terrible fake Dutch accents.

    Except for the governor’s beautiful daughter, played by a Eurasian, who of course fell for the Indonesian martial-artist hero’s manly charms.

    This didn’t bother -me- one little bit, but I suppose someone might get their knickers in a twist.

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