- looks a lot like Dave Grohl
- has a lot of imagination
- a tendency to pull no punches
- the ability to craft a viable, complex, interesting world
- breaks my brain with every book he has written
Last year, Jay burst onto the scene with his steampunkian fantasy of an almost-Japan (here called the Shima Imperium) with his debut novel, Stormdancer. The hype began early, built over months of anticipation, and swelled to immense proportions before the book dropped. And when it did, Jay delivered -- Stormdancer was a tour de force of fantasy, steampunk, kickass characters, and rebellion. Immense in scope, in creativity, and filled with unforgettable writing, and complex, realistic characters, it exceeded my expectations in every way -- and they were HIGH.
I am here to tell you that Kinslayer, book two in this Lotus War series, is even better. You want more death, destruction, struggle? You got it, in spades. The scale is bigger, the stakes are higher, and this is an author that can, and does, improve on his already-impressive first book. If you liked what Kristoff had to offer in Stormdancer - chainsaw katanas, a fresh and inventive take on steampunk technology, an incredibly well-drawn world, betrayals, secrets, conspiracies, rebellion, action aplenty - then you'll love what he serves up for round two. The Lotus War is a story told on a grand scale and one that doesn't shy away from making readers flinch.
While in book one we were told, "the lotus must bloom", now the rebels have modified it to the more ominous, "the lotus must burn." This is a darker book. The lines have clearly been drawn and a civil war is on the brink. Yukiko wrestles with her role, with what she has done, and with what she will do. People die. People you like will die. People you like will surprise you -- and not always in a good way. The risks that Jay Kristoff takes with his plotting and characters more than pay off. He creates suspense with ease as well a genuine fear that no one -- and nothing -- is truly safe with Shima on the brink. He writes with a clear eye for the visual and a lot of the action scenes read cinematically. The detail is dense, the worldbuilding intricate and complete, and it all serves to create an Empire that feels dangerously real and frighteningly familiar.
Kinslayer is epic. It's an epic story with several major plotlines across an empire; there's Yukiko and Buruu going about doing what they do (no spoilers!), there's the Kagé stronghold in the mountains, and there are the subversives hiding in Kigen city, waiting for a chance to hit back at the authorities. Widening the focus of the story allows for more prominent characters than just Yukiko and the antagonist of the soon-to-be-Emperor/Yukiko's former lover, Tora Hiro. Both Yukiko and Hiro play important parts, but they are mostly removed from the main action - Hiro through the dense administration system surrounding a clan Daimyo, and Yukiko through her own struggles to rectify what has happened to her life in the previous novel. Buruu remains a key participant in Yukiko's storyline, and remains one of the best animal characters to ever grace a page. However, even he is full of surprises as the hundreds of pages race by.
We've met Michi before as a minor character, but here in Kinslayer, she gets the time and pages to shine. Her storyline is taut, full of deception and suspense. While Yukiko has spearheaded the fight against the Guild and the Emperor, Michi is in the trenches (credit for that line goes to the lovely Christina at Reader of Fictions!) fighting however and whoever it takes to win. She emerges as a major player and easily surpassed Yukiko in my affections, due to her pragmatic and bad ass approach. Hana, another newcomer with more to her than meets the eye, also more than proves her worth. Between her characterization and Michi's, it's obvious there is more than one strong, dangerous woman in Shima. Yukiko may be the Arashi-no-odoriko, but these two women are capable, smart, cunning, and each play pivotal parts in all that plays out in the pages. While most of my appreciation, character-wise, is for these two newish characters, older and more familiar faces continue to operate in various functions. Akihito, Kin, Kaori, etc. all are prominent and important, but do lack the liveliness of Michi and Hana's storylines.
Though there are clearly the good guys and the bad guys, Kristoff creates a cast that is not black and white. Yukiko is the heroine, but not everything she does is heroic, or even right. The Kagé are the good side, compared the power-hungry Guild and the omnivorous Empire, but not all of its members are truly good people. Similarly, the people that surround Hiro, the book's clear antagonist and foil for Yukiko, are not all evil power despots. The shades of grey that the author imbues into his characters make them all more realistic, more complex, and thus, interesting. Clearly the most sympathy will lie with the Kagé and their struggle to topple a corrupt government, but I appreciated how deftly Kristoff handled the creation the characters on all sides of the conflict. I always say I want a complex antagonist over a one-dimensional psychopath, and that a conflicted heroine is better than a perfect paragon, and I am proved right by the layers each of these two key characters possess. I may not like either of them too much, but I can understand where both are coming from and what they hope to gain.
The worldbuilding is truly some of the best I have ever read in the fantasy genre. It's on par with series that have taken twice as many volumes to create their version of Earth. In just two books, Jay Kristoff has created a viable, deadly, believable world. He has shown how a once-prosperous country can find itself on the verge of failure. From the mythology to the government, there is more than enough detail to flesh out the culture of the Shima Imperium to a reader's satisfaction. No stone has gone unturned, no idea unexplored. New cultures are shown, and new ideas are explored. Above all, Kinslayer never stagnates or dawdles. While the steampunk technology is less featured here (exception: Earthcrusher, clockwork arm!), it retains its originality, usefulness, and flair. Jay proves that less is more and doesn't oversaturate his plotline with nifty gadgets and chainsaw katanas. This isn't a version of steampunk featured on dirigibles and tea -- this is steampunk focused on war, domination, and destruction. And it. is. AWESOME.
Kinslayer is a book with everything you could hope for in steampunk fantasy with arashitora and sea dragons. It's packed to the brim with action, drama, and suspense. It takes characters we know and changes them, makes them evolve and hopefully grow. It proves that in war, no one is safe and anyone can betray you. It shows all sides of a conflict and doesn't flinch from murdering off favorite, beloved characters. It's a brash, loud, completely fun read. It's dense, and detailed, and still the pages fly by. If you want originality, or an inventive fantasy, or a book that combines dire straits with a dash of humor, or all of the above, this is the book you want to read. This is one of my favorite books of EVER, and I will be rereading it for years to come.
My only worry is how Jay Kristoff will manage to top this.
--And when I can get a copy of the third book.