I picked up my copy of this book at World Fantasy Con in Brighton, attracted by the stunningly attractive cover – and the comment that it was Japanese steampunk.
The Shima Imperium verges on collapse. Land and sky have been poisoned by industrialisation, the Lotus Guild oppresses the populace and the nation’s Shogun is lost to his thirst for power. Yukiko and her warrior father are forced to hunt down a griffin at the Shogun’s command. But any fool knows griffins are extinct – and death will be the price of failure.
That’s as much of the blurb I’m including, as the rest goes on to tell far too much of the early story arc, in my opinion. This is definitely a variation of steampunk – the Empire, very loosely based on the Japanese culture, runs on the blood lotus flower, which unfortunately produces clouds of pollution are equally toxic to man, beast and plant life to an extent that manages to make coal look benign… The world is vividly described in all its gritty, decaying glory through the viewpoint of angry teenager Yukiko, whose father is a lotus addict. His job as Chief Hunter to the young Shogun means he is largely unemployed, given that most animals are now extinct.
I enjoyed Yukiko as a protagonist – I think she largely works. Although I did feel that women’s roles in this society were rather wafty… The Guild, who ensure and enforce the population stays pure and obedient to the Guild’s precepts, only admit males in their midst and the Shogun’s sister talks of women having to use their beauty and guile to work behind the scenes. Yet Yukiko seems free to accompany her father when he does go hunting and roams the City armed without any apparent comment or disapproval coming her way. She even spars on the airship with one of her father’s hunting team – a middle-aged woman – and again, no one seems to mind all that much, despite the fact they are using practice swords.
However, within the narrative Yukiko’s role as someone slightly outside the norm works reasonably well and her progression through the book – especially the love affair and her interaction with the thunder tiger – is effective and punchy. I was drawn into the action, once it really got going, and kept turning the pages to find out what happens. I enjoyed the fact that we start with one premise and as the book progresses, discover something else is happening. While it isn’t a particularly complicated plot, there is plenty going on throughout and the twists and turns towards the end genuinely surprised me.
The full-on action is typically steampunk, but I was a bit shaken at the bleak, angry tone near the end of the book, clearly lining us up for the next instalment. I suspect this is a marmite book and some readers will find the liberties taken with Japanese culture annoying and objectionable. If Kristoff had called the Empire Japan, I would have also had a real problem with it – but he didn’t, he called it Shima. And this is steampunk fantasy – I have yet to see a single chainsaw katana powered by flower extract at my local DIY store. Overall, I think this is an enjoyable take on a sub-genre that continues to throw up interesting twists on the original steampunk idea, and I’m looking forward to reading the next book, Kinslayer.