The Big Idea: Jay Kristoff
Is there anything new to say in the worlds(s) of steampunk? Perhaps, if you look beyond the usual settings and suspect. For Stormdancer, author Jay Kristoff broadened his horizons and listened to his dreams. this is what he came up with.
“Telepathic samurai girls and griffins in a Japanese-inspired steampunk dystopia.”
That mouthful is my elevator-pitch reply when people ask me to sum up my debut novel Stormdancer. It took me a year to get it that concise. I hang my head in shame.
It was a dream that started it all. I was in the process of querying my first novel, and meeting the kind of success fluffy bunnies meet when querying moving cars with their faces. In the midst of this blizzard of boiler-plate rejection letters, I dreamed about a boy trying to teach a griffin to fly in a field of dying grass.
This boy was yelling at the top of his voice, but the griffin’s wings were broken and it couldn’t get airborne no matter how masterfully the kid swore (friends who read too much into dreams have said the boy was me, and the griffin was my novel – flawed to the bone). I was looking for an idea for my next book, and the image lodged in my head.
But an image doesn’t make a novel – or if it does, it’ll be a gorram short one. Hardly the kind you’ll buy a castle next to Jo Rowling’s with. So the little boy became a teenaged girl who, instead of shouting into the griffin’s ears, could shout into his mind. The field of grass became a field of blood-red flowers, choking the life out of everything around them. And instead of the griffin’s wings being broken, they’d been taken away from him. By bastards. That’s how Stormdancer was born.
Stormdancer’s setting is a nation teetering on the edge of ruin. Shima is an imperium built on the backs of fantastical technologies – sky-ships and motor-rickshaw and thunder-rail, defended by Iron Samurai in lumbering suits of power armor. But the engines that drive the empire are ever thirsty, and Shima is being slowly consumed by the very technologies that once made it great. Fields of blood lotus flowers are cultivated for the fuel that drives their machines, but that same flower is killing the earth and everything on it. The magical beasts of legend are dead or gone, the air is choked with toxins, and a blast-furnace sun burns in a scarlet sky. When I first pictured the islands in my head, I imagined a high-speed collision between the epic settings of feudal Japan and the fictions of Verne, Moore and Gibson, smudged with a handful of soot and burned motor oil.
I wanted to take steampunk’s corsetry and rose-colored goggles and wide-eyed enthusiasm for the wondrous machine and make it ugly. Make the machine the enemy. Tell a story about a people so hopelessly dependent upon their technology that they couldn’t pull back from the brink, despite the awful truth that their technology was killing them. To me, that seemed a truth not so far from our own, and a sandbox worth playing in. As for the cultural touchstone, steampunk Victorian England had been done, and done well. But the world during Victorian times was an amazing place, and as far as I could see, not many folks had drawn inspiration from one of the most incredible cultures of the day – the Tokugawa Shōgunate of 19th century Japan.
Imagine it: Steam-powered samurai. Flying maru. Chainsaw katanas.
Steampunkery aside, and at its heart, Stormdancer is a book about an unlikely friendship between two even more unlikely characters – a girl with the ability to speak telepathically to animals in a country where animal life is virtually extinct, and the last griffin left alive. I wanted to write an epic adventure, full of battles and betrayals and chainsaw katana fights, with a kick-ass heroine who didn’t need to choose a boy by which to define herself. I wanted to collide epic fantasy with steampunk and see where it took me. But more than that, I wanted to write a book with heart; a book about a friendship that bloomed despite all obstacles. A bond that would grow to become a thing of legend in this nation on the edge of ruin – a friendship that challenged the might of an empire.
But it all started with a dream, and my life has felt a little like a dream since I first found out it was getting published. So, if you’re considering giving some of your time to this absurd little dream of mine, you have my heartfelt thanks.