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.


Stormdancer: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.


22 Comments on “The Big Idea: Jay Kristoff”

  1. Looking forward to starting this. Got it on my Nook this morning. The whole work thing is getting in the way again.

  2. With the frequency this happens, we should start to call this phenomenon “the big idea” tax. I hope it earns me a deductible.

  3. “Telepathic samurai girls and griffins in a Japanese-inspired steampunk dystopia.”

    *skips rest of article, buys book on Amazon* A one-sentence that concisely crafted deserves the purchase.

    (…oh, come on. It was a Big Idea post, I was going to end up buying the book ANYWAY.)

  4. Ooh, neat! My wife and I were in Japan in April, and had the good fortune to attend a Steampunk Sakura Viewing, with a Japanese Steampunk band called Strange Artifact – they were SUPER nice!

  5. I had the opportunity of reading an ARC copy a few weeks ago, and it really was worth every bit of the hype. It’s also great to see it featured on The Big Idea, because there will be precious few readers here that get past “Japanese steampunk” without at least being tempted into making an immediate purchase.

  6. My copy should be sitting on my doorstep when I get home from work today. Because, really, was I ever going to resist Japanese steampunk? No way.

  7. I read about this book on a plane and ran to the airport to get a copy. But the Australian (maybe UK) cover is kind off ugly compared to the gorgeous cover pictured above, so I’ve held off until I can get a copy that looks like the one above of

    Cannot wait to read this book, it sounds phenomenal.

  8. I’m definitely going to have to pick this up for a read being a huge fan of both steampunk and dystopia’s (fantasy and otherwise).

    However, can you poke your publisher with a pointy stick over the cover – it was sooooo close to avoiding the horrid (and overdone, and cliche) gratuitous sexual display that every book that features a female protagonist (particularly urban fantasy) seems to think will move units. Just close her damn pants and let the sexy power of that bared, tattooed arm (and hint of sideboob) speak for itself. It is such a powerful and sexy piece of art that it is a shame it looks like they photoshopped in the pant slit in after the cover art was submitted and some marketing person saw it failed to meet criteria 7b – showing unnecessary flesh for the sexual titillation of readers who need to be pandered to.

  9. “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. ”

    It’s phrasing like that which makes me want to read this book. Jay has a great way with interviews, each one I’ve read has been hugely entertaining.

  10. This looks fantastic! Can anyone tell me if if contains explicit cruelty to animals – descriptions of it happening that kind of glorify the horror? I’m hoping the answer is No, because that has made me stop reading more than one fantasy novel: There’s enough animal crualty in the real world; I don’t need more images of it in my brain.

  11. I tried the longer excerpt from Stormdancer at

    I find this book problematic culturally and linguistically and will not be buying it or finishing it. It perpetuates confusion between Chinese and Japanese language and culture, and it consistently misuses basic Japanese language elements.

    Reviewers who have already commented articulately on linguistic and cultural issues in this work include the four below:

    YMMV, but if you are of Japanese or Chinese heritage, or even somewhat knowledgeable about Japanese or Chinese language or culture, you may want to avoid this book or check it out from a library first.

  12. I will be reading this book, but I wanted to say something first:
    “Chainsaw Katana fights”? “Steampunk Samurais”?

    Yes, it has been done!

    Look for the excellent “Samurai 7” Anime from Japan and DON’T hesitate to buy it. It’s only 24 or 26 Episodes long, and is based on Akira Kurosawa’s seminal work “Seven Samurai” ( There is of course Manga that goes along with it.

  13. I’m intrigued, and that’s coming from someone who generally thinks steampunk is an overworked genre. But this sounds like Jules Verne, James Clavell and Dru Pagliassotti got together to write a novel edited by Ekaterina Sedia.

    I would ask though, does the book fall back on outright Luddism, or is the critique of industrialization more nuanced? In other words, is the moral of the story that technology is inherently corrupting, or that disregarding unintended consequences is dangerous? Because I’ll bite if it’s the latter, but books that have turned out to trumpet the former gospel have left a sour taste in my mouth.

    @ Foxglove Digital

    Just close her damn pants and let the sexy power of that bared, tattooed arm (and hint of sideboob) speak for itself.

    Obviously, aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder, but the cover doesn’t seem particularly erotic to my eye. My thought when I noticed the side-split pants was that they wouldn’t be very practical in a fight. The arm is a bit lacking in the wiry muscles a kendōka typically develops, especially on their favored sword arm (despite best efforts to train ambidextrously), though I have to give the artist credit for including a leather vambrace.

    I do believe I threw up a little at the expression “sideboob” however. Oh well, must escape from the planet of the horny toads and fashion police…

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