The West

A lotus blossom dystopia
Australian author Jay Kristoff. Picture: Supplied

"As the iron war club scythed towards her head, Yukiko couldn't help wishing she'd listened to her father. She rolled aside as her cover was smashed to kindling, azalea petals drifting over the oni's shoulders like perfumed snowflakes. The demon loomed above her, 12 feet high, all iron-tipped tusks and long, jagged fingernails . . ."

Welcome to the world of Stormdancer, debut novelist Jay Kristoff's first book in the Lotus War trilogy inhabiting a "Japanese-inspired steampunk dystopia". Intrigued?

"As far as I knew it hadn't really been done before," Perth-born Kristoff says on the line from his Melbourne home in response to such an unusual mash-up.

"Steampunk is usually set in Victorian England, though there are a few writers who took it to colonial America, which was really cool. I've had an interest in Japan and Japanese culture for most of my life and just thought it would be great colliding a steampunk aesthetic with that."

"Collide" is a good word because Stormdancer is one hell of a read, bringing together balletic fight scenes reminiscent of those in the best martial arts movies, astonishing mythical creatures, intense power struggles and wondrous machinery in a coming-of-age story with strong ecological and erotic overtones.

The story runs thus: The Shima Imperium is wallowing in a toxic soup brought on by industrial mechanisation. Intent on propping up his poisonous regime, the Shogun has ordered his imperial hunters to capture the griffin-like Thunder Tiger, or Ashitora, of legend, thought to be extinct, so he can ride it like the Stormdancers of old. Travelling with the hunters is a teenage girl, Yukiko of the Fox clan and blessed with special powers. Fate quickly brings Yukiko and the Thunder Tiger together and the stage is set for an epic struggle between good and evil.

The writing is crisp and rhythmically supple, the imagery textured, layered and cinematic. Not surprising, since Kristoff learnt his craft in part writing copy for TV advertising.

"In a TV ad you've essentially only got 20 seconds to tell a story," says Kristoff, who trained as a graphic designer and ended up working in advertising for nearly 10 years. "So you learn to be quite economical and get to the point. You also think visually, showing not telling. It's helped a lot, actually."

Not that Kristoff ever had any intention of becoming a novelist.

"Stormdancer was the second book I wrote," he says. "The first will never see the light of day. But I wrote that in my spare time, just for fun, and found I enjoyed the ritual, having something to escape to every day. So for my second book I decided to do some research and give it my best shot."

And the environmental theme? "That's not hard to avoid but first and foremost I wanted this to be a great story with great characters that people could enjoy on a surface level. The environmental commentary underneath is just there and hopefully some readers will take that away and do something with it. I'm not saying the book's going to change the world, but there are issues in it which I care quite deeply about that give it more depth than just explosions and action."

Experience has taught Kristoff to be wary about trying to push any agenda. "When I'm doing my social media and blogging or just having a conversation with somebody, as soon as you directly mention environmental issues people's eyes glaze over quite quickly. And the readership on those kinds of blog posts tends to be lower than those where I'm talking about a cool movie I saw on the weekend."

That doesn't mean he isn't deeply concerned about Australia's ecology rather than its economy, especially in boomtown.

"WA is a beautiful place and I love going there. But I understand there's enormous pressure on WA at the moment and that needs to be weighed with the investment in the future of the country, rather than the future of the economy."

Stormdancer is published by Tor ($27.99).

The West Australian

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