Monday, September 17, 2012

An Ancient Myth For Modern Times

Jay Kristoff, Stormdancer

Steampunk usually celebrates the potential inherent in rudimentary technology, but has long struggled with the ways coal-fired industry strangles the society that gives it life. You can see that in the recurrent theme of the zeppelin that crashes across savage frontiers, forcing refined moderns to fend for themselves. Australian novelist Jay Kristoff finds a new angle on that popular dichotomy by inserting Japanese myth into his tense, exciting debut.

The Shima Islands suffer under the twin bootheels of the Lotus Guild and an infantile Shōgun. When rumor of a wild griffin, thought long extinct, reaches the smoky capital, the Shōgun orders huntmaster Kitsune Masaru and his apprentice daughter to fetch it from the untamed north. But taming a Thunder Tiger proves no easy task, and young Kitsune Yukiko finds herself stranded in the primal forest with a mythic beast that thinks her the source of the land’s suffering.

Kristoff provides few real surprises in the story: it so completely reuses steampunk standards and Joseph Campbell’s mythic journey that you could chart it on graph paper. But you could say the same about artists from JRR Tolkien and George Lucas to JK Rowling and James Cameron. Kristoff succeeds, where he does, for the same reason those other creators do, that he presents the classic components of ancient myth as freshly as sunrise.

Shima has grown rich and mighty on its innovative industry, but suffers for its advances. The great machines burn fuel refined from blood lotus, a plant that yields not just factory juice, but textile fibers, medicinal roots, and narcotic sap. But lotus also kills the soil it grows on, and its fumes befoul the air. City dwellers require gas masks to step outdoors, and the seas are so filthy that harbormasters periodically set the tides alight to keep the seas navigable.

If you think the allegory sounds a little too on-the-nose, I won’t disagree.

The Lotus Guild keeps the factories running, its faceless minions encased in steam-driven armor as their refineries pump out fuel for the empire. Even the Shōgun fears displeasing the Lotusmen. But the Guild maintains its iron grip by elevating itself to a religion, burning heretics and believers in the old myths. They build, but strangle, the empire behind their fascist mantra, “The Lotus Must Bloom.” Somewhere Frank Herbert smirks into his beard.

But in distant Iishi, stranded with what may be the last Thunder Tiger, young civilized Yukiko gradually sheds the forced lessons of urban life. The northern mountains remain untouched by industry, though it’s only a matter of time. But the trees shelter creatures of myth, the mighty Thunder Tigers and dreadful Oni giants, and a band of outlaw renegades who teach Yukiko the truth behind her heritage, forcing her to confront a frightening destiny.

In the classic myths, civilization provides stability, but also mediocrity. From Homer to Jesus to Zane Gray to Avatar, the hero must wander in the wilderness, unlearning years of comfortable ordinariness, before the true heroic identity emerges. So it is with Yukiko, who must learn to trust the impossible before she can confront the forest’s primal savagery. In so doing, she learns that the nature she once suppressed gives her opportunities denied to lesser people.

Yukiko learns that the Iishi mountains are not just primordial and untamed. They are the womb of earth, and the gateway between the lands of the living and the dead. But in standing fast against Hell’s invading army, she learns the division is less clear than it seems. Smog-choked Shima may have a pulse, but it lacks the kind of visceral life she finds among the undead monsters and principled outlaws who populate the forest.

But the mythic hero must also bring her lessons back to the world she once abandoned. So Yukiko and her Thunder Tiger board a zeppelin back to the smoggy city she’s learned to hate. If she wants to save her father from the Shōgun and liberate her people from the Lotusmen, she must re-cross the border between life and death. And because life-in-death is no life at all, she can only return life to Shima by killing that which imprisons life.

Kristoff’s telling drifts more than once into heavy-handed allegory, and his implications for his contemporary audience leave little to the imagination. Yet that same quality gives his story a modern urgency that transcends his classic setting. Like Homer or Tolkien before him, Kristoff uses ancient trappings to tell his audience a story that is, at root, all about us.

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