I really did not intend to read this book. I feel like I got my fill of/said my piece in the Stormdancer review, and who wants to retread? (other than Kinslayer, BA-ZING) So you guys (and I!) can thank Shiori and my pitiful resistance to peer pressure for this, another miserable two-month, 500-page slog. Also, UNMARKED SPOILERS ABOUND in this review.
First things first: the sama-as-'sir' and hai-as-'yes' thing - which, I'll have you know, was a totally intentional linguistic twist, I don't know why you're so upset about it - has been mostly fixed.
Honorifics are almost entirely dropped, and while "hai" still appears frequently, it's not in the middle or at the end of sentences or masquerading as "ne", so it's slightly more tolerable. I mean, I'm pretty sure it's still being used wrong, but the Japanese proficiency level has at least moved up to "Weeaboo", so that's something that those of us who were irritated by the first one, yet are inexplicably reading the sequel, can be grateful for.
Don't get me wrong, it's still Weearific as fuck -
Jurou’s grin was all Kitsune-in-the-henhouse, aimed squarely at Hana...
- probably so that we don't forget that this is, like, super-exotic steampunk fantasy, man, and we should all be grateful, excited, a little bit horny, and totally throwing cookies its way for deigning to take place in the ~land of the rising sun~.
I mean, this isn't necessarily anything new. When it comes to Japan, and Asian culture, and outside cultures in general, it seems like most of what we're given access to are weeabooks or the equivalent - white people's exotified "riffs" on cultures and mythologies not theirs. And I think that's sort of the larger issue that I didn't emphasize enough in the "sama-hai" hullabaloo of my Stormdancer review.
Ellen Oh wrote a fantastic blog post on the subject earlier this year, that articulates the problem quite beautifully.
It is a complicated situation. There is no easy answer. We need diversity in literature. We need it desperately. [...] And so it is important that all authors include diversity in their books.
But there is that part of me that wonders why is it that when I see a list about what Asian fantasy books are out there, the books are predominantly by caucasian authors. Are POC writers not writing them or are they being passed over for books written by non-POC authors instead? And why is it that books by or about POC don't tend to sell as well as other "mainstream" books. What is the difference? Is it the difference in how they are marketed? Is it their cover art? Where they are placed in the bookstore or library? How they are pushed or not pushed by the booksellers, librarians, and teachers?
The reality is, there are just not a lot of POC authors out there. We are not representing the 37% of our population when we only amount to 10% of publishing. When you look at diversity panels or even the YA tag in racebending.com, the authors tend to be predominantly white because they reflect publishing.
This is why I can't help but be resentful. I freely admit it. It sucks being a POC author sometimes. You feel invisible. You feel passed over. And true or not, it feels harder for us to get to tell our own stories. And that shouldn't be the way things are.
So look. Being totally up front: I think, in terms of cultural representation, The Lotus War is pretty gross. I think it's lazy, exotifying, frequently reliant on Western fantasy tropes and attitudes even when they make no sense in the setting, and I think that most of what was intact and researched and detailed was the shiny pretty totally marketable aesthetic. And I think that uncritical glorification of this book and books like it are part of what keep us from getting better things.
That being said, I want to talk about other aspects of Kinslayer separately, because a) there ARE things I found interesting and ideas I liked, and b) it fails rather spectacularly on several other axes.
So, premise: basically, after killing the Shogun at the end of Stormdancer, Yukiko has driven her powers into overdrive - or so we're lead to believe - and they've begun to overwhelm her. The thoughts and presences of animals and humans alike cause her physical pain, and so Yukiko has become an alcoholic to drown them out, and to numb the pain of her father's loss. She drags herself away from the bottle to cause problems for the Guild and defend her comrades-in-rebellion, but little by little her control over her powers is slipping, and endangering herself and everyone around her. After a good three million pages setting all this up, Yukiko is positioned to spend her part of the book on a Journey to find someone in Shima who can help her learn to control her powers.
This isn't a bad start. I was begrudgingly digging Yukiko being in such a dark place - I mean, not very many "YA" authors I've come across will put their MC in that kind of unglamorous, self-destructive position. The goal was clear, and the Journey ahead promised adventure and discovery! Maybe we'd even get some - dare I even say it it? - progress to move this slog along?
Yukiko's attempt to learn to control her powers falls by the wayside fairly quickly, and she instead spends most of her plotline dealing with a streak of bad luck that seems designed mostly to keep her out of the way of the main plot - and to introduce this world's Russians, which'll hopefully pay off in the next book. Maybe.
On the bright side, her emotional conflict and inner turmoil is mostly resolved, even if her superpower issue pans out in the most groan-inducing way possible.
—CANNOT FEEL THEM, KINSLAYER? NOT HEAR THEM SCREAM WHEN THE MONKEY-MAN STRUCK HER BELLY?—
Buruu sighed, storm howling overhead, lighting reflected in the bottomless black of her eyes. The girl he loved more than anything in this world. The girl he would do anything to protect, to spare her even one more second of pain.
But he could not spare her this.
Oh, gods, no …
The sigh came from the heart of him.
YUKIKO, YOU ARE WITH CHILD.
YEP! SHE'S PREGNANT. That's where all her power is coming from. BABBIES. Always BABBIES. That's a thing women do, right? That's also how she recruits the female griffin to their cause -
He could feel the little ones inside Yukiko—two tiny sparks of life, shapeless and bright, intertwined with her own heat. They pulsed, too formless to know true fear, but real enough to feel their mother’s terror, shock, sorrow through the Kenning. The fear spilled into him, fear for them, for the one who carried them, for the beating, bleeding heart of his world.
He knew Kaiah could feel them too.
Kaiah growled, deep in her throat, tail whipping side to side.
—NO. WILL NOT FIGHT FOR YOU.—
Kaiah padded over to Yukiko, knelt on the stone before her. The girl looked up, swollen, trembling lips and frightened, blackened eyes. An age passed, there in the howling storm, the clawing wind, the driving rain, until at last, the thunder tiger leaned in close, pressed her head against Yukiko’s belly, and listened.
The sun slipped out from behind the clouds.
Just for a moment.
—BUT I WILL FIGHT FOR THEM.
Because women, right? They may not give a shit about people, but they give a shit about babbies, goddammit.
The truth, though, is that Yukiko and Buruu just aren't of much consequence in Kinslayer. We're teased with the question of the fate of the remaining griffins, with hints of Buruu's past, he's even the titular Kinslayer, but all of that potentially interesting bit of backstory is withheld, presumably for the finale. Or the never.
Instead, Kristoff uses Kinslayer to make The Lotus War an ensemble, adding a handful of new POV characters and three separate storylines to the mix.
Those are the ones that really factor in to Kinslayer‘s overall plot, and I suspect that the introduction of Hana, along with Kin’s progression, were what Kinslayer was meant to serve – mostly because they’re the only things that really differentiate it from Stormdancer. BUT WE’LL GET TO THAT.
Look, the important part here is that while two of the new storylines may primarily follow female characters, the generous helping of new POVs means that we get to slip into the perspectives of the people around them. You know what that means!
Aw yeah, she isn’t a Strong Female Character if we don’t get some good ol’fashioned fap material!
Ahahaha, I jest, but it is actually disappointing, because there are times when the characters are well-drawn. Both Michi and Hana get an abundance of backstory and some agency in their own subplots (it’s somewhat hard to gage when so much of the story is “waiting around” and “flashbacking”), but the sexualization of the female characters is never far off. The male gaze is ever-present, whether it’s in women describing women –
"Seventeen, perhaps eighteen years old at most. Her lips were full and pouting, as if she’d been stung by something venomous, her features fragile and perfect; a porcelain doll on its first day in the sun. She narrowed her eyes, held one hand up against the light.
Inexplicably, Yukiko felt her heart sink.
Or women somehow sexualizing themselves in the third person.
"Her tongue emerged from between bee-stung lips and she touched it to her fingers, just once, shivering as she tasted copper and salt."
And we’re given to male POVs at the most convenient –
"Her lips tasted of strawberries and sweat, warm as spring and soft as Kitsune silk. Wet beneath his fingertips, thighs smooth as glass, a river of glossy black spilling around her face and clinging to dripping breasts. She swayed above him; a long, slow dance in the lamplight, spilling across her contours, down into soft curves and sodden furrows. Soaking all around him, slick and scalding to the touch. She took his hands, pressed them against her, biting her lip and sawing back and forth atop him. Her sighs were the only sound in his world, her heat soaking through to his center. Her hips moved like a summer haze over lotus fields, climbing the mountain as she moaned his name over and over again.
“Ichizo.” Her lips on his own, breathing into his mouth. “Ichizo…” "
…and most disgustingly horrifying of times.
"She was not clad in a jûnihitoe as occasion would dictate; just a plain shift of deep red, rivers of long, raven hair spilling about her shoulders. No powder upon her bloodless face, nor kohl around her bloodshot eyes. Her right arm was bound in plaster, her lips pale and bereft of paint, left eye still surrounded by a faint yellow bruise, skin split almost to her chin down the left side of her mouth, stitched with delicate sutures. Yoritomo’s beating had been far more brutal than most in the court were allowed to believe.
And still, she was beautiful."
WELL THANK GOD SHE’S STILL BEAUTIFUL. I MEAN SURE SHE’S PHYSICALLY BROKEN AND BEEN BEATEN ALL TO SHIT, BUT I’M GLAD WE’RE TOLD WHAT’S IMPORTANT.
"She wailed in fear as he stepped closer. Bruises on her face, those bee-stung lips swollen further still, ugly purple around her wrists, across her thighs."
Yes, thank you. I really needed the reminder that her lips are pouty and full while you’re describing her physical state, post-rape.
I mean, what am I meant to make of that? So much of the hype around Stormdancer seemed based on the presentation of this strong, proactive woman of color – Yeah, look at how badass she is on the cover! Look at that sword! – and it just seems like little by little, the books are undermining the heroines, in their moments of triumph and even in their pain and suffering, to remind us that they are totally fappable.
Michi gets the brunt of it, being the book’s designated femme fatal. Her arc involves stuff I’d really be interested in, normally – a hardened woman out for revenge – but ugh, the squick comes in quick when she starts falling in love with the man she’s been seducing to secure her escape, and she has a big moral event horizon when she chooses the rebellion over him and stabs him while she kisses him, which is how you want to go, guys, amirite? And from there her scenes get this creepy fetishy Dragon Lady quality where she kills dudes with her hair sticks and sexy martial arts and…well…
She reached into the box and drew them out, scarlet card falling to the floor. Four and three feet long, gentle curves and glittering saw-blade teeth. She thumbed the ignitions on the hilts and the motors roared to life, vibration traveling up her arms and into her chest, bringing a small smile to painted lips.
Michi gunned the throttles of Ichizo’s chainkatana and wakizashi. Tearing away the intact layer of her jûnihitoe gown, she stepped out of her wooden sandals, wriggling her feet in split-toed socks. She took up her stance, flourishing the blades about her waist and head, a twirling, snarling dance of folded steel.
Michi dashed across the floorboards, narrowed eyes and gleaming teeth. The commander came to his senses first and stepped forward, bringing his nagamaki into some semblance of guard. She slipped down onto her knees, fine Kitsune silk and her momentum sending her into a skid across polished boards, blade passing harmlessly over her head. Cutting the commander’s legs out from under him, a blinding spray of red, a shriek of agony as the chainsaw blades sheared through bone like butter. Spinning up to her feet, katana cleaving through another bushiman’s forearm, wakizashi parrying a hasty thrust from a third as the soldiers at last registered the threat. Sparks in the air as steel crashed, the girl moving like smoke between the blades, swaying to the music she made.
A blade to a throat. A crimson spray on the walls. A parry. A wheel-kick. A thrust. Red mist in the air. Heart thundering in her chest.
She blew stray hair from her eyes, idling chainswords dripping into the gore pooled at her feet, staring at the commander’s corpse.
“I think I’ll put you down instead,” she said.
Did I just read a scene out of fucking Suckerpunch? Because it felt like something around that level.
We actually talk about this in more depth in an upcoming podcast about agency (and Shiori’s dramatic reading is priceless), but the problem is well-articulated by this quote that she found for the occasion:
<blockquote>A female character who kicks ass and chews bubblegum and does a billion slow-mo kills in a slinky nightgown or catsuit (Aeon Flux, Resident Evil, Ultraviolet, etc) is not traditionally thought of as empowering because behind that concept is the lurking terror of a creepy, objectifying male writer or director. Even though “the writer” or “the director” don’t exist in-universe, their presence is felt strongly enough that it’s nearly impossible to think of such characters as being “a woman exhibiting agency”.
“The lurking terror of a creepy, objectifying male writer”, indeed.</blockquote>
Of all the female characters, Hana is the one I’m most unsure of. I feel like Hana and her storyline need more context before we’re able to completely unpack it, but the reveal of her and her brother as half (unspecified) gaijin caught me off guard. I sort of hope they don’t go the foreign inheritance, special-because-white route, but…we’ll see. At least, in the context of this story, I appreciated that she had agency, that she remained mostly unsexualized, and that she was allowed revenge for some of the bad things that happened to her.
Her brother’s subplot was fucking miserable, though. Yeah, totally, killing off the barely-characterized gay lover who only gets a backstory three seconds before he’s taken in to be tortured, so clever, so edgy, man.
As a whole, Kinslayer‘s steep descent into grimdark gritty town doesn’t do much for me. FYI, there are at least two attempted rape scenes, one actual rape – provided it was, indeed, a rape; we only see the aftermath – and an intimate violation of a bedridden character mentioned towards the end. Of course there’s a lot of violence, being a steampunk rebellion action book, and most of it gets skimmed over in a typically action-booky way, until you hit the gay character’s torture scene. From there, it seems like a torrent of shudder-inducing stuff follows, and I kind of wish someone would have seen fit to mention it in a review. Obviously it’s personal preference, but I am so totally not here for the eyes-being-yanked-out, toes-being-broken-crap, and I’m sure there are others who’d appreciate a word of warning.
I also feel like it’s worth mentioning that the worst bits of torture, prolonged suffering, and victimization are only wheeled out for women and gay men. I mean sure, lots of random dudes die, but they’re relatively quick deaths that aren’t, y’know, prolonged arduous setpiece plot devices. I’ll be bitter about Aisha’s fate til the end of fucking days, man, because not only was she brought back despite being presumed dead in the last book, but she was brought back just to become a fucking human incubator, and to figure in a plotline that was basically middle book bullshit filler. Her character was victimized and suffered and died and it didn’t even forward the plot.
Also, that possible – because I’m not convinced we won’t eventually go the “she faked it” route, ugh – rape? Another plot device meant to be a turning point, not for the character it occurred to, of course, but for her love interest, Kin. He is SO UPSET she got raped, you guys, it was just the final straw. Now he’s going to do some shit. Naturally.
I’m actually starting to suspect that Kin might be our backdoor protagonist, here. Again, I feel like one of, if not the primary purpose of Kinslayer, as an installment in The Lotus War, was to transition Kin into whatever role he’ll be playing in the finale, and it’s Kin who has been given the tropey fantasy mantle of having an epic prophesied destiny looming in the distance that he’s caught between fighting and giving in to. I suppose we’ll see as the series conclude, but it’s kind of telling to me that the only time Kinslayer is EVER in first person is in his ominous epilogue.
Ultimately, if the appropriation weren’t going to put you off, if the creepy objectification wasn’t enough, at the very least, Kinslayer feels like a waste of time as an installment. Once again, it’s like 300 pages of slow-as-molasses plot development until you hit the home stretch and shit starts actually happening. But even then, Kinslayer has classic Middle Book Syndrome: it treads water with a redundant plot while new characters are introduced and/or maneuvered into position for the finale. We end Kinslayer in almost exactly the same position as we ended Stormdancer, and oh god why did we even bother? I wouldn’t be surprised if you could just skip Kinslayer entirely and go into book three without much trouble.
Then again, I don’t think anyone would be worse off for just skipping Kinslayer, period.
Come for the quotespam, stay for the fun? Quotespam over at <a href="http://yourekilling.us/?p=1462">You're Killing.Us</a>.