If You’re Going to Dance in Storms, You Should Probably Research Them First

So, awhile ago, I was looking at upcoming teen books to potentially order for the library where I work, and I saw this:


And then I saw this:

“. . . Japanese Steampunk novel with mythical creatures, civil unrest, and a strong female protagonist . . .” – from Patrick Rothfuss’ blurb

My heart, it went pitter-pat.

So I ordered the book for our library. It arrived, looking just as pretty as the image above, and has so far circulated a couple of times. I have not read it. But recently, I started reading some reviews that made my heart go things other than pitter-pat. Things more in the general vein of “sink,” if I had to be specific.

The first review I saw was this one at lady business, which broadly and briefly covers some facts that have been bothering people: author Jay Kristoff seems to have got a lot of his Japanese culture stuff (notably terms of address, whether or not pandas live in Japan) wrong, and then basically brushed off all criticism: “It’s fantasy, folks, not international frackin’ diplomacy.”

For a much more detailed, blow-by-blow account of problems one reader had with the book, see the review at You’re Killing Me. While I, too, would probably take issue with the Bathing Scene of Unexamined Creepiness (I must here recommend this excellent post on the male gaze in writing), the thing mostly under scrutiny in Stormdancer is that it’s inaccurate to Japan and Japanese culture.

Kristoff’s main response to this criticism seems to be a claim that the story actually takes place in a land like Japan, and not actual Japan. Some people are brushing this off, but I think it’s an important point. I strongly believe that people should be able – even encouraged – to write settings that are loosely based on non-European civilizations in the same way that oh so many fantasies take place in settings that are loosely based on European cultures. You shouldn’t be held to the historical facts of a country that your setting is only based on, any more than we should shake our fists at dozens of popular fantasy authors because medieval Europe didn’t really have this term or that animal.

I wrote myself awhile ago about coming up with another name for garments my characters were wearing that are close to saris in part because I didn’t want people assuming my setting was India when it isn’t; a similar concern is expressed by blogger Linda in this excellent post on her desire to write fantasy with Asian characters that isn’t set in Asia. (Yes, technically, one is only Asian if one comes from Asia. What she means is that she wants to write characters who, if they were in our world, would be considered to look Asian, in the same way that legions of blonde and blue-eyed fantasy heroes and heroines would look recognizably Caucasian, despite the fact that their fantasy worlds presumably have no Caucasus regions.)

BUT. The blurb right on the front cover of Stormdancer refers to the novel as “Japanese,” and Kristoff doesn’t correct it. There is, apparently, very frequent use of Japanese terms – the book actually includes a glossary. Curiously, some of the terms, like -sama and hai, are used incorrectly throughout the book but have their correct uses described in the glossary. This does rather support Kristoff’s claim that he has fudged and changed things a la George R. R. Martin, who bases his famous A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series loosely on England during the War of the Roses, but changes spellings (“sir” to “ser,” for example).

Still, the impression I get is that Kristoff has crossed the line into appropriation territory. (For a good article on the location of this line, see the Zoe-Trope.)

I also get the impression he makes some choices that are just plain unfortunate. Linda, whose blog I mentioned earlier, also gives us an excellent rant on how frustrating it is that, in a world populated with characters who look Japanese, everyone swoons over the protagonist’s love interest . . . because of his green eyes. Certainly being attracted to people who look different from you is common – and often genetically useful – but to make everyone wildly attracted to (and not even a little, um, freaked out by) an eye color that presumably they’ve never seen on a human before? And an eye color that, not gonna lie, is pretty much a white thing? Kiiinda problematic.

Related to that, one thing I’ve personally gained from all this: the idea of researching different cultures’ standards of beauty. I think that paying so much attention to eye color is really kind of a white thing – if everyone in your culture has brown eyes, are you going to notice it when you meet a new person? That would be kind of like noticing that they have a nose. (On a side note, how hilarious would it be if a character did describe each person s/he met without taking anything for granted? “He walked upright on two legs, with one head located at the top of his body . . .” Somewhat hilarious, is my guess, followed by very tedious.) I’ve already tried to emphasize other, non-eye-color features in the aforementioned not-set-in-India fantasy, but I’ll be curious to learn more about how other cultures measure attractiveness.

How about you? What features do your characters notice about themselves and others? What features do their cultures value and devalue?

3 thoughts on “If You’re Going to Dance in Storms, You Should Probably Research Them First

  • Thanks for this absurdly relevant post! I am going through all of these things in my fantasy novel.

    Pretty much everyone is nonwhite. The majority, I would say, are the equivalent of Hispanic, and so is my main character. There is currently one white character. I’ve given this some thought, and cultural standards of beauty are somewhat derived from the particular looks of a historical (but near-legendary/mythological) figure from long ago (who was, like the majority, vaguely Hispanic). This is also the roof of that society’s unquestioning acceptance of same-sex relationships, as said historical figure was gay.

    However. My main character does kinda fall for the white character. For a while, anyway. My plan was unrequited crush. I worry about this becoming problematic because a lot of mention is made of her pale skin, hair, etc (partly to drive home that hey readers! Pale skin is super-uncommon!). Though I’m trying to keep her reaction half-fascinated, half-creeped out at first.

    I’m hoping that this one love interest won’t be too problematic. The main character does eventually end up with someone else who is approximately Indian. She also develops the one unrequited crush after a brief relationship with someone outside her species, so…she’s already shown to have an unusual taste in the ladies.

    • Yay for relevance! And yay for more talented people writing fantasy featuring people of color and queer characters! Yay I say!

      It sounds like you’ve put good thought into it, and I think the fascination-tempered-by-creeped-out-ness is probably a good way to avoid the “smitten on sight with the magical beauty of Caucasian features” problem.

      Also, outside species? Do I possibly smell elves and/or fairies? Nic is intrigued.

      • Yeah, having people of color all over the place is really important to me for that novel. I hope it’s in a way that’s natural. It’s something I put thought into all those years I was mulling the story over.

        It’s also somewhat important for the story that the white character is an Other and from a different culture with different values.

        Do I possibly smell elves and/or fairies? Nic is intrigued.
        Ha! Dryads, actually, but within the world of the novel they’re called sprites.

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