3.5ish.Stormdancer was one of my most eagerly anticipated reads of this year, between the excellent premise and the endless rave reviews I kept seeing of it - but it almost didn't make it out of the gate. I've mentioned before that I'll often decide whether to buy a book based on the first few pages, paragraphs, or even lines; if I was using that criteria to judge whether to buy Stormdancer, well... my monies would have gone elsewhere. Which would be a shame, because I actually ended up liking it quite a lot. The problem is, this has a VERY slow start. This isn't necessarily surprising: a lot of debut authors initially seem to lack confidence in their world-building abilities (and in their audience to understand and go with it), and so tend to go way overboard with the info-dumping. They feel the reader has to know absolutely everything before they can move forward, or it'll be too confusing, rather than realizing that you can let us know what we need to know when we need to know it. (This is especially true of fantasy debuts, which is understandable, but also painful.)Kristoff is guilty of this; there's SO MUCH crammed into SO LITTLE SPACE. Thing is, it's okay not to know everything - plot points can be revealing, they can help build the world even as we're already in it, and this can actually have more impact. It's okay to discover things as we move along - so long as we can move along. The story was - I can't even say it was halted, because I don't think it even really began until about page 50*. All the rest was set-up for the world and the characters (and it was set-up that could have been accomplished much more quickly and efficiently, especially as it was reinforced throughout). It became very muddled and bogged down in the minutiae; I almost gave up, and I was really expecting this to end up on my timesuck shelf, which would have made me very, very sad.(* This is not an exaggeration. I distinctly remember looking down and checking the page when I finally noticed the story picking up and the world-building irritating me less - it was page 49.)BUT. I've been around the bookshelf enough to know that sometimes, in cases like this (with a debut author; with a premise you want to love; with an epic fantasy; with a genre mash-up), if you just stick around and plow through the patchy beginning, you may find a gem underneath. (Afterall, one of my all-time favorite books had me cursing and threatening to throw it for the first 40 or so pages - and now I reread it regularly...) So I stuck with it. I refused to give in. And praise sweet baby thundertigers, if it didn't not only get better, but damn awesome. Once it got going (about the time the arishitora - aka thundertiger - comes into the picture), it became very enjoyable, and I didn't once doubt the world or style again. That's impressive. For me to be so on edge and doubting in the beginning, I would expect the same issues to crop up again here and there, but other than one teensy bobble, they didn't. Once we got over the arduousness of laying the scene, we got down to what I was looking forward to (a Japanese steampunkish myth-based animal companion story), and I ate it up. I love a good animal companion story, and this was excellent in that regards - loved Yukiko, loved Buruu, and Yukiko + Buruu = more than the sum of their parts. This is how a good animal companion story should work, and it should make me feel slightly fuzzy, mostly jealous, and invested 100%. ☑I absolutely ADORED how they grew together.Aside from the animal companion aspect, one of the things I was looking forward to most was the strong-female-character-doesn't-need-a-love-triangle thing, which has been pushed a bit in reviews and the book's description. I do have to say, it doesn't ignore those tropes completely - it actually crept perilously close to those lines... But Yukiko's not a damsel, and she's not too swoony/sighy, so the book is saved from that, though it doesn't avoid it altogether. What makes it work - and what makes saying it's not a "love-triangle book" not seem like a lie - is the way it's used: it ends up being very dark and very adult, much more realistic and less bodice-ripping than one thinks of when dealing with "love triangles" and all of the annoyances attached. And this is the best way to approach the strong-female-character-doesn't-need-a-love-triangle thing, I think. You don't have to be absolutely anti-love, anti-weakness, anti-flaws, anti-femininity to make it work; no, you just have to be realistic, and let some of the harsher realities bleed in to the fantasy world. Kristoff did this well, and my blackened little heart was pleased.And those were the things that this whole book hinged on for me; thank god they worked. But I have to say, as a bonus: I also love that it works as a stand-alone. It is a series, and I knew that going in, but in this day of endless series' it's always nice to have the option of whether to go on or leave it as is. I've gotten so used to the gimmicky "pick up the next installment to find out!" type of series endings that I'm just thrilled when one comes along that's confident enough to stand on it's two legs (or, um, last chapters) and say: This is it; if you want more, there will be more, but this is how this part ends. Stormdancer ends on solid-enough ground that it makes for a great open-ended stand-alone, while still leaving plenty of room to grow as a series. I love when series books end in such a manner, and I love when authors/editors respect the audience and story enough to not feel like they have to "hook" the reader into a next book by leaving you hanging with the first book. It shows a confidence in the story, that they think you'll want to come back anyway, and it actually makes me much more receptive to reading more in the series, knowing they will feel complete.So, I guess in the end, I'd say Stormdancer is highly recommended, but with a caveat - you either need to be a patient reader willing to slog through the beginning and have everydamnthing thrown at you until it starts to stick, OR you need to be willing to skim the beginning. But if you're willing to get over the initial hump, it's smooth sailing flying from there on out.**PLEASE NOTE: This review was part of the official Stormdancer blog tour; I received an advance copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Check out the other stops on the tour here!