Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Book Review: Toru: Wayfarer Returns by Stephanie Sorensen

Pros: interesting characters, good ending

Cons: advances are made ridiculously fast, some continuity errors, gets boring at times

After spending two years in America, Toru returns to Japan, defying the Shogun’s law of isolation and the death penalty his return will earn him. He knows American ships will come, forcing the country to open its borders on their terms, unless Japan can innovate and show its strength in time.

Toru is a great protagonist, deeply in love with his homeland but also an admirer of the technology and people he met in America. He straddles a difficult line as a commoner advising a Lord, trying to foster quick changes in a society that honours tradition.

I really liked Masuyo, Lord Aya’s feisty daughter. Her flaunting of custom on her father’s land was well contrasted by her embarrassment in front of other noble women, where she tried to fit society’s ideals. This accurately portrays the juxtapositions common in Japan today.

There were a lot of supporting characters, ranging from peasantry to Lords, many of whom had well defined personalities. While she’s negatively portrayed, I thought Lady Tomatsu was well done, snobbish and overly proud of her family name while married to a less powerful Lord. I liked that she had impeccable taste in food and clothing. I also thought she showed astute political sense, given her circumstances, though she makes a decision towards the end of the book that could have used more clarification as it seemed to go against her earlier personality.

The plot consists of Toru convincing people to build trains, telegraph machines, Babbage Difference Engines, airships, and more in order to face the American threat. While I can believe that some of what they accomplish is possible within a year, the sheer scope of their operations and how much they achieve - necessarily kept hidden from the Shogun and requiring parts to be ordered from overseas - is hard to believe. Masuyo, an admittedly intelligent and well-educated woman, somehow translates enough English (which she’s never seen before) and engineering data (for things she’s never heard of before) in less than a week to put together a list in one night of all thing parts the Japanese can manufacture themselves and others they’ll need to order so that they can start building trains, etc. right away. Despite the failure of engineers with more experience in France to build working airships, the Japanese manage to make one using dictionaries to translate the French and then improving on the designs, again, despite never having seen such schematics before or (I would guess) knowing the science behind them.

I also wondered how the smaller Lords Toru influences have enough money to finance the large - and expensive - projects. Added to this is how they believed they could keep what they were doing hidden from the Shogun. Given the sheer number of people involved and the obvious damage to the land, it seems unreasonable to believe the Shogun wasn’t aware of things from a very early point. 

For anyone looking for steampunk elements, there are airships towards the end of the book, and mention of submersibles, but not much else.

The inclusion of Japanese words and phrases for things helped keep the oriental flavour of the setting. In a few places the immediate translation felt awkward (as someone who knows a fair bit of Japanese), like ofuro bath (which basically mean the same thing). A handful of times the Japanese was left untranslated, which might trip up readers unfamiliar with the language. I personally had trouble figuring out the meaning behind the name of the first dirigible, which was commented on, but not translated (as far as I could determine).

There were some long sentences with awkward phrasing that I had to reread a few times in order to understand properly. I also noticed some continuity errors with regards to timing. One section began by saying it was the next morning and a character was preparing for a meeting, despite the fact that the meeting was to be in 3 days. Other times characters suddenly travelled weeks worth of distance in a few days (two characters were said to be at their homes but managed to be at least a 4 week journey away from their homes the next day). 

While I founds parts of the story a bit tedious, it’s basically set-up for future books where the divergence from history becomes more stark. There’s an author note at the end of the book explaining how this book compares to history (while the tech advance is all added, the meeting with Commodore Perry at the end and the difficulties between the Shogun and his Lords was cribbed from history). Following books are meant to diverge more, showing Japan in a position of power as its borders open.

While it’s not a perfect book, it was an interesting look at an interesting time (imagined as parts of it were) of Japanese history. The author’s familiarity with the language and customs (and gestures) shows through.


Lady Tomatsu’s decision to leave Edo during Masuyo’s rescue confused me. She’d repudiated her husband in an effort to retain her lands for their son. The author didn’t make it clear that this only worked so long as her husband returned for his execution. Since he decided not to return, she and their son would be execution in his stead. This confused me until I figured out that the situation had changed between when Lady Tomatsu urged Masuyo to repudiate her father, thinking their menfolk dead, and the time of Lady Tomatsu’s rescue.

The travellers alluded to in my time error above are Lords Aya and Tomatsu, who are supposed to be prepping their lands for their upcoming execution, but turn up at Lord Date’s home the day after Toru and co escape from Edo. Another time error involved the date of the execution. It’s 3 weeks away, but somehow Commodore Perry spends a month or more in the South of Japan before the date arrives.

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