3 out of 4 stars
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Having lived in America for two years after a shipwreck, Tōru, a young fisherman, arrives back in his native Japan—and his life is immediately in danger. Mid-nineteenth-century Japan is an isolated country. The nation’s military leader, the Shogun, forbids the Japanese from returning to the land after traveling abroad. Even so, Tōru defies the law in hopes of saving his country in Tōru: Wayfarer Returns, an alternate history novel by author Stephanie R. Sorensen.
The Americans taught Tōru a great deal during his time overseas. He has learned to speak English and understands how American customs and ideologies differ from those in Japan, a much older nation. Tōru also gathered key information about technology in America. The young, industrialized country is determined to see Japan cease its isolation and open up for trade, even if America must force Japan to do so. Tōru believes it will take nothing less than modernization, an industrial revolution, for Japan to defend itself against foreign invasion. Unfortunately, guiding a revolution would be a challenge for Tōru, to say the least, when the sentence for his return to Japan is death.
With a display of juxtaposing images, this novel’s dramatic book cover accurately sets up the story. The samurai warrior represents longstanding tradition, and the dirigible in the sky forecasts an imminent, more modern era. The novel is rich with historical details of Japan, from locations and social customs to fashion and cuisine.
The author brings a mix of political intrigue among the samurai, violence and battle tactics, a thread of romance, and an eclectic cast of multi-class characters. While the story is firmly based in historical fact, and it even includes some actual historical figures, the author weaves speculation into the plot as it veers from history. Tōru’s ideas and motives especially illustrate how a nation might need to change its status quo to strengthen itself for the future.
Now, although it includes violence and intrigue, this book is not fast-paced or action-packed overall. Most of the story moves at an unhurried, contemplative pace. However, one aspect of the story rushes in a glaring way. In realistic terms, it would take years to implement an industrial revolution on the scale this novel describes. This would be particularly true for a nation that has long been removed from advancing technology and does not have all of the necessary supplies. What should progress over the course of years takes far less time in this book.
While the novel is written in English, the characters are supposed to be speaking only in Japanese for most of the story. Hence, it seems strange whenever they repeat themselves in dialogue, first saying phrases in Japanese, and then, in essence, interpreting themselves in English. Moreover, because the story is set in the 1850s, it seems less than fitting that some of the novel’s quotes are from contemporary figures, at a few of the chapter openings.
Nevertheless, despite its flaws in timing and other technical weaknesses, this novel thoughtfully portrays real and imagined history, highlighting a relevant theme of social change. Therefore, I give Tōru: Wayfarer Returns a rating of 3 out of 4 stars. I'd recommend it to historical fiction and alternate history fans, especially those with an interest in premodern Japan.
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