Title: Toru: Wayfarer Returns
Author: Stephanie R. Sorensen
Publisher: Palantir Press
Genre: Alternate History, Steampunk
Source: Netgalley Ebook
Toru: Wayfarer Returns is a ‘what if’ novel, the first in a series which retells Japan’s history from 1850 with a steampunk twist. The main character is a mysterious fisherman called Toru who returns to isolationist Japan with news and developments from America. His arrival sets in motion a time of scheming, building and preparation which culminates with the arrival of Commodore Perry to their shores.
The plot of this book is an interesting one. With only the potential threat of an American invasion as the driving force for the main characters, the risk that they are facing seems quite large. While there are slow parts of it, the book really shines where the risk and conflict takes a head, and where the focus hones in on a couple of characters.
With the way that this book is written, it is difficult to get inside the characters’ heads and understand them fully. For much of the book, I found myself feeling like I was looking at events through a window, or as a bystander. That being said, the characters are distinct and you do start to appreciate their existence in the book. Jiro was a personal favourite, but Toru also made for a very interesting figure (although I did find this mystery of his parentage drag on a bit – the reader knows who it is for a long time before Toru actually says it out loud).
Reading a novel where America is the enemy and Japan takes centre-stage makes for a delightful read. The novel gives an insight into Japanese history (albeit retold to take a different route, but you do get an idea of the reality), it also gives an insight into Japanese culture which made me really quite aware of how disappointingly little I know of Japan.
I’m not completely sure how I feel about how quickly the technology was accepted and built, but seeing how it meshed with traditional routes of transport and how it was not completely perfect was fun to see.
I enjoyed this book. It was a fascinating read and I really liked seeing how the plot developed and how the author mixed steampunk into actual history. However, it did feel like it was missing something, which I think mostly stemmed from the fact I could not really get to know the characters, so what stakes there were did not have quite as much impact. However, I do think this is a good start to a series and I am interested to see where it is headed now that the world has been set up. The hint of fantasy also makes me wonder if that will play a bigger part of later books and how that will mix with the steampunk side of it.