Nominally, Toru: Wayfarer Returns is a steampunk book – at least, that’s sort of how it’s being marketed. And in many ways, that makes sense; it’s a book about 1800’s era Japan, in which a young man who has traveled America for several years returns to his homeland and attempts to warn his people about the pending arrival – and possible threat – of the American people. More than that, he attempts to rally a defense, forcing the famously rigid, traditional country to embrace new technology and inventions – trains, dirigibles, and more. In other words, there’s a lot of steampunk there, even if it’s a more mellow, grounded version of it.
But honestly, focusing on just the steampunk aspects of Toru sells it short, because more accurately, this is an alternate history book, one in which Japan heeds the warnings and threats posed by the outside world and slowly awakens to face those intruders. Indeed, rather than being pure wish fulfillment where Japan is suddenly awesome and formidable, Sorensen lets her plot unwind slowly, as the lords come around to these new ideas, and attempt to turn the nation’s tide through politics and persuasion.
It all ends up being more of a drama than an action book, and honestly, that only makes it all the stronger of a book. Sorensen’s portrait of Japan is a compelling one, and although there are the usual anachronisms here and there (most notably the headstrong, ahead-of-her time female character), Sorensen deals with them well (in the case of the aforementioned lead, she’s outspoken only when she knows it’s societally safe to do so, and knows how and when to act the part of the traditional figure – a far more interesting take than the brash young woman who doesn’t fit the time period at all), incorporating them into the history in a way that makes them feel appropriately used and less forced.
There are still some minor plotting issues with the book, mind you; for instance, the issue of Toru’s parentage seems unnecessarily complicated, especially with regard to his father, who is pretty obvious from the get go, and yet doesn’t step forward to claim his son. There seem to be reasons for this, and I was fine with it, until a long sequence in which a character is pondering all the reasons why it would be fine for that person to claim his son – and none of those are ever really answered. It ends up feeling like a plot thread that’s obscured for no immediately obvious reason, and distracts from the book. Less distracting but perhaps more unsatisfying is the romance plotline, which simmers for a bit before suddenly and abruptly resolving itself with little warning or explanation.
But even with those issues, there’s a lot to like about Toru: Wayfarer Returns. Rather than just a simple steampunk setting, Sorensen steeps her world in history, and finds a fascinating theme to play with: the conflict between tradition and the future, to say nothing of Japan’s complex relationship with the outside world. And she engages with that theme in a fun way, telling an engaging story about a political revolution that occurs through the will of people who see the writing on the wall. That choice gives the book more depth and complexity than you might expect, and turns it all into something far richer and more satisfying than just another simple thriller. Yes, it’s got its issues (and sometimes the success of our heroes strains credulity a bit), but I can’t deny that I enjoyed it all a lot, and will be eager to see the next book in the series.