Yzabel

Book reviews, and my personal reflections about writing.

Invisible Planets

Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation - Ken Liu

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

An interesting collection of science-fiction stories by Chinese authors—I didn't like all of them, but none was particularly bad either, and the themes and places they dealt with offered different perspectives on what I'm used to see throug a more "westernised" prism. I found both similarities and differences gathered here, making those stories familiar in parts, and a journey in unknown territories in others.

"The Year of the Rat": 3/5
Quite creepy in its theme (students without much of a job prospect are enlisted to fight mutant rats whose intelligence and abilities may be more than meet the eye), and in its conclusion, although I would've appreciated a bit more insight in the exact reasons why the whole situation turned like that.

"The Fish of Lijiang": 3/5
By the same author, and another take on a society where freedom is only an illusion, where everybody and everything is at their designed place.

"The Flower of Shazui:" 2/5
An ex-engineer who fled his designated area tries to help a prostitute whose desires aren't necessarily in check with her partner's. Still interesting, but less exciting?

"A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight": 4/5
The author later mentioned a few inspirations for this story, and I agree, for I could feel them (especially the Miyazaki-like tones of a district/street full of "ghosts", souls in robot bodies gradually getting discarded). I really liked the atmosphere in this one, and the sad ending was pretty fitting.

"Tongtong's Summer": 4/5
I read this one in another anthology already, but I liked it the second time round as well. Caretakers operate robots remotely in order to help elder people, and their increased role in society gives birth to other issues, but also to great hopes for a generation that, all in all, has still a lot to bring to the world. The characters were also attaching.

"Night Journey of the Dragon Horse": 2/5
A mechanical dragon and a bat go on a journey to bring back light to a dead world. Beautiful, but unfortunately a little boring.

"The City of Silence": 5/5
In a world become one State, what happens when so many words are forbidden that communicating becomes impossible?
Very chilling, because the way this State evolved is, in fact, extremely logical and cunning.

"Invisible Planets": 3/5
Glimpses into little worlds. I wouldn't mind seeing some of them explored more in depth... and at the same time, I feel they wouldn't have the same impact anymore if this was done? Very strange.

"Folding Beijing": 2/5
A city living in three different spaces, each alloted its own time of the day, and with inhabitants forbidden to cross from one space to the other. Which the main character wants to do, of course. Also interesting, however I felt the ending didn't have much of an impact on me. I kept expecting something more... dramatic?

"Call Girl": 3/5
The call girl's wares are fairly interesting here. I would've liked some more background about them, how she came to be able to provide such services.

"Grave of the Fireflies": 2/5
Loved the atmosphere, this rush through the stars to escape a dying universe, guided by the last queen of mankind... However the story itself felt too short and rushed.

"The Circle": 4/5
I could see where this one was going from the moment the gates were introduced, and I wasn't disappointed. I definitely liked how it was all brought.

"Taking care of God": 4/5
Depressing in a way, but dealing with a theme that I'd deem definitely different from my own 'western' vision, with taking care of one's parents and elders being part of culture in a way it isn't in my own corner of the world.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars

The Emperor in Shadow

Yamada Monogatori: The Emperor in Shadow - Richard Parks

[I received a copy of this novel through NetGalley.]

First, please note this is not a standalone novel, contrary to what I thought when I requested it, but part of a series (and very likely the last volume). However, I didn't find it difficult to follow the story and understand the characters: when the narrator alludes to events of the past or people he had previously met, he always adds a couple of sentences, nothing too long, just enough for a reader to understand the context. So this was good with me.

The setting here is that of feudal Japan (the Emperor and his court, bushi, military governors, geisha and courtesans) with a dash of supernatural: ghosts and youkai are common knowledge, and onmyôji and priestesses have actual power. In this world, Yamada and his faithful friend Kenji are confronted to attempted murder and political intrigue, from the Ise temple to the capital and the Emperor's court; I found the mystery decent enough, not too complicated (my guesses about a few things turned out to be right) yet not too easy either for the characters to understand, without convenient deus ex machina bringing the answers (Yamada deducted those).

It took me a couple of weeks to read, but it definitely wasn't boring (that was much more a matter of having lots of things to do and needing to prioritise other books in the meantime). The events made sense, the characters were likeable, and even though it's not my favourite novel ever, it was entertaining and believable.

On the downside, there were instances of Yamada 'hiding' things from the reader, which I don't particularly appreciate in mystery novels, and the female characters, while attaching, didn't have much to do apart from conveniently be here when a specific piece of information was needed, or wait in their palace for the men to do all the work. Granted, the setting itself doesn't lend itself to a lot of female freedom (aristocratic constraints, expectations placed on princesses, and so on), but it didn't help.

Conclusion: Still enjoyable in spite of these flaws.

Look Who's Back

Look Who's Back - Timur Vermes

Provocative satire, that is definitely not "pro-Hitler", but also raises quite a few interesting points when our modern societies are concerned. Mainly, the power of the media; the way one can use it to ends that aren't the ones the audience thinks; and how it can be easy enough for a person with heinous ideas to abuse people who are mostly nice into paving the way for a monster. And let's be honest, considering some current events, this satiric novel is also very, very frightening when you think about it.

Big Mushy Happy Lump

Big Mushy Happy Lump: A Sarah's Scribbles Collection - Sarah Andersen

(I received a copy of this book through NetGalley).

A little disappointing, compared to the first book, which I really liked. Although it was still spot on in many ways, it didn't feel as funny—perhaps because of the choice of panels this time, or perhaps because some of those were already present in volume 1, so I admit I didn't really see the point in including them again here. I was also expecting more 'summer-related' panels, owing to the blurb. Maybe the blurb was ill-chosen?

As mentioned above, it's still pretty accurate regarding many aspects of life (cats! And cats on Instagram!). But it's much too repetitive.

Conclusion: Only buy it if you never checked the author's website and haven't read book 1.

Mr. Rosenblum's List

Mr. Rosenblum's List: or Friendly Guidance For The Aspiring Englishman - Natasha Solomons

Funny in places, but I admit I'd have liked it more if it has been more about "how to be(come) English" in general, and less about the whole golf court thing (I really don't care about golf, the topic bores me).

When the Moon Was Ours

When the Moon was Ours: A Novel - Anna-Marie McLemore

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

Enchanting and full of diversity, although the flowery prose didn't convince me.

The book opens on Miel and Sam, a skittish girl with roses growing out of her wrist, and a boy who doesn't exactly know if he wants to be a boy or go back to being a girl. In itself, this was an interesting premise, as both characters were searching for their inner truth, all lthe while being surrounded by lies (or what they perceived at such): Miel's memory—not exactly the most reliable; what Aracely, Miel's adoptive guardian, knows and what she doesn't say; Sam having to hide his body in everyday life; and the Bonner sisters, with their red hair and their mysterious ways, four girls acting as one, enchantresses ensnaring boys and wielding their own kind of power that always gets them what they want in the end.

There's more magical realism than actual magic here, although Aracely's ability to cure heartbreak, as well as her being a self-professed curandera, definitely hint at 'witchcraft'. It's more about the way things are shown and described, in the moons Sam paints and hangs outside people's windows, in the roses growing out of Miel's skin, in the rumoured stained glass coffin meant to make girls more beautiful, in how modern life and themes (immigrants in a small town, transgender teenagers, fear of rejection, or the practice of bacha posh, which I didn't know about before reading this book...) intertwine with poetry and metaphor, with images of rebirth and growing up and accepting (or realising) who you're meant to be. Not to mention racial diversity, instead of the usual 'all main protagonists are whiter than white.'

To be honest, though, as much as the prose was beautiful at first, in the end it seemed like it was trying too much, and the story suffered from too many convoluted paragraphs and redundant descriptions & flashbacks. As it was, even though I liked this book in general, I found myself skimming in places that felt like déjà vu. Granted, it's much more a character- than a plot-driven novel, but I'm convinced all the prose could've been toned down, and it would have remained beautiful without sometimes running in circles and drowning the plot now and then.

Conclusion: 2.5 stars.

Strange Magic

Strange Magic - James Hunter

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

A fun enough read in the UF genre, even though it dragged enough in places, and some things would've needed more development.

This book is packed with grit, action and magic suited to it, with a no-nonsense main character who wasn't the most interesting ever, but likeable enough, in a sort of Noir way. This is the kind of character who'll try to do the right thing, even if it means getting into dire straits, and I can seldom fault that: at least that's a laudable motivation, and I've seen much, much worse in terms of not getting one's priorities straight.

The novel reads a bit differently in terms of supernatural creatures involved: there's magic, sure, but not the usual vampires or werewolves—the 'monsters' we get to see are more of the Rakshasa or extra-dimensional variety, which is a nice change.

Also, no useless romance, so bonus point as far as I'm concerned. Yancy's family doesn't exactly count, the 'romance' already happened—but there's definitely something to unveil here in the next book(s), because why he had to leave them is not very clear.

On the downside, as previously said, the story itself dragged in some parts, causing me to skim more than read; some editing would've been good here, and same with the various flashbacks or inserts about this or that fact. (The latter made me think, 'why not?', but they tended to break the flow of action when they occurred during, well, action scenes, which is to say regularly.) This reflected on the characters in general: had they been more developed, they would've been more interesting to follow. Not to mention the lack of female characters, apart from a passing mention and a hostage.

The antagonist's motives weren't deep enough (so the guy doesn't want to kill, but he still plans on having many people die to further his goal, but he doesn't like and wish things were different, but he's still going with it... Huh?), and when considering the plot as a whole, that was a seriously weak point. There were those serious stakes, pitching gangs against each other, trying to get Yancy killed while we're at it, involving dangerous creatures, for a motive that didn't hold much water and didn't make a lot of sense because it was so likelyl to backfire anyway.

Still, I think this series would have potential, were it to give more room to its characters to evolve, so I'll give the second book a try.

The Girl Before

The Girl Before: A Novel - JP Delaney

[I received a copy of this book through Edelweiss.]

When Jane applies to live at One Folgate Street, a minimalist house designed b y famous architect Edward Monkford, after recently suffering bereavment, she doesn't know yet that another woman, Emma, lived there before her, and that events surrounding her were not of the good kind. What matters is that even though the house comes with two hundred rules designed to make it the perfectly ordered and uncluttered, the rent is cheap, and it's an opportunity at starting a new life and letting go of a painful past. But Emma's shadow is everywhere: in the place she inhabited, in how the landlord used to perceive her, in how the house started to shape her... and the same thing may happen to Jane.

Well, this novel was quite readable, and I took pleasure (and was thrilled) at discovering gradually, through a double narrative, what happened to Emma and what is now happening to Jane: their reasons for moving into the house, their personal lives, what tragedies befell them and how those kept affecting them, as well as the parallels slowly drawn between them. There's a constant game of similarities intertwining here, only to better highlight the differences and subsequent reveals, for neither Emma nor Jane are exactly who we think they are at first.

Granted, some of these revelations are a little convoluted. In hindsight, there's also nothing invalidating them, and provided one's willing to take a "what if?" approach, rather than expecting answers and explanations set in stone, well, it can work. They are problematic in some ways, though, for reasons I won't explain here as not to spoil, but let's just say that these are unreliable narrators we're speaking of here, and lies or at least things unsaid are a big part of this story. Including infuriating lies.

I wasn't satisfied with the ending—to be honest, I much preferred the beginning and the gradual increase in tension, when I was still wondering if there had been a murder or if it was suicide, and if the culprit was who I thought it was, or not. The ending... well, let's say it was a bit of a letdown, with a last, questionable twist related to 'perfection vs. imperfection' that I found callous and uncalled for. Again, no spoilers, but frankly, it was unnecessary (and I don't think it plays very well either into the theme of 'sterile perfection and narcissism' in Edward's little world).

Conclusion: Enjoyable throughout, only it didn't reach its full potential in the end.

All Darling Children

All Darling Children - Jaimey Grant;Wendy Swore;Rita J. Webb;Paige Ray;Jeanne Voelker;K. G. Borland;Gwendolyn McIntyre;Katrina Monroe;S. M. Carrière

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

I read Barrie's book, as well as watched Disney's Peter Pan movie, so long ago that I honestly can't remember all details. Still, this retelling looked interesting, and so I decided to give it a try.

Madge, Wendy's granddaughter, lives a not-so-happy life with her grandma, and keeps trying to escape to find her mother who may or may not be in Chicago. One night, when she finally gets a chance to leave, she gets spirited to Neverland: another chance, one to learn more about her family, her mum, and everything Wendy never told her. However, Neverland quickly turns out to be more terrifying than an enchanted island full of fairies and forever-boys. Clearly not the fairy tale a lot of children and people think about when they hear the name of 'Peter Pan' mentioned.

There are interesting themes and ideas in this book: what the boys' rituals involve exactly, what happened to Jane, the slow disintegration of Neverland, what happened to Hook and Tiger Lily... I've always liked the "Hook as an ambiguous villain" approach, and here, he's definitely of the ambiguous kind, since it's 1) difficult to know if he wants to help or hinder, and 2) he's no saint, but Pan is no saint either, so one can understand the bad blood between those two.

I was expecting more, though, and had trouble with some inconsistencies throughout the story. The time period, for one: it seems Madge is living in the 1990s-2000s—welll, some very close contemporary period at any rate—, which doesn't fit with the early-1900s of the original story. I know it's not the main focus, yet it kept bothering me no matter what: there's no way Wendy could still be alive, or at least fit enough to bring up a teenager, and she would've had to give birth to Madge's mother pretty late in life as well. And since there's no hint that 'maybe she stayed in Neverland for decades, which is why Jane was born so late,' so it doesn't add up. Also, Michael is still alive at the end? How long has it been? He must be over 100 or something by then.

None of the characters particularly interested me either. I liked the concept of Pan as tyrant, but I would've appreciate more background on this. And while Madge was described as someone who was strong enough to make things change, her actions throughout the story didn't exactly paint her in that light; it was more about the other characters saying she was like that, or telling her what she had to do, and her reacting.

I found the ending a bit of an anticlimax. Things went down a bit too easily (I had expected more cunning, or more of a fight, so to speak?)... though props on the very last chapter for the people it shows, and for being in keeping with the grim underlying themes of Neverland (kids who 'never grow up', huh).

Conclusion: Worth a try, but definitely not as good as what I expected from a Peter Pan retelling.

The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K. Le Guin

The society and humans depicted in this book have fascinating sides: for instance, the subtle and complex social/political/cultural dance of 'shifgrethor'; or the fact that Gethen's inhabitants are sexually neutral most of the time, except during 'kemmer', where they get sexually active and can become either male or female, without any set rule here.

However, some things definitely bothered me:

- The negative qualities associated with female gender, openly or not. Genly tends to do that a lot, and while it may be part of his insight as the only alien on this world, I just couldn't reconcile this disdain for 'feminine characteristics' (don't start me on how everything feminine is so often associated to weakness/lazy/corrupting/and so on) with the image of broad acceptance conveyed by the Ekumen (a federation of dozens of diverse worlds) he represents. I mean, so you're willing to embrace a world in which everyone's basically a hermpahrodite, but you still can't get over Eve the Imperfect Temptress? Come on.

That's all the more surprising, coming from a female author. Although, to be honest, I've found that women can be often worse than men when it comes to disdain towards their own sex. Meh.

- Also, since Genly calls every Gethenian a 'he', it gives a male colouring to every character he meets. A 'zé', 'they' or whatever else would have been so much more appropriate.

- A quarter of the book or so is devoted to travelling for hundreds of miles on ice, in blizzard storms, etc. I'm really not for 'travel novels' anymore, if I ever was, and this was a pretty boring part for me.

- The basis for Gethen is, as said, fascinating, but not exploited enough.

The Cygnus Virus

The Cygnus Virus - T.J. Zakreski

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

 

This is rather an oddball. I couldn’t decide whether I somewhat liked it, or if it just wasn’t for me. So in the end, I guess I’m going with a “meh” rating.

 

This story comes with a blend of crazy sci-fi, people encoding themselves in virtual space, cloning experiments, and religious fanaticism. The parallels with our world are not only obvious but totally on purpose and often played for laughs (the Holy Cloth, lawyer jokes, and so on). This was for the most part enjoyable, and provided for a background that was both unknown but easy to understand.

 

The “Cygnus Virus” is also, let’s be honest, a troll, and in a way, it was fun to read about (well, provided one doesn’t squirm at the prospect of porn-bombing descriptions and e-mails containing goat pictures and the likes). Not a very “pleasant” character, for sure, and one that struck me as more immature than anything else, not to mention the bleak surroundings and situations he created for Andron and others; still, that cloning project was both hilarious and genius, when you think about it (imagine injecting a /b/-level troll into the cloned body of the next Messiah… yeah, Charlie-Foxtrot much?). OK, it’s vulgar. The Berlin sim had a vulgar side, too, however at the same time it foreshadowed the kind of decision Andron would probably have to make later, and that was interesting. And he tries, the poor guy, doing the best he can with what he has.

 

And the ending. Cosmic irony to the power of ten. I liked that.

 

On the other hand… the present tense narration just grated on my nerves from beginning to end—I think this is part of the reason why I never warmed up to the book in general. In some cases, it works, in others it fails.

 

Moreover, I think the story could’ve gone a bit further in Andron’s motivations and/or Cygnus’s behaviour. Considering the blurb, I expected Andron to be more ruthless, and conversely, Cygnus was more like a kid throwing a tantrum, which was fun, but dampened the potential for Evil he was bringing to Terra.

 

Conclusion: I liked most of the story’s themes, even though it could’ve done with less sex-troll material and with more seriously-evil instead, but the narrative tense and the outcome (and outlook on life) of some of the characters were perhaps a bit too… well, too b leak to my liking.

The Gate to Women's Country

The Gate to Women's Country - Sheri S. Tepper

Some scenes and characters I enjoyed (Morgot and Septemius more than the main characters, to be honest), but the oversimplification of the different societies described, as well as sexuality and relationships, didn't look very "feminist" to me. It was more a matter of "all men are brutes" (it never addresses how their upbringing between the ages of 5 and 15 in a garrison may be part of why they're violent), "all women are meant/want to breed" (I'm kind of feeling insulted here) and "homosexuality is caused by hormone imbalance during pregnancy, but it's been taken care of now, yay" (yeah, definitely insulted here).

The #MonuMeta Social Media Book

The #MonuMeta Social Media Book - Roger Warner [I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.] This one was a bit of a strange read—I guess I could categorise it as an over-the-top near-future sci-fi cum fairies blend, with an underlying funny criticism of social media, abusing technology, and PR stunts? Even though it took me longer to read than I expected (mostly because I had library books I had to finish in a hurry!), in the end it was a positive read, and I had fun. The story follows the shenanigans of animated statues, ex-librarians become janitors in a museum converted into offices for a software and social media company, genius programmers sometimes too engrossed in their code for their own goods, spirits of a fairy persuasion, and execs with a shady agenda in the name of their real boss. It has highly amusing moments (the Endless Demo!) as well as scary ones (Tara and her bucket of fake bacon in Tank #6)—yes, those vaguebooking-like descriptions are on purpose, since conveying all the weirdness of that future!London isn't so easy in just a couple of sentences. Obviously, the nonsense is on the surface; it does make a lot of sense underneath, provided you set aside all questions about "how can statues be animated" and "why would a person's skin spontaneously turn blue", which aren't so important, in fact. I didn't need explanations here to willingly suspend my disbelief, which is good. What mattered were the dangers looming over our "heroes", and these were of a kind that could very well hit home at some point: that is, to which extent our daily immersion into the web and social websites, our obsession with sharing everything and knowing everything about each other online, may end up being abused and affecting us in ways we hadn't imagined. Behind the humour and the antics of a bunch of misfits sometimes not very well-equipped to understand each other, lies this kind of questioning. On the downside, sometimes the plot seemed to meander and lose itself, in a way that I can probably blame on plot holes rather than on "it's meant to be weird." (I tend to consider that a "nonsensical" story still needs an internal logic of its own to function properly, even if that logic seems complete nonsense on the outside. I hope I'm making sense here.) The villains were also a bit too much of the cartoonish kind, and while it can be fun, I keep thinking they would have remained fun yet more credible if that trait hadn't been enhanced. Conclusion: 3 stars—but that's because over the top tends to be my thing, so if it isn't yours, maybe you'll like it less, though.

Battlestar Galactica: Six

Battlestar Galactica: Six - J. T. Krul

[I received a copy of this comics through NetGalley.]

In general, I found the artwork here problematic. The covers—both internal and external—are striking and often dramatic, and one of the reasons I requested this book; they easily evoked the internal turmoil and the ambiguity that I expect from Six. On the other hand, the inside panels, more specifically their characters, aren't consistent enough, and not really recognisable. Which is a problem, indeed, considering they should look like their counterparts in the TV series, but don't. Or not much. I probably wouldn't care as much about this if the comics was a series on its own, however when it's about translating real faces/actors to paper, it's all the more easy to notice when it fails. Moreover, it didn't convey the kind of feeling that would've paved the way to TV!Six, with her blend of seduction, ruthlessness and questioning.

I didn't enjoy the storytelling either. I was expecting something more enthralling, that would play on Six's psyche, what happened, what shaped her and set the foundations for how she would develop in the TV episodes. Well, it did try to explore those aspects, but the narrative(s) were too disjointed to make sense early, creating a sense of confusion—one that confuses the reader, rather than actually echoing the character's. Also, I wouldn't recommend it to someone who's never watched the series: some tie-ins are understandable even when you don't know the original universe, some others aren't, and this one is part of the latter category.

Conclusion: 1.5 stars.

Heartless

Heartless - Marissa Meyer

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

 

Hm. I liked the premise (telling the story of the Queen of Hearts before Alice came to Wonderland), however there were parts when I was a little... bored?

Catherine Pinkerton, daughter of a Marchess, loves nothing more than to bake, and dreams of opening a bakery with her maid and best friend Mary Ann, rather than just marrying some rich nobility son that she won't even love. Of course, her plans get thwarted when she catches the attention of the King... or are they? When the new Court's joker waltzes into the play, things change again, and this time, Cath may have a chance at true love. Except... We all know how the Queen of Hearts behaves in Carroll's story, so we also know that whatever Fate has in store for those characters, it's not a happy ending.

 

It's not so easy to write a (re)telling of something whose end is already well-known, and while it was problematic, some aspects I really liked. The beginning had a certain vibrancy, what's with the cake/bakery imagery and Catherine's dreams, not to mention Jest's first appearance during the ball, and the darker parts, including the meeting with the three sisters, were creepy in their own ways.

 

The main problem I had with this novel were its characters, and I think that had a lot to do with how I knew (or at least suspected) it would end. This time, it's not even a case of insta-love—Cath's and Jest's relationship progresses quickly, but frankly, I've also seen much, much worse in that regard—more a case of characters trying to let their own personality develop and shine through, only to be put back on rails in order for the story to end up where it should. I found this too bad for them, to be honest; I suspect they would've been more interesting had they been able to live their own tale fully. As a result, Catherine especially ended up rather passive and unappealing, stuck between a sort of Regency-like society where noble girls marry noble men and must remain silent and pretty in their corsets, a holier-than-thou attitude (ironically mirroring Margaret's without never realising it), and twists meant to turn her into the Queen of Hearts, yet too predictable to really hit home. The courtship period was infuriating, what's with all her refusing the King but never telling it to his face, letting things happen, then worrying that she'll have to marry him and not be with the man she actually loves, but still not doing anything, until it was too late and whatever she'd do would just end up badly (also it's the others' fault, never hers... great).

 

Other problems were the writing (not bad, but nothing exceptional either), and the pacing: especially in the second third, the story dragged and felt padded out—that was when I started struggling to keep on reading, before getting to the last/darker part. While the kingdom of Hearts had a 'cutesy' and colourful side that I quite liked, it didn't enthrall me (Chess with its warring Queens seemed more exciting?), perhaps because half the book at least was devoted to parties and balls and a more traditional "arranged marriage" plot, instead of playing on a more Wonderland-like atmosphere.

 

Conclusion: Well, I expected more, and this is clearly a case of a story whose characters would have been better left to their own devices.

Tôru: Wayfarer Returns

Toru: Wayfarer Returns (Sakura Steam Series Book 1) - Stephanie R. Sorensen

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

 

More an alternate history novel than a truly steampunk one, “Tôru: Wayfarer Returns” deals with late feudal Japan faced with the potential intruding of American civilisation—more specifically, the last years of the Tokugawa bakumatsu, and the arrival of Commander Perry and his “black ships”. The idea: what if, instead of feeling inferior to this technology, Japan at the time had had an industrial revolution of its own, and had been able to withstand such demonstration of power?

 

Enters Tôru, a young fisherman who, after being shipwrecked, was saved by Americans, and spent two years in their country before coming back to Japan with books, blueprints, and lots, lots of ideas about how to revolutionise his country for the day Westerners come to impose their trade and culture on it. Things aren’t meant to be easy for him, first and foremost because bringing western books and machinery to these lands, and sneaking in at night, are deemed traitorous acts, punishable by death. When Lord Aya catches wind of this, his first reaction is to get the traitor executed. Except that ideas are contagious, and Tôru’s more than others.

 

This first volume in the “Sakura Steam” series shows how a handful of daimyôs and commoners manage to find common ground to dig the foundations of Japan’s industrialisation: first in secrecy, then by ensuring the support of some of the most powerful coastal lords, to make sure that when the Shôgun hears about this (and he will), they’ll have grounds to argue their case, machines to show off, and engineers to explain how said machines will allow their country to stand strong and proud. These rebels definitely go against the stream in many ways, by also allowing commoners and women to take part in engineering trains and dirigibles. And even though some characters are (understandably, considering their upbringing) against this, they do try and see how this could change the world, and acknowledge that such “unexpected people” will do good and have a place in this new order. Not to mention that Jiro the blacksmith, or Masuyo the noble lady, are pleasant characters to see evolve, and I liked when they had parts to play; even some of the more unpleasant characters, like Lady Tômatsu, had their redeeming features.

 

However, while this is all very exciting, I could never really shake my suspension of disbelief, because everything happened both much too fast and sometimes too slowly as well:
- The “rebels” should logically have been discovered sooner.
- And, more importantly, building railroad tracks, engines, a fleet of dirigibles, a telegraph network, etc, in secrecy, with the (limited) means of a handful of daimyôs, in less than one year, seemed too far-fetched to be believable. Granted, they had blueprints and all; on the other hand, all those engineers had to learn from scratch, only from those blueprints not even in Japanese, translated and explained only by Tôru who isn’t even an engineer, and… Well. Really, really hard to believe. Had it been done in a few years rather than a few months, I probably would have been, paradoxically, more excited about it.
- At times the narrative devolves into explanations about the political views during the Bakumatsu, the fixed place of samurai vs. commoners—which is interesting, but was dumped in between scenes. It would have been more welcome if better intertwined with the dialogue and action, which in turn would also have left more room to the characters to fully interact, giving us a better feel for them.
- It would’ve been more interesting IMHO to see a different “industrialisation”, and not a mere “westernisation” of Japan. Something that would’ve mixed traditional/feudal ways with modern weaponry, instead of having basically one or the other.
- Minor pet peeve: Tôru’s secret, which he takes great pains to hide, but is much too obvious to the reader, almost from the beginning.

 

Conclusion: I wish it had been more “believable” in terms of alternate history, and had provided a different path than the expected one.