The Tokaido Road by Lucia St. Clair Robson

I’ve had a slight obsession with Japanese culture since high school. I find it fascinating and its depictions beautiful in a way that I can barely comprehend. This book had a lot of expectations to live up to, especially considering the fact that it took the Connecticut library system over two weeks to order and deliver it to me.

The Tokaido Road is an adventure-ish epic set in the tumultuous landscape of feudal Japan. Cat, the illegitimate daughter of Lord Asano, must flee for her life down the treacherous Tokaido while gathering the strength to avenge her father against the insidious Lord Kira (yes, that same guy from 47 Ronin). On the surface, the story seems exciting. And it certainly has its engrossing moments, but as a whole I found my feelings for it to be very inconsistent.

Take the beginning, for example. The story opens with an attempted murder which sparks her immediate flight down the Tokaido (alone, too, which is unheard of). But not long after the exciting opener, the pace takes a nose dive and drags for hundreds of pages before perking back up again towards the end. Now, you can make an argument for the pacing mirroring the books content; the Tokaido is a long journey with its many ups and downs. It has its tedious moments as well as its dangerous ones. But given that the book is roughly 500 pages, this kind of dragging makes it very difficult to keep going (especially when you’re on a time limit; I had to renew the thing and I still only finished it two days before the due date).

Another thing that initially troubled me was that Cat was incredibly unlikable. Emotionless and arrogant, watching her disparage and look down on the commoners she traveled among was irritating at best. Granted, this was meant to demonstrate a significant cultural barrier that was highly visible in feudal Japan. Like many other cultural norms (like Buddhism, the concept of ritual suicide, and bathhouses), this was something I had trouble grasping as a reader. However, Robson does a great job of building the world and weaving the reader into the history. And Cat visibly grows as a character throughout her journey, which I also appreciated.

The incredible world-building and research efforts that went into this book reminded me why I love historical fiction. Reading books like this makes me feel like I’m jumping into a TARDIS and watching history unfold. In stories like these, every detail is crucial, and Robson doesn’t disappoint on that front. The result is a stunning portrait of a world that I would otherwise never see.

However, there was one aspect of the prose that I couldn’t get over, which was the perspective. It initially seemed as though the book was written from two limited perspectives, that of Cat, and that of the ronin Hanshiro. That would’ve been great, since they view the Tokaido from such different points of view, though they share similar cultural values. But just when you think you have the limited perspective on lock, Robson makes it omniscient by adding short side notes with other characters’ insight. While some might think that these outside perspectives are seamlessly interwoven and provide a more detailed portrait of the world, I found them unnecessary and distracting. Cat and Hanshiro were both observant, dynamic, and interesting enough to keep me going on their own.

All in all, I found this book difficult to fully appreciate until I reached the end. And maybe that’s the point. When you’re on a journey, whether it be walking 300 miles down the East Sea Road or just struggling through life, do we ever fully appreciate the sheer enormity of what we’ve accomplished until it’s over?

Well played, Robson. Well played, indeed.

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