Note that this was an advance review copy, for which I thank the publisher. It's been a while since I've fond something I really wanted to read on Net Galley and this was worth the wait in gold to coin a phrase!
It was an awesome novel - steampunk set in Japan (kinda)! But that's not why I liked it. I've read a few steampunk novels and found too many of them less than satisfactory, the author being far more in love with steampunk than ever they were in good story-telling. This is a different tack. This author clearly loves to tell a great and well-put-together story and steampunk is just an accessory.
It's not even really steampunk as such, but the story of an alternate-world Japan entering the steam age perforce to save themselves from falling under the thumb of an expansionist and capitalist USA in the form of Matthew Perry, not the actor from the Friends TV show, but a US Navy Commodore who also happened to be a belligerent bully who, in the real world, forced under threat of arms, a very feudal and unprepared Japan to sign a so-called treaty which treated the US and no-one else.
In this novel, things happen differently. Toru is the name of the mysterious "fisherman" who arrives back in Japan after two years of living in (and closely observing) the USA, and in this world the Japanese, because of Toru's efforts, are fully armed and very dangerous when Perry arrives in the last twenty percent of the novel.
So no, it's not a novel full of battles. Instead, it's a story of perseverance and bravery, and of hardship and ingenuity, where Toru has to overcome one prejudice after another in a very strict, very isolationist nation which rejects him to begin with because he's 'soiled goods' having lived outside of Japan. Rejection here, please note, means no less than ritual beheading. It's a story of codes of honor, of class separation, and of how barriers can be worn away with diligence and dedication. The story is one of change, and skin-of-the-teeth survival, and of a slow awakening (in this case militarily) of a nation which in the real world enjoyed a similar rise, but economically after World War Two.
The author quite evidently knows her stuff (or at the very least, fakes it beautifully, which is fine with me!), and while - now and then - I found the frequent use of Japanese terminology annoying, for the most part it was fine and even educational. Some readers who are seeking only a story of martial might, may find this rather restrained and slow-moving, but for me it was a comfortable, easy read which entertained, educated, and showed how non-violent change can come even to a nation as rigid as Japan was (and still is in many regards).
It's not all about the men, either. We have a strong female character who is admirably understated but very much to the fore. We also have a restrained love story which even I liked, so if you've read my reviews of not a few young adult stories, you must know that this one had to be well done to please me!
I had one or two minor issues, but nothing that put me off the story overall. For example, we're told that Toru meets Helmuth von Moltke at West Point, which is highly unlikely since he was stationed in Magdeburg in charge of the 4th army corps when Toru was supposedly in the US! Moltke is the guy who goes uncredited for saying "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy," when what he actually wrote was rather different: "No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force." I honestly did not see the point of referring to him or to what he supposedly said. This guy was an appalling racist and doesn't deserve to be remembered for anything.
While the author conveys a good feel for Japan, when it comes to preparations for war - in this case a huge build-up of steam power - the idea of powering steam engines is a bit too easily accomplished. Coal was not scarce in Japan in terms of being available for mining, but in order to mine it to power the steam engines, a lot more work would have had to be done than there was time for here! Perhaps this is why it gets so little mention, but I'm not convinced that there were enough trees to do everything they did either - not to do it and sustain it! The same problem exists for mining iron to build those engines and the tracks upon which they would run.
But I wasn't about to let minor quibbles spoil what was otherwise an excellent and very much appreciated read. I fully recommend this one.