Monday, 1 December 2014

Guys, this is gonna get long.

Isn't it odd how it's the easiest thing in the world to talk about a book you didn't enjoy? I could write endlessly about how Kristen Britain dropped the ball and also an actual deuce with her second Green Riders book, about my visceral hatred for the white boy douchebag bible that is On the Road.

And yet, when it comes to a book I absolutely love, a book that gives me pleasure to see on my shelf at even though owning it is as much a fiction as the story itself, my words desert me. The good ones, anyway, because all that's left is a screechy "READ THIS BOOK, ALSO I ACCEPT GRATITUDE IN THE FORM OF MONETARY OFFERINGS OR MAYBE YOUR FIRSTBORN your choice."

I mean, that probably won't work on most people. 

Thus, this behemoth of an essay was born.

Ever been so down on your luck after your father was politically assassinated that you went and sold yourself to a brothel as a high-class courtesan to hide from his enemies? Me neither (my dad is just just fine, thanks!), but Lady Asano, otherwise known as Cat, has recently fallen from grace in those exact circumstances and figures she doesn't have anywhere else to go.

A dish of poisoned blowfish and a dead client shatter her life as a courtesan at the House of the Carp. Once again, Cat is on the run from her father's enemies. She flees up the Tokaido Road to seek refuge with her father's old retainer. Her enemies jump to conclusion that she's rousing a rebellion, and send droves of soldiers after her. It's one girl against an entire army.

What follows is an exciting tale of subterfuge and suspense, as the ever-resourceful Cat dons disguises and takes up her naginata to protect herself from those seeking to claim the bounty on her head. With wit, skill, and sheer luck, she proceeds to make fools of the soldiers sent after her. As she blends in with the colorful characters travelling Tokaido Road, she crosses paths with Hanshiro, a ronin warrior, rogue mercenary, and also a total babe. He's hunting her as well, not realizing they'd already met several times along the way, which was AGONIZING for me because I was just like muttering "GET TOGETHER ALREADY" every five minutes. As he follows tales of her exploits down the Tokaido road, he finds himself switching sides, dedicating his sword to her mission and falling completely in love AND IT'S GREAT.

It also has genderbending shenanigans! My favorite kind of shenanigans! Hence, read on, Macduff!

Want a book to take you completely away, to immerse you in the fully-realized world it contains and make you forget about the dreary humdrum one you actually inhabit? This is it.

I went into The Tokaido Road with very low expectations -- when a fiction book about Asian culture is written by a white author, I'm always a little skeptical. I can't help it -- I've been burned too many times before. There's usually a high risk of fetishized Orientalism and post-colonial condescension, outdated concepts I simply have no time for.

Well that was a waste of worrying! There's a deep sense of respect in Lucia St. Clair Robson's meticulously researched portrayal of Feudal Japan and the Floating World. From the rich, evocative language to the details and names of clothing, The Tokaido Road is a love letter to Feudal Japan. I don't know for sure how accurate it really is, having neither a degree in Japanese history or a handy time machine, but it does evoke the feeling you get when looking at a Japanese painting, especially with the beautiful lyricism of its prose.

My love for The Tokaido Road can be divided into four parts: 1) Cat, 2) Cat and Hanshiro, 3) Cat and Kasane, and 4) Robson and Language.

She's arrogant, spoiled, and condescending to those she perceives to be lower class (which is basically everyone) -- not your usual heroine at all. In fact she kind of sounds like more like a villain, and not even a top-tier one. Yet stick around, fair reader, for you'll find she's more than worthy of your notice. 

Half of the book has her virtually scraping her pennies together for scraps of food, having never provided for herself before. And yet she still continuously gives her money away because she can't bear the seeing the plight of people without trying to help them. It's illustrative of how she's even worse with her money than I am, but also of how much of a better person she is than most of us. Many times during the story, Cat puts other people's needs  before hers, even to the detriment of her own goals. This spoiled aristocrat saves young women from exploitation, helps beggar children carry their heavy loads, and constantly wows me with her fierce bravery and cleverness.

Cat's all prickle and no sting. She's fast and handy in a battle, taking advantage of the tendency of her enemies to underestimate her. She gleefully revels in the liberation that comes with her many disguises, throwing herself with gusto into each of her roles. Though she's constantly focused on survival, she takes the time to weep over a poem or a beautiful panoramic view every now and then. Clever and inventive, Cat's many things and kind of a haughty bitch sometimes, but that's what makes her so much fun.

Cat and Hanshiro
It has been previously established in this very academic piece that Hanshiro is, in fact, a total babe. Let me add to it that in his generosity to the poor and downtrodden, he's a perfect match for Cat. As a masterless ronin, he's been wandering the roads doing odd jobs to get by. His current task is no different from many others he's done in the past, with the notable exception being Cat herself. He finds himself growing fascinated with her, hearing stories about Lady Asano's exploits that evolve into mythic proportions over the course of time. At first he regards her as an interesting challenge. Then he falls in love with her.

Of course he'd fall in love with her. I defy you not to.

He soon reverses on his task and swears fealty to her cause, sight unseen. He follows her trail and protects her from the shadows, though he never actually sees her (she's that good). I died when he bought himself new clothes and scrubbed himself raw in preparation for meeting her. On top of his empirical babeness and badassery, Hanshiro is also a lovelorn romantic. How could I resist??? I mean it, someone HELP.

I honestly don't know how Robson does it, because despite Cat and Hanshiro never actually meeting each other for over 700 pages, their chemistry is OFF THE CHARTS. Every time they just barely missed each other on the road, I would die and be revived on the next page. I don't think I've ever felt so breathlessly excited as I did the moment Cat and Hanshiro, after more than half a book of being ships crossing in the night like the world's most drawn-out Serendipity, FINALLY meet. And it's everything I wanted it to be (she attacks him like a lioness, he parries and basically falls to his knees in abject adoration). All the anticipation pays off, and I spent the rest of the book happily imagining their snotty samurai babies.

Cat and Kasane
One of the things I look for in books is female friendship. There's not enough of it -- women are constantly at each others throats, competing for jobs, glory, or worse, men. I'm just a million percent done with that.

So it was with sheer delight that I met Kasane, a poor village girl who was waylaid into a life of exploitation on her pilgrim journey. When Cat saves her from her slaver, Kasane sticks to Cat like a grateful burr and it's glorious. Cat constantly tries to ditch her, rightly convinced that hers is dangerous company to keep, but Kasane proves her worth time and time again, in battle and as a companion. She offers both comic relief and touching sincerity that helps greatly in humanizing Cat herself. Her diffident peasant ways often baffle Cat, and it's a lot of fun to see Cat knocked off her high horse. By the end, Cat and Kasane's relationship transcends social boundaries, and their attachment to each other is genuinely affecting. 

I'm also grateful that Kasane is no mere side character to be brushed aside for the main plot -- she has a story herself, regarding a tragic beginning, an arranged marriage, and a mysterious admirer on the Tokaido Road. It's very satisfyingly resolved, and I couldn't be happier for her.

Robson and Language
Yes, this has gone on long enough but I cannot let this novel-length essay go by without kowtowing in awe to Robson's masterful command of language. Figures of speech inhabit this story and give it life as much as the characters do. I obviously don't know whether people actually spoke with such lyrical formality back then (probably not) but it gives the story such a wonderfully transportive quality. Robson weaves Japanese legends and haikus with every day speech, forming a seamless verbal landscape of elegance and surprising comedy. (Examples to follow.)

So, to conclude my mammoth review for The Tokaido Road:


Your choice.


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