The Tokaido Road by Lucia St. Clair Robson
Genre: Historical Fiction, Historical Romance
Dates Read: June 29, 2014 – March 28, 2019
Synopsis: After the execution of her father, young Lady Asano’s life is in danger from the powerful Lord Kira. To save herself and take revenge, Lady Asano, known in the Pleasure District as Cat, must find the leader of her father’s warriors. In disguise, Cat travels the fabled Tōkaidō Road. Her only weapons are her quick wits, her samurai training, and her deadly, six-foot-long naginata, with its curved, eighteen-inch blade. She’ll need them all to outwit the rōnin hired to capture her. (from Goodreads)
This book and I go way back — almost 5 years to be precise. I first started it in 2014 after checking it out from the library, then I went back to it in 2016 shortly after graduating from college but was too burned out to read anything. Fast forward to March 13, 2019, when finally — FINALLY — I picked it back up, re-starting from the beginning. And now I’ve finished it. Whew.
I’m surprised that this has so few reviews on Goodreads, but hey, I’m one of the lucky ones who’ve found it. Even though this is a long book, the story itself is pretty simple and straightforward. If you’ve heard anything about the forty-seven rōnin (leaderless samurai), that’s what this book is based on. Lady Asano, Cat, is the daughter of Asano Naganori, who was the daimyō of the Akō domain in Japan from 1675 until his forced suicide in 1701. She wants to get revenge on the one responsible, Kira Yoshinaka, but she also has to deal with the tiny matter of his men trying to kill her. In the book, we follow Lady Asano as she journeys up the Tōkaidō Road, spanning from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo), and encounters new friends, enemies, and adventures. The forty-seven rōnin were under her father’s command and, after Lord Asano was murdered, also set out to seek revenge under the command of Ōishi Kuranosuke, who played a large role in Cat’s upbringing.
While this book is very easy to get into, it can be a little dense with description. Don’t get me wrong, I like description as much as the next girl, but sometimes it could feel repetitive or as if it took away from the story just slightly. It’s hard to say that this is an easy read (considering it took me nearly five years to read it!), but it does flow well, and the story is full to the brim in these pages. Robson really transports you back to the Edo Period. I’m glad I read this now, around the announcement of Akihito’s abdication to his son and the beginning of the new Reiwa era, because it really shines a light on the significance of each period in Japan’s history. Robson certainly doesn’t shy away from harsh and sometimes disgusting details, and I appreciate that because it makes the story feel more real than it would were she to have glossed over the nasty bits.
Cat is strong-willed, tough, and badass, but that doesn’t mean she’s unbreakable. She feels scared at times, and vulnerable. She’s a nineteen-year-old girl traveling by herself on the Tōkaidō, which was actually illegal, so she has to disguise herself as a boy à la Mulan. Not only that, but she has to be careful not to be recognized as Lord Asano’s daughter, lest she risk being murdered. Since she feels that she can’t trust anyone, she keeps to herself and lies to others for protection. It’s not until she makes a friend in Kasane, a girl she rescues from imminent sexual assault, that she begins to trust another person with her secret. Kasane’s growth as a character is the best in the novel for me. She starts out meek and afraid but becomes masterful in going along with Cat’s deceptions and even plays a pivotal role in the climax of the book. Hanshiro starts out all gruff and grumpy, as he should since he’s a road-worn rōnin who’s seen a lot of crappy stuff and killed a lot of people. But, as the novel progresses, he softens as he gets closer to Cat (who, by the way, he was tracking down for a reward until he fell in love with her and decided to be her sworn protector). The two connect through poetry, and their sexual tension finally reaches a…climax after they spar in the middle of the night. I like their relationship more the more I think about it; it’s just so natural the way they grow to love each other — besides, I have a soft spot for this kind of stuff.
Interest Value: 5/5
Not only does my love of Cat and Hanshiro’s relationship grow the more I think about it, but my appreciation for this book does as well. There aren’t many other books I would have stuck with and repeatedly gone back to time and time again over such a long period. Part of the reason may be because I grew up with the manga and anime Rurouni Kenshin, which I will love to my dying day. The history of Japan is so rich and distinct that, if you’re at all interested in it, this book will be of some interest to you. Normally I’m wary of white authors writing Asian stories as they tend to romanticize or fetishize the people and culture, but Robson actually lived in a tea house in Japan during the 1970s and did extensive research before writing this novel. Because of that, I trust her writing here, and the details ring true. Not that I think it’s likely to happen, but I think this would make an excellent movie, preferably one in Japanese.
If you’re interested, the author has posted some of her writings on her experience in Japan here.
- “How did one tell, she wondered, if one’s present situation resulted from karma or merely a stupid decision?” (79)
- “She was making her fear transferable. By appearing calm, she was transferring restlessness to her enemy, the way one transferred sleepiness by yawning.” (99)
- “Hanshiro had watched many of them and had decided that if they were masters of swordsmanship, dragonflies were birds.” (106)
- “Even an inch-long worm has a half-inch soul.” (173)
- “If someone hesitates,” he said, “he is like a person watching from a window. Life will pass by the window and be gone, and he will not see it.” (298)
- “He was about to become the worst possible creature, one without a sense of obligation.” (415)
- “How fortunate Cat was to be a woman. All her enemies automatically underestimated her. She went into every fight with an advantage.” (460)
- “I won’t be far. I will never be far. Not in this world or the next.” (460)