Johnston’s debut novel is travel narrative, fantasy and coming-of-age saga woven with magic, nobility of spirit and idealized—almost courtly—love.
Much like its protagonist, this novel is endearing, sincere and slightly gawky. American Tobias Blackwood has come to Japan with his new friend John Tell to teach English as part of the Society of English Learners. His adventure gets off to a rocky start, however, when he finds himself halfway up a mountain, bloody and without his glasses, victim of his own clumsiness. His mishaps, however, do have the net positive result of attracting the attention of a mysterious woman named Matsuri. She becomes a friend and helps Tobias as he faces challenges both natural (teaching at a new school in a new country) and supernatural (fending off hungry demons and dealing with drunken tanuki: “They look like raccoons, but they resemble a badger or wild dog more than a raccoon—kind of cute but really shifty”). Tobias’ biggest challenge, though, is neither demon, tanuki nor kitsune; it’s his feelings for Michiko Yamasaki, his translator and classroom aide. Luckily, Tobias has his friends—and the kind support of his wise hosts, Jomei and Aoki Yoshida—to help him navigate all the unexpected experiences Japan has to offer him. In fact, the character relationships are one of the greatest strengths of this story, the other being the clear love of Japan and the attention to cultural detail woven throughout. Many lines of dialogue are even written in Romanized Japanese—with footnotes. Unfortunately, this can distract from the flow of the story, as readers have to refer to the bottoms of the pages, often several times on a single page, to follow the narrative. The dialogue also has a heightened, old-fashioned feel, which can sometimes read as stilted: “Enough talk of work. Tobias-san, would you like to start us off on the karaoke?” Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop characters from being engaging. Tobias’ adventures are fairly straightforward, although the way they tend to alternate between real-world and supernatural problems can make the narrative feel a bit like a car stuck between two gears.A charming, fun first effort sure to appeal to fans of Japanese culture in spite of a few awkward edges.