The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang is one of the most unique books I’ve read this year. Any one of the following is reason enough to read it; It’s imaginative and defies expected norms; It has elemental magic and one of the best set piece fight scenes I’ve ever read; It is one of the best non-western/Asian inspired fantasies I’ve come across; It’s very much a character driven book for those who love character driven books; It will hit you in the feels; It won the Fifth Annual Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (#SPFBO).
So take your pick. Of the selling points I just listed what grabs your attention the most? Is it more than one? I’ll try to run through them and give you my thoughts. Here we go…
A mother struggling to repress her violent past,
A son struggling to grasp his violent future,
A father blind to the danger that threatens them all.
When the winds of war reach their peninsula, will the Matsuda family have the strength to defend their empire? Or will they tear each other apart before the true enemies even reach their shores?
High on a mountainside at the edge of the Kaigenese Empire live the most powerful warriors in the world, superhumans capable of raising the sea and wielding blades of ice. For hundreds of years, the fighters of the Kusanagi Peninsula have held the Empire’s enemies at bay, earning their frozen spit of land the name ‘The Sword of Kaigen.’
Born into Kusanagi’s legendary Matsuda family, fourteen-year-old Mamoru has always known his purpose: to master his family’s fighting techniques and defend his homeland. But when an outsider arrives and pulls back the curtain on Kaigen’s alleged age of peace, Mamoru realizes that he might not have much time to become the fighter he was bred to be. Worse, the empire he was bred to defend may stand on a foundation of lies.
Misaki told herself that she left the passions of her youth behind when she married into the Matsuda house. Determined to be a good housewife and mother, she hid away her sword, along with everything from her days as a fighter in a faraway country. But with her growing son asking questions about the outside world, the threat of an impending invasion looming across the sea, and her frigid husband grating on her nerves, Misaki finds the fighter in her clawing its way back to the surface.” – Goodreads Blurb
First let me say I read The Sword of Kaigen back in May. Six months means a lot of time has passed and I’ve read a bunch of books in between so none of this is as fresh as I’d like it to be in my mind. I don’t know why I let myself get so far behind. I just did. So I’m going to do this a little different and hit on each of the topics I noted above in segments. I’m sure there will be some overlap.
Imaginative And Defies Norms
I came in to this read expecting certain things. And right from the beginning my expectations were thrown for a loop. Based on the cover and the title I kinda expected something inspired by medieval Japan, or maybe no later than the 19th century. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the world is much more modern. There is modern weaponry (like fighter jets) and modern communication, and well modern everything. Yet the setting for much of the book is in a very rural area with very few modern amenities. When these worlds collide in the book it takes some shifting of gears in the mind to adjust to time and place but it also helps to form a lot of the character narrative that follows which is really important to the story.
Wang also does something really daring and interesting with the structure of the book. The climax, at least in terms of the action is about 40-50 % of the way into the narrative. The rest of the story, where the real meat of it is found, focuses on how the outcome of that action climax impacts the characters, and it’s through that event and what comes after that all the real character growth occurs. So really you might say there are two climaxes, the one with the great action set-piece (more below) and then the other as the character dynamics play out in a long burn of tragic pain filled relational change. It’s in that second arc that the feels really hit you. And hit you they will.
Elemental Magic and Fight Scenes!
I absolutely loved the magic system in this novel. It’s elemental magic with a kick. By that I mean it’s also based on one’s bloodline. For the main characters in the book it is a water based magic that takes on all manner of capabilities including the ability to form unbreakable swords of ice! Different bloodlines exist throughout the world in different nations each with a different elemental foundation (water, fire, air, etc). The magic system makes for some really powerful individuals and great power dynamics that cause a lot of tension and friction in the story.
Then there’s the fight scenes. I admit I LOVE action scenes in my fantasy stories. And while there are fight scenes sprinkled throughout the book there is one massive, epic, all encompassing granddaddy fight scene of them all right smack in the middle. Wang does an excellent job with this set-piece scene that takes up a nice chunk the story. It starts slow and the tension builds and then bam! Page after page after page of non-stop running battle. The tension and the action just continue to build until the gut wrenching conclusion and you’re left feeling like you’ve been threw the wringer right along with the characters.
I see readers and reviewers talk about wanting to read non-western or Asian inspired fantasy all the time. But often I also see them get upset when it doesn’t match their western expectation of what that Asian inspired story should be. The Sword of Kaigen really is Asian at its heart from what I can tell. From the language used, to the family dynamics, to the expectations within society, to the food and dress…I mean everything. Wang immerses the reader in these elements and expects the reader to settle in and find their way. There is help along the way by means of a glossary of terms at the end (which comes in VERY handy with some of the language bits) but even then there is some work that the reader must mentally do if coming from a western background. And that’s how it needs to be. Otherwise the book doesn’t work and it becomes just another western take on an Asian theme. So if you are looking for this kind of story you’ve come to the right place.
While the magic system and the great fight scene will grab your attention, it’s the character driven narrative that will keep hold of you. And what’s surprising is just who ends up being the characters who evolve and change the most in the story. You start of thinking one thing then the character trajectories change right along with the shift in the plot. And wow does Wang deliver on getting you sucked into the minds and hearts of these characters. Even some of the ones you think you hate. By the end you can’t help but be drawn to all of them, and cheer and weep for them, and feel pain and joy with them. Which brings us to the next part…
Yeah…the feels. This book has ’em. And if you don’t want ’em don’t read it. Because it will give ’em to you.
This is probably what I expected least from The Sword of Kaigen. I was expecting fights – I mean it has a SWORD in the title! But I wasn’t expecting the feels. There’s pain and tragedy and you’re gonna experience them right along with the characters. The pain of loss, the pain of suffering, the pain of family dynamics, the pain of relationships ended, started, and transformed. And all of it sifted through tragedy and reformed on the other side. All of this is at the core of the characterization in the novel and what the story is truly about. It’s through the pain and growth the characters endure that they come to understand their purpose and place, in their world, society, village, and family. Through the pain and tragedy everything is transformed even if some of the losses are never regained.
The Sword of Kaigen won the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (#SPFBO) for 2019 and it was well deserved. The competition last year was very tight and it could have gone to a few different books. That The Sword of Kaigen won says a lot given how many great books it was up against. You might split hairs about the top three and maybe a different book was your fav, but this one definitely deserved its high spot in the finals.
I’m really not sure what else to add. I’ve gone on long enough. I can feel all of you who made it this far screaming END IT ALREADY! So I’ll conclude by saying I was surprised by this book. It wasn’t what I expected at all. It took me by surprise, sucked me in, and punched me in the gut. But it didn’t leave me there breathless. Instead it gave me time to recover and heal even if it left me with a little scar much like the characters I followed in the narrative. It shook things up, made me work and made me think, and said “here’s something different” for you to chew on. And in the end I felt fulfilled and content.
5 of 5 Stars
Author: M.L. Wang
Publication Date: February 19, 2019