The Sword of Kaigen by M L Wang
“Wholeness, she had learned, was not the absence of pain but the ability to hold it.”
M.L Wang’s The Sword of Kaigen is a book that is full of surprises. It initially appears to be set in a 19th century east-Asian society, but there are chapter 1 references to video games, holographic cell phone images, and wireless internet. Although technology isn’t at the forefront of the story, it does exist, and plays an important but minor role in the story. More surprises are in store while progressing through the first half of the book, as the reader is led to believe that this will be an action-heavy, high fantasy epic of escalating battles, vengeance, and heroes rising from the ashes. This is not the case. There is indeed a large-scale battle that is foreshadowed early, but it quickly morphs into a compelling series of character studies framed around a flawed family struggling to stay alive. The back half of the book explores this family’s journey of self-discovery as they recover from tragedy, a haunted past, and an uncertain future.
There are other relevant themes that mirror our current society, as state-run news and propaganda are used as tools to influence public opinion without revealing what’s really happening in the surrounding world. There is an outside character named Kwang who serves as a proxy for the reader, as he possesses advanced technology and is aware of government propaganda, yet has little real knowledge of the quiet, hidden culture the story is set within.
There is a substantial learning curve to the book as the author refrains from explaining the many foreign terms inherent to Kaigen and its surrounding cultures. There is a glossary for those who wish to understand as much as possible–I count myself among this group–but it is also possible to get a sense of how things work via context clues. I do recommend taking the extra time to explore the glossary as it provides a strong foundation to why certain things happen the way they do. Wang asks the reader to give a little extra effort get the most out of the story, and it feels like an achievement once you understand the slang terms for certain relatives, the various types of elemental powers, the religious customs, and many other nuances. All of this adds up to a rich, deep, and fully-realized world that is a joy to explore.
However, there were certain passages that were excruciating to absorb. One chapter, “The Shelter,” is so well-written and disturbing that it felt like I was suffering similar horrors to what the characters were experiencing. This is one of Wang’s strongest assets as a writer: she is skilled at connecting the reader with the harrowing experiences of its characters as they are dragged through traumas and painfully raw revelations. It is admirable how Wang exemplifies great strength in crafting these vivid descriptions out of such severe emotional moments. It is always impressive when a writer like Wang willingly volunteers themselves to empathize with such difficult mindsets and translates these experiences into print form.
Another theme that helped elevate this story is how realistic it treats the arcs of its characters. There was one insufferable character that I could not stand for twenty-six chapters, but by chapter twenty-seven I somehow found myself understanding them. There is a redemption arc, but it’s not something that is shoehorned into a few pages, with all lessons learned and tied up with a bow. Instead, Wang ensures the reader that these characters will not better themselves overnight, but rather their path of redemption has just begun. There is a long way for these people to go, and it shows. It is a realistic and rare depiction of character growth that strongly resonated with me.
There is a lot to love in this story: plenty of inventive action scenes featuring elemental powers and incredible swordfights. Even more impressive is the focus on the effects of these acts of violence on those unequipped to handle the lessons they teach. Themes of memory, loyalty, bravery, and what it means to be married and a parent all play major roles in driving the narrative. The Sword of Kaigen feels like several books in one, combining breathless action with a deep understanding and exploration of the human condition. While this isn’t the first of the Theonite stories Wang has written, it is the first adult-oriented high fantasy story that takes place in this visionary world. I hope it is not the last.
This The Sword of Kaigen book review was written by Adam Weller
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