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.
Adam Weller, 8.8/10
The blurbs do a pretty good job of explaining the basic premise, so let’s not taint them with my ramblings, other than to say JAPANESE MILITARY FANTASY! JAW DROPPING ELEMENTAL MAGIC! DEVASTATING BATTLES! SCINTILLATING SWORD FIGHTS! Got your attention? Great! Now forget those things, because while all those things are present, there is another something which elevates this book to magical. That something else is the thing that many of us readers cannot do without, and it makes or breaks a book. Compelling characterization.
ML Wang has written characters with such depth and humanity, that had the plot completely flown out of the window, I might not even have noticed, so engrossed was I. And there is a bevy to choose from. I mean, we have Mamoru! And Takeru! And Takashi! And Setsuko!
And you have no idea who I am shouting about! Ok, let's backtrack slightly - the book takes us to a place called Takayabi whose inhabitants have for centuries been responsible for protecting their small corner of the Kaiganese Empire from its enemies. While this is no small task, the warriors are exceptional - unrivalled in their fighting expertise and also wielders of deadly elemental magic, they are a force not to be trifled with. At the head of this village, stands the Matsudas, of whom Misaki and Mamoru Matsuda are the two main characters we follow. This noble house is well known for being without peers in terms of sword fighting, and their almost mythical bloodline technique called the Whispering Blade is a legend all on its own. As young Mamoru, son of Takeru & Misaki Matsuda grows up in this peaceful and isolated place, learning to fight and master The Whispering Blade, he tries to figure out his place in the world. Takayabi is steeped in lore and tradition, and there are very clear expectations of him. But his foundations are rocked to the core when he meets an outsider and the possibility comes to light that much of what he believes may be a lie.
“You learn over time that the world isn’t broken. It’s just... got more pieces to it than you thought. They all fit together; just maybe not the way you pictured when you were young.”
The path Mamoru follows as he grows and learns is a joy to behold, and the way the author has written it is something else that elevates the story. Often times we are told to believe that characters have evolved from a to b, without having spent the time or effort validating the change for us readers, but here it is not the case, and character arcs are well thought out and believable. There is a particular character I loathed throughout. If you have read the book you are in no doubt as to whom I am referring. He inspired many a stabby thought. The word irredeemable might not be strong enough, and yet... I was shocked to be proven wrong.
The most significant example of the sublime characterization is reserved for Mamoru’s mother Misaki, the outright star of the show. She is a housewife, bound by tradition and duty to play the role she has been assigned. Obedient, subservient, loyal. She is so much more though. The ways she has grown from what we get to see of her in the past to present, the choices she has made. Misaki... is probably one of the best female characters I have ever had the pleasure to encounter on the page. To say nothing more may be a huge injustice to the complex characterization captured, but it is also a huge favour to you future reader, for I would prefer you to experience this masterful portrayal for yourself.
While the characters are the lifeblood of this story, that's not to say that this fascinating world Wang has built lacks for anything. I know almost nothing about Japanese culture, their way of life, as I have had little exposure to any of it apart from my love of martial arts, but this little microcosm of an age gone by mixed with a fantastical world is just another added element that helped to cast a spell on me.
The only thing I struggled with slightly was learning all the unfamiliar foreign words used throughout the book. I did not realise that there was a handy glossary in the back until a friend mentioned it, and by that point I was a fair way through the book already. The glossary made it easier, but it was a mission going back and forth on the Kindle. I have since learned that there is a downloadable pdf on the author’s website, so rather grab that if you can. Eventually though, I did learn most of the words and was able to read without worrying if I was missing something, adding just another level of immersion for the Eastern setting. And even with the learning curve it felt like I had barely picked the book up before story had transported me, bringing that magical whoomph of a rush that you get when a story just whisks you away. You’re with me, right? One minute you're getting a feel for it, yes, this is fascinating and entertaining and how did we end up here, this is the ending, WHEN DID THIS GET SO AMAZING!?!?! Woah. Did ML WANG just get a new fan? Yes, yes she DID.
Lastly, it would be very remiss of me to forget to mention the explosive action sequences filled with exhilarating and creative elemental magic, the breathtaking duels and the cutthroat sword fighting that makes up much of the action packed second half of the book.
And when the dust settles and the frantic drumbeat of your skewered heart wanes, the story eases you into a denouement that fittingly takes its time in assuring you of the final outcome, the future ahead and the power of empathy.
Take a bow dear author, for you are a storyteller, and The Sword of Kaigen is a tale, beautifully told.
Eon Van Aswegen, 9.5/10
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