THE SWORD OF KAIGEN by M.L. Wang (Book Review)
“I know you might feel broken, but we’re jijakalu. We’re water, and water can shift to fit any mold. No matter how we’re broken and reshaped, we can always freeze ourself strong again.”
The Sword of Kaigen is a self-published Japanese military-inspired adult fantasy novel by M.L Wang. It is also one of the books entered into the SPFBO 5 competition, which is held annually. Folks, hear my words: this book truly deserves more recognition. It’s a brutal, dark, heartbreaking story, and I wholeheartedly fell in love with it. There were moments I felt angry, moments where I was on edge, and there were tears… oh so many tears!
The book is set in Takayubi, which is a small village on a mountain. It is part of the Kaigenese Empire, and is home to the Matsuda family, who are believed to be the most powerful Theonites in the world. Just to give a bit of context here, Theonites are people who can wield the elements such as water, fire, and wind. The line of Matsudas are pure blood jijaka’s, who are Theonites that can wield water in all its forms, and use it in combat. Our main protagonist, Misaki, marries into the Matsudas, and the majority of the book centres around Misaki and her son Mamoru as they encounter foreign invasion in their village.
Initially I found that the story took me a while to get into. I needed time for my mind to digest the beautiful rich Japanese culture that was present, and I needed time to warm to the characters more. As I read on I found using the glossary (thank you Wang for including this) to be so valuable in helping me to understand unfamiliar terms, and it wasn’t long until I became completely immersed. It also wasn’t long until I became utterly attached to Misaki and her son Mamoru; as their relationship developed, the whole book transformed into something that was incredible endearing.
I have to say, I think Wang did a stellar job in her characterisation of Misaki. Throughout the book we see Misaki’s conflict between conforming to an expected traditional role of a housewife, and her desperate need to let her true personality shine. It was during Misaki’s flashback scene that we become aware that her past was very different from her present. At first the flashback scene threw me out of the story, as the contrast was so abrupt. It’s hard to say exactly what I mean here because I fear giving away too much, but in hindsight, this was absolutely a perfect scene that helps you understand Misaki’s character completely. Her backstory fundamentally shows how much she sacrificed to be the person she was expected to be after marrying into the Matsuda family.
To add a little bit more context here; the women’s role in this family was to bear sons who would be trained and later become elite jijaka warriors. Women were deemed lesser, their opinions were dismissed as irrelevant; they were essentially sidelined and banned from fighting. I felt Wang’s portrayal of this patriarchal society was done really well, as she showed just how isolated and old fashioned the village of Takayubi was, compared to the rest of the Empire. This also served to establish Misaki as one of my all-time favourite female characters, because at her core she had to conquer all that society threw at her; yes she was heavily flawed, in a way broken, but she was also a person who would fiercely protect those she loves, no matter the cost, even if it means breaking traditions. This is exactly the kind of female character that I love seeing represented.
‘She knew the sound of a sword piercing the human body. She knew the deathly cold of the Whispering Blade. She knew what it was like to bear that ice inside her. She was ready…’
I have to also honourably mention how well Mamoru, and later on his father Takeru, were depicted too. Again, Wang just has this fantastic way of presenting a well-rounded character. We see naive Mamoru question the very world he lives in; he slowly realises the Kaigenese government he has long obeyed is not quite what he was led to believe. We see him grow, and face the same struggle as Misaki as he tries to find his purpose in life. The way he seeks validation and support from his mother Misaki was incredibly heartbreaking. Then we have Takeru, who quite frankly is not very likeable for the majority of the book, but yet again, Wang delivers to us a highly flawed character, one who is misunderstood, who is clearly a broken man too, and I did feel empathy for him by the end.
‘“A child doesn’t have to take responsibility for his decisions. A child can trust in his parents to tell him what to do. A man trusts himself.”’
Now, it’s not a secret that I love action scenes; whether it be duels, battles or even a street fight, I’m here for it all! I’m pleased to say that Wang writes some outstanding action scenes, that were well paced throughout the book, and really did leave me awed! Not only were there some freaking awesome magical martial arts here, there was also ice shards that could brutally wound the enemy warriors, a variety of swords that could spill the guts of any opponent, sheets of ice thrust up from the ground to create shield walls, AND (*mild spoiler alert*) a motherforking ice dragon! Just wow is all I can say really!
Okay, I think I’ve gushed enough now, so let me conclude this review with one last simple sentence. Don’t just take my word for how good this book is – go and bloody read it!
A little shoutout to all of you that joined in on the group read for this book. Thank you for participating, it was a fantastic experience sharing this read together.