THE SWORD OF KAIGEN by M. L. Wang (SPFBO Finalist Review)
Phase 2 of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is drawing to a close at the end of this month! Keep track of the finalists’ scoreboard here.
If you’re following SPFBO 5, let us know about any entries that have caught your fancy! Join the discussion on social media (there’s a Facebook group here) and weigh in on Twitter using the hashtag #SPFBO.
And if you have no idea what’s going on here, go ahead and check out our introduction to round 1!
We’re almost at the end of SPFBO, and here’s our penultimate review: The Sword of Kaigen by M. L Wang.
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.
(The cover? Production value? Prose? Editing?)
I really like the cover. The artwork is vivid and promises an epic Japanese-inspired fantasy, which is certainly what the reader gets. The tag line at the bottom made me want to read it instantly. I also like the bold title – it catches the eye, but I perhaps could do without the silver border as it’s a bit distracting.
I was just thinking how I quite like the silver border Nils! It looks like it’s piercing the ‘S’.
It is quite a striking Turner-esque cover with its balance of light and dark. The far eastern aesthetic in the character’s style of dress is also eye-catching. I agree with Nils, the tag-line certainly draws the attention.
From the start I thought the prose was flowing, and well written. It was rich with beautiful Japanese culture which I loved. I struggled a little with certain terms because of my lack of knowledge of the culture, but Wang includes a glossary, which I found really helpful. It wasn’t long until I became more familiar, and it became easier to understand.
I agree with Nils, the language, world-specific terms for ranks and magic all gave it a nice authentic feel, in a similar way to “The Goblin Emperor.” The kindle version apparently makes it hard to access the glossary, but I’m not really one for glossaries. I’m happy just to immerse myself in the world and get some sense of the meaning of unfamiliar words from context.
Same here! I couldn’t be bothered checking the glossary, I was happy to just get used to the various terms. They were numerous, but like Nils and Theo said, they really help with that sense of authenticity and immersion. My very first impressions were quite favourable. I liked the cover; it’s simplistic in terms of subject matter, but detailed. It catches your eye, and the detail draws you in further, without confusing you with too many messages. I was, as ever, excited to see maps – I’m such a sucker for a map.
As far as I could tell the editing was well done. I didn’t notice any clunky parts, inconsistencies or awkwardly structured sentences. I did feel that from Chapter 31, titled Robin, and the following chapters could have been edited out as I don’t feel that section was really needed.
I had a few reservations at the start. Some elements that felt very quite expositiony, for example the history teacher’s lecture of dates and wars; the boy Mamoru felt a bit Mary Sue-ish in his incredible warrior-school talent, and his mother Misaki felt a bit too swallowed up in her acceptance of a patriarchal society with women as home-makers, child rearers and embroiderers. However, there is a fin of a story with more teeth that seems to be breaking through these initially rather placid waters.
Excellent metaphor Theo!
I like how Kwang the northerner introduces a challenge to Mamoru’s belief in himself and his society, leaving him wondering if it is possible that the government has been lying to him? Disseminating misinformation and rewriting the past. (Wow that could never happen here!)
Misaki also gives us little glimpses of an adventurous youth travelling overseas for her education and developing talents beyond just getting five young children to sleep simultaneously (a skill that, in its stereotyping, still annoyed me more than it entertained me).
The other early impression was of a strangely mixed worldbuilding with television and planes alongside sword wielding samurai type warriors and manipulators of ice magic.
I was curious to see how well the story might subvert its tropes and wield its varied industro-magical world together as I read on.
The prose is rich and descriptive without being flowery or sickly. It’s enough to create a sense of an emotive atmosphere, without detracting away from the characters and their actions. I felt this was balanced very well.
Theo mentions the mysteries we’re presented with right at the start – this seemingly traditional community that is technologically far behind the rest of the world, the possibility that they’re being shielded or kept in ignorance by their Government, a mother with a past… all this sucked me in and swept me along, despite that hideous info-dump of a history lesson (which I actually skipped, and I never skip passages usually!)
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
(Do you have a favourite? Is the main character sympathetic? How’s the dialogue? Are the protagonists believable? Do we care about their plight?)
The characters took a while to warm to initially, but I can’t really pinpoint why.
Ah that’s strange Nils, I quite liked the characters from the get-go, I was excited to learn more about them!
However overall, I felt Wang created an impressive character arc. Mamoru’s story was tragic, and definitely emotive for me. But Misaki was my favourite. I really enjoyed watching her go from a conforming traditional Japanese housewife role, and being subservient to men, to revealing she’s a formidable warrior.
The dialogue felt natural to me, it didn’t feel forced or awkward. I definitely didn’t cringe at any point!
That’s a great point that I hadn’t even really considered. I think it made a big difference that you could tell what wasn’t being said also, I think that’s why the interactions were so realistic and believable.
Both main protagonists felt real to me, although I felt Mamoru was a slightly stereotypical young naive boy at first. I also felt Takeru was a stereotypical dominating male at first, and thought he was an asshole really, but I was proven wrong later on when we see much more depth came from him and we see his backstory. I actually ended up not only feeling sorry for him but also liking him too, so that was really well crafted by Wang.
Misaki felt very believable, I was invested in her story right from the beginning. I couldn’t help but feel sympathetic towards her plight and have an emotional connection with her. I particularly admired the way Wang reflected the depression that Misaki experiences, she’s quite a broken character. She’s forced into a life she never wanted, she sacrifices so much, and loses people she loves. I liked the way Wang balances this by portraying Misaki as strong and determined too.
I agree, Misaki is the one I felt was most fully realised with an intricate character arc of internal and external challenges that she had to recognise and resolve. I was also impressed with how the extensive cast gradually resolved themselves into distinctly different individuals, without falling into the overly simplistic separation that we saw in Never Die.
The dialogue flowed smoothly enough, without quite having those flashes of sharpness or wisecracks that I have seen elsewhere. But part of that, I think, is in the deliberate formality that is part of Wang’s carefully constructed world and which imposes a degree of inflexibility to match Takeru’s iron impassivity.
It did take me a while to warm to the characters, but once I was well enough in they held my attention and my concern all the way to the end.
That’s an interesting critique Theo, as I quite liked that there wasn’t loads of wisecracks and sarcasm. I can find that tiring at times, sometimes I like fictional conversations that mirror a real-life conversation and we’re not all as witty as we’d like!
As I’ve already said, I loved the characters. I found there was something that piqued my interest with each of them, but more than that, I felt they had such depth. It felt like I’d just stepped into their world, like they’d been living before I turned up, and they’d continue to go on living once I put the book down. Jen Williams once said to write every character as if they believe they are the protagonist – that they have lives outside of supporting the main characters, and I truly felt that Wang has achieved this here.
I loved Mamoru. Which is why I can’t dwell too long here, but his conflicts and his struggle to overcome them were brilliantly presented.
Misaki though, I felt I really related to her. I felt Wang explored the numerous guilts and fears that attack us as parents with strength and such responsibility. I can’t really put into words how much it meant to read a mother who wasn’t perfect, who hadn’t always wanted to be a mother, but was discovering what it was to be a mother, discovering the truths of it and questions you find yourself asking. “You can be strong in any shape,” was a wonderful message. Of course, that theme gets explored deeper to show the complexities inherent, but it’s easy to succumb to that idea that you are just a mother now.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
(Slow start? Hard to keep up? Does the author use flashbacks/POV shifts? Do these work well or not? Did each chapter keep you turning the pages?)
I did find the beginning quite slow, it took a while to get to the main story arc, but once the enemy Ranganese appear, we move along at a really exciting pace. From then on I was hooked and kept wanting to read ‘one more chapter.’
We also got flashback scenes which involved Misaki’s life before her marriage into the Matsuda family. I found these quite jarring as there was such an abrupt contrast between the past and the present timeline. I feel a bit conflicted here though because these scenes were needed to truly understand Misaki’s sacrifices, so they definitely add to her characterisation, but it was something that kept pulling me out of the story. Maybe a few less flashback scenes would have helped?
I liked the flashback to when she was at school, but I think that was a chapter on its own? There were some flashbacks which, I agree, really interrupted the flow of the story. For example, on page 303, we are mid action scene, but we digress into a flashback of Mamoru learning to forge. It was quite a big stumbling block, as the flashback was quite long.
I loved the POV shifts. That’s something that I always enjoy in an epic fantasy. I like to be inside different character’s heads. I feel Wang really fleshed out each character; throughout the book they each grow, we see their strengths as well as their flaws. Each chapter builds upon the character and the story arc simultaneously, and by the end Misaki’s story left me satisfied.
Yes, the story’s slightly unusual structure is one of its most distinctive features. Many try to throw the reader straight in “in media res” amidst some key climactic action, then they build through a series of ever higher peaks separated by brief lulls, to the grand denouement after which they tidy things up fairly quickly. The Sword of Kaigen, by contrast, feels like a mountain where we rise steadily through foothills to a peak of action in the very middle of the book and then descend in a way that feels almost leisurely towards the conclusion. It is a book of two almost exactly equal halves the build up to the Ranganese attack and then the dealing with the aftermath.
As I mentioned before, I feel the book could have done without those chapters at the end which involved Robin. Personally, I don’t think this storyline added anything to the events in this book, and it felt like a convenient set up for the other Theonite series that’s already published by Wang. I think I would have preferred it as a separate short story.
I understand Nils’ reservations about the “Robin” chapters at the end, but that was in keeping with the structure of the book. This was ultimately Misaki’s journey through youthful idealism to marriage and motherhood, to grief and reconciliation. So, Robin did need to be part of that. However, the number of “off-stage” plot developments/edited highlights of other people’s lives felt a bit forced.
Hmm I don’t know Theo, I think I’m with Nils on this one sorry! I felt Misaki learned quite a lot about herself and the kind of person she had been with Robin, compared to the kind of person – or shape she now took – now. I don’t think we actually needed Robin to come back for her to fully realise this any further, I’d have been happy to have read that reunion in a different book, like the next in the series or something. I think it would have left us with an ending that was even more open. I also didn’t particularly like the catch-up on what all her friends had been doing. These characters are obviously important to her, but I found myself not really caring? I wanted to know what they were going to do about the assassin, about the Ranganese – I disliked this switch away from what I felt was the focus.
This is the first of Wang’s books that I’ve read and it earns its place in SPFBO as a standalone/first of a series. However, I did wonder about how it fed into other books that might be/have been written about this well-realised world. Certainly in the Robin chapters I felt a rather unsubtle future story seed was being planted, the more so if those stories were already written. I think that impetus forced some story elements in which distorted the flow of the narrative.
I am a little wary of prequels and sequels (not just because of Star Wars). It can either come from a yearning from the author to revisit characters or worlds they are fond of, or an urge to explain/explore side themes and quests. However, there is a risk that such works can be a bit of an indulgence focussing on world and character at the expense of story. I think Wang avoids that peril, but it does feel like a different kind of book and yes Nils – the Robin bits, in so far as they looked ahead rather than back, did not work so well.
As I said earlier, I did like the section where we see her at school, but I agree with Theo that it felt like there was another story trying to encroach on what was already a solid, enjoyable and satisfying story in its own right.
On the whole, the pacing was very good; the only times it became too bogged down for me was the info-dump of a history lesson at the start, the digressive flashbacks mid action scenes, and the religious info-dump at the 70% mark.
I was working under my preconceptions from other books that the action sequence in the middle was a build up to something more. The smaller fight before the larger battle. So I did find myself impatient through the rebuilding after, waiting for the next big hit. This impatience died down fairly quickly though, as there’s a very different kind of build up which swept me along instead. I thought Wang was very clever in demonstrating the emotional highs and lows of character development as well as providing highs and lows in action. There’s sometimes this idea that a book needs to be action-packed to keep you burning through the pages, but that isn’t always true, certainly not for this reader.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
(Does it have a magic system? How immersed do you feel in the world? Does it feel original? Why?)
I adored the world building, and this was the strongest aspect of the book for me, especially the impressive magic system! The concept of Theonites who can wield various elements was fantastic. We see a lot of manipulations of water from the Jijakas, and the use of wind by the Fonyakalu. This delivered some epic, visually thrilling battle scenes, full of magical martial arts, and awesome creations such as an ice dragon, and the Whispering Blade. The atmosphere and tension during these scenes were so well written, it was easy for me to be on the edge of my seat.
I liked the isolated mountain setting, it is as mystical as the magic system is.
Overall I found myself incredibly immersed in this world, however, one aspect that I disliked was the use of modern-ish technology in an ancient Japanese setting. This is a personal pet peeve of mine though. I find adding modern technology to any historical setting just throws me out of the story far too much. Although the technology used in this book isn’t any actual real technology, it’s still recognisable to us. Thankfully the technology is only featured sparingly so it wasn’t a very big issue for me.
I absolutely agree. A very well drawn world and impressively detailed culture blending ancient Japanese concepts with intricate clashing magic systems. However, the intrusively recognisable modern technology did jar at times. I mean dammit they have planes with machine guns, they have computers and mobile phones, but their champions battle with swords and the excellent administrator Takeru has a computer but no printer so he writes his lists by hand? I suspected that there might be some plot holes lurking in places within this techno-magic mashup. But there was also a Last Samurai feel to it – that even in a world of planes and bullets one man and his katana still had power.
Oh I don’t know guys sorry, I thought this mix of technology and tradition so interesting. I wanted to know why technology had been kept from them. I wanted to know more about this idea that their Government was wilfully keeping them in the dark. Ignorance is bliss, and coupled with this notion that they were being fed false histories… I found it highly intriguing!
There was one other thing that grated and may be a function that this is a prequel book that must conform to stories already written but coming in world chronology after it. That is, this book did not address the government culture of the Kaigen Empire, a world of misinformation, exploitation, manipulation and government cover ups for their own incompetence in dealing with a deadly threat. (Can’t think why that issue should bug me so much right now.) That prequel circumstance constrained this story to a tight focus on a family and a mountain community, with very little sign or promise of change beyond that.
I’m not sure if I agree with you there, sorry Theo, I thought Takeru’s refusal of any future aid spoke of a desire to become more self-sufficient from the Empire and a preparation for a break away from it some time in the future. I had the sense that his eyes had been opened, and he had a long-term plan (for example when he expresses that their children will go to Daybreak so that they won’t be as blind as him).
I agree with you, Beth. That’s a really great point.
The world-building was… I’m not sure I have the words! It felt like a lot of time had been taken into constructing this world. It’s obviously heavily influenced by Japanese culture, which I felt was represented well and sympathetically, with a great deal of understanding. But also, the elements which were new and secondary-world were equally as strong and realised. The socio-political environment, the magic systems, the religions, the class structures, the various clashing cultures. I was so very impressed with it all, it was utterly immersive. The one issue I had, or it would be more true to say the disappointment I had, was that Wang was so careful with their language, that there was the occasional term that felt completely out of place and so made the image flicker somewhat. Like a glitch in the matrix. Terms such as “ma’am” (when every other time he’d addressed his mother he’d called her Ka-chan), “bangs” (if anyone out there is following these reviews close enough you may begin to suspect I just don’t like that word anyway lol), “skyscraper”, “little buddy”…
QUOTATIONS that amused/resonated with you
These two quotes stood out to be because of the beautiful emotive prose.
‘Misaki had never had the skill to match a master swordsman in combat. But unencumbered by the tight kimono or the childish cowardice that had bound her for years, she had become a new creature, more fluid and boundless than a girl but more solid than a shadow — a woman of lightning sinew and roaring blood.’
‘His fingers were the snow. They were the rivers, reaching all the way down the mountain to sink into the ocean and grasp the power of gods. He wasn’t bleeding out. He was the mountain. For the first time in his life, he was perfectly, overwhelmingly whole.’
On the prodigy child’s affinity for water magic.
‘Morning mist would reach out to touch his skin with reverent fingers.’
Preparing to confront the enemy in a storm.
‘This was foreign darkness, dingy like rust, veined with day old blood.’
Rebuking hesitancy in one drawn from the greatest line of sword fighters.
‘You’re a Matsuda. The impossible is a day at the dojo for you.”
I had the kindle edition and there were so many “popular highlights”!
I loved this realisation from Misaki, the study of a change in your child:
“He never brought any of those conversations home with him, but the change in her son was visible. It was the marked difference between a carefree man and a thinking one… As Izumo’s new eyes started to bring the physical world into focus, Mamoru’s eyes were changing too.”
There was another quote I bookmarked also, but rereading it I think it may be too much of a spoiler!
A few tweaks needed here and there, and perhaps a shorter ending, but overall this was a really enjoyable Japanese inspired epic fantasy. The visually thrilling combat scenes were the true highlights for me.
Yes the battle scenes, both group and individual, were truly tumultuous and the last duel reminded me of that final fight scene in “An Officer and a Gentleman” an example of the brutal cathartic power of conflict.
I consumed this book in under a week, it lifted me out of such a bad reading slump, when I’ve struggled so badly to focus on anything. I stayed up into the early hours of the morning because I couldn’t put it down. I sobbed to the point I had to put it down and clean my face as I couldn’t see or breathe. It elicited such an emotional response from me which spoke of just how deeply I felt I’d connected to this story and its characters. It’s a very strong contender indeed for me!
Jumping right to the final thoughts section as I was late to this reviewing party, just finishing Sword of Kaigen yesterday [Sunday] – and my lovely teammates already said it all! And in so much more depth than I could have… So here’s my thoughts:
I really loved this book in the end, even though I had some things that annoyed me, especially through the first 400 pages. I had a lot of gripes; they were all just tiny, but too many to be my “winner” this year.
For me the action scenes were awesome, but often just went on a tad too long, so went from “this is amazing!” to “yeah, can we progress the plot again now?” By just a page or two, but still. Same for all the vocabulary – I loved how it gave depth to the world, but it was just a tiny bit too much for me. The italics were also a bit distracting, especially at the start. Italics both for dialogue in a different language and also for thoughts meant there were a lot of them.
I didn’t like the places where flashbacks were put in the story. Not the flashbacks as such, those were fine, just the placing of them. My only slightly bigger gripe was that I really didn’t mind most of the deaths, and there were plenty of them!
Now that seems rather like a rant, and that is not how it should sound, because it’s still in my top three books! Especially the last 100 pages were exactly my cup of tea and felt almost perfect to me. There it went from “I like this” to “I love this!”
I enjoyed the different setting, and the way the characters and community were described. Very different to what I am used to, and yet I could sink right in.
I clicked very well with some of the characters – well enough to balance out the ones that just didn’t really make an emotional connection for me.
I especially loved the end of the book, which did an amazing job of showing the characters growth and maturing and becoming so much more than they were before. In light of that I couldn’t believe how young the author was, when I saw it popping up somewhere after finishing the book.
I’ll definitely pick up anything else published by her!