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Monday, September 30, 2019

The Sword of Kaigen by ML Wang (reviewed by Łukasz Przywóski)


Official Author Website
Order The Sword of Kaigen over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: M. L. Wang was born in Wisconsin in 1992, decided she wanted to be an author at the age of nine, and never grew up. She currently splits her time between writing fantasy books and working at a martial arts school in her home city of Madison.

When she isn’t building worlds on the page, she builds them in her aquarium full of small, smart fish that love to explore castles and don’t make noise during writing time.

FORMAT/INFO: The Sword of Kaigen is 651 pages long divided over 31 numbered chapters and is a standalone novel based in ML Wang's Thoenite world. The author self-published it in February 2019. The cover art and design are by the author herself.

OVERVIEW: Boring and predictable. 

Not the book, though, but my review. I join The Sword of Kaigen fan club and I plan to force anyone listening to try it. I won’t lie, I hoped I would identify its unforgivable flaws and enumerate them to show how insightful I am. I did find some, but they didn’t stop me from loving the book. 

The Sword of Kaigen introduces memorable and relatable characters and throws them into disastrous conflict with a powerful enemy. Kusanagi Peninsula, renowned for its unstoppable warriors who bend elements to their will, stands between the Empire and invaders. Fourteen-year-old Mamoru represents the Matsuda clan proudly and with full conviction. A new student, Kwang Chul-hee, who transfers from outside of the province challenges his beliefs. What if everything their academy teaches is just propaganda? And what if the Empire treats legendary Kaiganese warriors as cannon fodder?

Mamoru’s mother, Misaki, doesn’t deny the accusations. Once an accomplished warrior, she’s sacrificed everything to marry into the Matsuda family and provide it with sons. Her past haunts her and when she receives a letter warning her that the entire Kusanagi Peninsula is in danger, she acts. But will her husband, cold, distanced and powerful warrior, approve of a woman fighting for her own? 

The Sword of Kaigen focuses on a mother and son. Their histories and arcs are inseparable and strongly connected. Misaki gives Mamoru the strength to challenge his beliefs about the world and his place in it. Mamoru’s conflict with his father gives Misaki the strength to challenge social norms and rediscover her inner warrior. As we watch them grow closer to each other, it’s hard not to admire Wang’s knack for characterization and conveying strong and believable emotions. It works against the reader - when the enemy strikes and mayhem begins no one is safe. The story takes wild and dark turns.

At 651 pages, the book rarely feels too long (once you get past a somewhat tepid beginning). It contains so much. The complexity of the Kaiganese traditions and genealogy. Martial arts, elemental magic, and epic battles. Small graceful details and moments of silence and reflection between powerful climaxes. The protagonists of The Sword of Kaigen are masters of theonite power known as jiya, the ability to control water and ice. They’ve honed their skills and mastered complex techniques that allow senior Matsuda clan’s members (Takeshi and Takeru) to display godlike powers. The epic battle that happens halfway through the book contains so much pure awesomeness (but also tragedy) that the book is worth reading for it alone. 

As I mentioned I found some flaws. The beginning is slow and filled with heavy info-dumping. It requires patience and trust from the reader. Heavy use of honorifics and fictitious therms can feel confusing. The redemption arc of the character you loathe (unless you’re a misogynistic boor) felt rushed and unconvincing. I liked the result but not the path that has led to a sudden change in his relationship dynamics with his partner and others. The last chapters weren’t necessary for this story to work but I understand they had to be included to tie TSoK to Wang’s Theonite series. I’m ok with it.

On the other hand, Wang plays with tropes and makes a middle-aged mother a compelling and memorable character you root for. The other character starts as a young prodigy and just when you think you know what will happen, Wang will crush your expectations. Important characters die. Some deaths are brutal and gruesome, some tragic. One of them will tear you apart and is, for me, one of the most beautiful death scenes in all fantasy

So, while the pacing could be tighter, the characters and action-scenes are fantastic. Wang's writing conveys raw emotions well and some twists will crush you. And that is a sign of greatness.

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