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Thursday, April 30, 2020

SPFBO Finalist: The Sword of Kaigen by ML Wang (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski, David Stewart, Justine Bergman and Mihir Wanchoo)

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 Theonite world. The author self-published it in February 2019. The cover art and design are by the author herself. 


I run into this problem sometimes where I find writing a review difficult because I love the book so fiercely. It's like trying to tell people how great my daughter is - they deserve to know, but she's mine and I selfishly want to keep her magnificence for my own. So it is with The Sword of Kaigen, by M.L. Wang. I will make no secret of my belief that this is the book that should win this year's SPFBO. There are great books in this year's contest, but The Sword of Kaigen feels like a once in a generation modern fantasy with feudal Japanese concepts that has yet to really be explored in this way. It feels like an important book, but it's also, unlike many important books, incredibly joyous to read. It is special, and while other books can be good or even great, I don't often feel as though we get one quite like this.

What is it about? Much like The Fast and the Furious, The Sword of Kaigen is about family. In this case, it's the Matsuda family - a warrior clan renown for their use of ancient sword magics. The Matsudas live and rule on the Kusanagi Peninsula, an outlying province that adheres to traditions and functions one step away from feudalism. Cell phones and airplanes exist in the Kaigenese Empire, but are not often seen on the peninsula. Teenagers still train with blades and women are second class citizens. This threw me at first, and I was not immediately enamored with the book due to the modern trappings. It did not take long for me to see the reasoning behind the decision to set this in modern times, and now that I'm past it, I can not see it working any other way.

Mamoru Matsuda is the book's central character to start with. He is a teenage boy training to one day use the famed Whispering Blade, an ice summoning technique so powerful and precise that it seems capable of splitting atoms. He struggles to do what his distant father and overtly-powerful uncle seem to do with ease. As the book progresses, things transition from Mamoru to his mother Misaki. Misaki's past is one shrouded in mystery, and Wang shows her previous life as a student crime-fighting super-hero with a series of flashbacks. Her past brash heroics contrast starkly to her current duties as wife and mother - neither of which require the combat prowess that she spent so long perfecting. We are only beginning to uncover the lives of the Matsuda family when unexpected war comes to the peninsula.

The rest of the novel is a war epic on par with some of the great war literature in the classic canon. The Matsuda's, stranded by their nation, fight alone and everything about this novel is devastating. Despite Wang's ability to tear out the hearts of her readers and leave them pulsing on the wet ground, the tragedy is balanced by moments of humanity that inspire a much-needed hope in a novel like this. Wang's ability to characterize her casts amidst the backdrop of near-constant loss is remarkable. She does more with a single fight scene, one that leaves a reader breathless with each passing moment, to evolve her characters than many authors can do within an entire book. Characters in The Sword of Kaigen either change, or they die, and there really is no middle ground.

To heap praise on a novel and not offer any criticism is not really my style - there are no perfect books - but The Sword of Kaigen has very little to condemn. The start is slow, and it is hard to become invested in the book until about a third of the way in. This is true for many books, but this one starts off slower than most. There are also character coin flips, people whose changes require a slight suspension of disbelief or even the ability to use one's reader-imagination to fill in some blanks. These flaws exist, but they don't dampen a novel of this magnitude and strength. I repeat - there are no perfect books.

I can not really praise The Sword of Kaigen enough. It is as though M.L. Wang cut open my brain and pulled out all the parts that I've secretly wanted to read in a novel, and then wrote it just for me. It's dark at times, but unlike some other novels I've read this year that delve into the horrors that humanity can inflict upon itself, there is a contrast to its shadows. When the darkness shades most fierce, M.L. Wang's characters shine all the brighter, and because of this we are not left, in the end, afraid for ourselves, but stronger. Maybe it's naive or immature to draw inspiration from fantasy when the realities of human nature can be so daunting, but I also think it is within fantasy that we can draw the most hope. The Sword of Kaigen plays this out over and over, and for that, deserves all the praise that it's getting.


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. 
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Sword Of Kaigen is a tough book to review. What can you say about it that hasn’t been spoken about by your peers. It’s a very unique story that’s a standalone in the truest sense of the word. We get a complete story with a beginning, middle and an end. This story has set the SPFBO stage on storm and it deserves many if not all the accolades it has gotten so far. Even with scores below, you can see why it has been such a big hit with us.

I first got this book when the author approached us last year when it released. I however didn’t read it then and that was my mistake (mea culpa). Going to the story plot, this book is about the people of Kaigen and the warrior families who help defend it. One such family is the Matsudas who have their secret power called the Whispering Blade. The Matsudas are a clan drenched in honour and have high expectations from its children, women and men. Shouldering such expectations is Mamoru, son of Misaki and Takeru Matsuda. A teenager who’s burdened with the Matsuda legacy of the Whispering Blade as well as the ice elemental powers. Misaki is his mother and a quiet woman who’s given her husband four sons and left her exciting life behind.

The plot begins with a very tight narrow focus on Mamoru and Misaki and Kaiganese culture in its entirety. Then slowly the author pulls back the lid on Misaki’s life, the actual geo-political strife within the world and the back-history as well as details about the magic system. Chiefly the author has to be lauded for her characterization, prose and worldbuilding. Beginning with her characters, it’s incredible to read about Misaki and Mamoru and see the similarities within them and what they are made of. Mamoru in particular in the start is given more of a lead status while Misaki is more akin to an onion as the reader waits for her to shed her reticence and her mental walls. We might be lead to believe that Mamoru's is the more traditional hero in the making narrative that’s being show over here. You would be wrong and quite brutally so.

Misaki in her role as the mother is trying to balance the Matsuda family honour and her own expectations about who she is and what she’s supposed to be. The author gives us these two complex and heroic characters to root for and they both flower magnificently. Plus it’s not just these two, the author is able to give even side characters the requisite gravitas and depth so that we as readers get a deeper read. Even the characters who are supposed to be villains aren't just caricatures. They have their own reasoning and while we understand it to be flawed. For them, it’s their only way to live. What I’m trying to get at is, Miracle Wang truly captures the human mind and behavior with all its flaws and complexities.

The prose aids in this effort as we see a world that’s lushly described and even though the action is focused on a tiny island, it’s not hard to see and understand the grandeur of the remaining landscape. This rich prose is admirably utilized in the action sequences which are few and far but when they occur, they take on epic levels. This line about power is an admirable example of brevity & completeness: 

ower was born into a person and lived in the wordless depths of their soul.” 

The action sequences occur from the middle and then majorly towards the end. There’s action on a grand scale as well as a personal level and it’s thrilling in both theaters. The author has a way of describing the action whether its swordplay or elemental magic or both. The book flourishes with it and we the readers get a story that punches on an emotional and physical level.

Going to the world, we get a very Japanese influenced world, this is evident from the tiniest bit of details such as the clothes (haori, hakama), Katanas, clan titles (koro, sama, san) and names, etc. This can be a bit of a dual-edged sword as it takes a while to get used to it and then keep track of what means what. Thankfully there’s a glossary to help but in such a big book, it can tricky to flip back and forth. This isn’t a knock on the author as most of us fantasy fans are used to western/European nomenclature and this is an Eastern one. It deserves the attention that any reader can give as it richly rewards us with a world that’s complex, unique and deadly as our own.

After all these superlatives, you might think why my score isn’t a perfect ten. Well here’s the rub of it. This book has a few tiny faults, namely the pace is pedestrian in the first third of the book and this can be very tough to get through. Also in the first third of the story, we get a lot of infodumps about the world (history, mythology, religion, geo-politics, etc.) and while I understand why it was done. It does cause a disconnect with the reader as we are given ginormous dollops of information and not in a smooth way. It’s for these two reasons my score is a tiny bit lower than my fellow bloggers.

CONCLUSION: The Sword Of Kaigen is an epic standalone story that needs to be savoured. It’s rich in all the right ways and perhaps has a few tiny flaws but isn’t that what makes a masterpiece? The beauty of it all is enough to wow us readers and it has bowled over many a critical reader. With this score, we come to an end to the fifth edition of SPFBO and The Sword Of Kaigen etches its final mark on this competition as finely as Misaki has etched herself in the mind of us Kaiganites.

SPFBO Final Score


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