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.
This review has taken me a few days to write. Please be aware I talk about grief and mental health in this review and it turned into quite a personal piece of writing for me.
I’ve been reading fantasy for a long time. I am in my near-mid 40’s and read Lord of The Rings at the age of 15. I have read fantasy books that have blown me away, taken me to worlds of incredible depth and imagination and introduced me to characters that have had a profound impact on my life.
Then Sword of Kaigen came along and completely and utterly changed the way I think about the fantasy genre. M. L. Wang grabbed me by the throat and didn’t let go for 600+ pages of intense, emotionally charged, exquisitely constructed storytelling.
I’m a broken man, but a better one because of this book.
I read this as part of Literature and Lo-Fi’s fantastic month long event, ‘February She Wrote’, promoting and celebrating female authors and authors who use the She/Her pronouns and wow, what a book to start this event with.
The book follows the Matsuda family, leaders of a warrior clan who live in the mountain village Takayubi. They are the first and last defence of the Kaiganese Empire and live by a strict moral code in a feudal system. With the rumblings of war in the wind, the once peaceful lives of the Matsuda’s is about to be shaken to its very core. Embedded in Eastern philosophy and mysticism, Japanese social culture and belief, M. L. Wang has created a rich, complex and engrossing world which draws you in to the point where you can feel the snow between your fingers, smell the blacksmiths smelters and breathe in the sea air.
The world-building in Sword of Kaigen is astonishing. What can take some authors a trilogy of books to accomplish, M. L. Wang does so in one volume. The attention to social order; Kaiganese society is patriarchal, boys train to be warriors at the school, girls are raised to be obedient wives to provide children that will bring new generations of warriors to protect the mighty empire. The detail in clothing, how it moves in combat, how it feels against the skin adds a realism to this book that I really appreciated. The geography of the world is clearly laid out and the environment that the characters inhabit is essential to their magic system. More on that later.
The historical and political background of this story is also incredibly detailed and layered with such expertise throughout the novel. M. L. Wang allows exposition to be delivered to the reader when the characters are required to know a new bit of information. Again it gives this book a realistic foundation, conversations feel organic, never giving information for the sake of information. Much exposition is given through action and M. L. Wang excels at battle prose.
The action in this book is brutal, visceral, and bloody. Be warned if you are not one for violent fantasy this book may not be for you. As well as battle violence, there is also rape and torture, but it is never excessive or exploitative. M. L. Wang makes every word on the page, every violent action, mean something to the characters, to their motivation. No page space or word is wasted. Everything has meaning in The Sword of Kaigen.
Also essential to the action is the magic system and M. L. Wang has developed an almost scientific approach to the magic. The people of Kaigen have the ability to control water, in all its phases, and thus have the ability to control and alter water on a molecular level. What the characters can achieve with this is so imaginative, so different to other magic systems I have encountered. I was really wowed and caught up in the history and culture behind the different magics. Your bloodline and race determines what type of magic you have and interbreeding brings up many intriguing, and sometimes problematic, issues.
Now to characters. I am still struggling to put into words what an impact some of the characters in this book had on me, especially our female lead. Though the book’s POV is primarily through the eyes of two people, Wang makes sure that all the supporting cast are fully rounded, memorable characters. Everyone of them has a unique voice and presence and there is a huge cast of characters. M. L. Wang has a lot to juggle, but at no point does it feel like she’s struggling to give any one of them room to breathe. Like I said earlier, not a page or word is wasted.
Mamoru is the eldest son of the Matsuda’s. Desperate to make his stoic and strict father, Takeru, proud, fully aware of the responsibility on his shoulder to carry on the tradition and power of the clan, he is beyond his years in maturity, yet, his handle on his emotions is his Achilles heel. His character arc is so good, I loved him. His friendship with foreign student and outsider Kwang is a fascinating one with so many layers to think about and thematically it fascinated me. As his awareness of the political and cultural world outside grows, his belief in his culture starts to waver. I can’t tell you how many themes and topical issues you could talk about in this book. It’s primed for an academic paper.
Then we have Misaki, wife of Takeru and mother of Mamoru. Even now, typing this, I have a lump in my throat and goose bumps. No other character and their journey has impacted me as much as she has in the fantasy genre. Married into the Matsuda family by her father, she has had to repress her violent past and be the good mother and the obedient wife. I cannot stress the complexity and conflict within Misaki enough and M. L. Wang conveys this with such ease and such poetry that even though I am a man and I can never truly understand what Misaki is going through, I was on the journey with her. Wang draws you into Misaki’s mind, into her heart and lays it bare on the page. Sometimes it was so raw and painful it was hard to read, but its so beautifully written I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the page.
Takeru, the Patriarch of the Matsuda family is mostly viewed from the outside in. We get to know him, or not get to know him in some cases, through Mamoru and Misaki. His character was the hardest nut to crack, but boy, what he goes through in the later stages of the book is remarkable and all the resentment or negative feelings I had towards him, changed. M. L. Wang expertly constructs Takeru then deconstructs him. It’s wonderful to behold.
The themes that M. L. Wang weaves through the book are on a macro and micro level. From imperialism, nationalism, insularism to brotherhood, parenthood and free thinking. Hope and grief were the two themes that hit me the hardest and Wang absolutely stripped me of my armour. This book deals with the death of loved ones in a brutally honest and empathetic way and M. L. Wang approaches it with an unvarnished and devastating manner. I have had to deal with the death of my father years ago and what Wang writes about hit me in a deeply personal way.
Mental health is also an aspect that Wang weaves into the narrative, not just in dealing with death, but dealing with a young persons pressure to meet a parents expectations, to discovering things that shake the very foundation of your existence. For someone like me, who suffers from depression and anxiety, again, M. L. Wang’s characterisation and words really spoke to me, really affected me. At times it was cathartic and healing for me, even though the situations the characters are in are fantastical and extreme. But the beauty of fantasy, well written and beautifully characterised fantasy, is that the genre can approach subjects that are hard to tackle, are hard to face and isn’t afraid to talk about it.
The Sword of Kaigen was a profound reading experience for me. It may not be for everyone, I think we all bring our own baggage, our own experiences to a book when we read it. But M. L. Wang is a master of her craft and if you are looking for a standalone epic fantasy with beautifully realised characters, breath-taking narrative, exquisite world-building, a wonderfully constructed magic system and incredible action, then you need to put this one on your TBR.
This book is the easiest 5/5 I have ever given a book and its in my top 5 books of all time…in fact its my favourite book and it will take a lot of knock it off the top spot. For me, its a masterpiece of fiction.
A week later and Mamoru, Misaki and Takeru are still in my thoughts, their stories still linger in my mind and I think they will for a long time.
Wholeness, she had learned, was not the absence of pain but the ability to hold it.