The Sword of Kaigen (description via Goodreads):
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.
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?
And without further ado, my review:
Well, well, well.
I have to admit that this book has been on my agenda for quite a long while. It first came on my radar almost a year and a half ago when another author I admire posted a review about it.
Sadly, I have to be very choosy which books I physically read (as opposed to listening to audio) due to time constraints.
So of course, when I heard there was going to be an audio edition I was one of the first to get in touch with the author about an early review copy of the audio!
After all the hype (especially winning the fifth SPFBO contest!), I was expecting something big. Something powerful. Something intense and emotional and amazing.
And let me just say that this book did not disappoint!
Before I go any further, let’s talk about the narrator for a moment.
Andrew Tell is a new name for me. I had never even heard of him before this book, much less heard his voice. What becomes immediately clear is he has a powerful, nuanced voice. I was a bit concerned about his ability to present the female voices, and while I can’t say he does so with believable accuracy, what I can say is that he found a natural way to differentiate gender voices that comes off exceptionally well. Apart from that, his voices in general are brilliantly crafted and distinct. He has particular skill in creating nuanced vocal inflections that match the emotional resonance either described or implied from the text. And his shifts in tempo throughout the novel are nigh on a perfect match to the tone and tension of each scene.
Now, as is my wont, I will largely dispense with a discussion of the plot of the book. There are plenty of other reviews that summarize the story.
So, what is the Sword of Kaigen?
Well, here we have a large, sprawling creation that spans multiple nations yet still manages to keep things impressively personal. It is full of action, yet is emotionally resonant to a surprising degree. It is definitely what I would call a slow-burn, yet once we pass a certain point fairly early on, it becomes so engrossing, so fascinating, so viscerally real that I just couldn’t put it down.
One thing I have to admit is in the earliest chapters, I found my attention waning. At first I found it difficult to connect with Mimoru, on account of his youth, his arrogance, and his utter faith in a system he has never seen any proof of.
Misaki I found little better in those early chapters, though for wholly different reasons. She’s a woman who does not, in any way, belong in the life she’s in, and it wasn’t until much later in the story that I finally understood why she found herself living that life.
But I digress.
In short, this is the epitome of a slow-burn story in which you really don’t understand who people are or why they are the way they are until much later. It requires a fair leap on faith in the author’s ability to bring it all together and craft something beautiful.
And make no mistake, M.L. Wang accomplishes that with finesse and style.
I’ve seen other reviewers criticize the writing style as indulgent, needlessly complex, and overly wordy.
Well, I have to disagree on 2-and-a-half of those points.
Yes, you read that right. 2.5 of the three points.
Allow me to explain.
Although the writing is complex, with a good number of new words, ideas, and customs, I find that complexity fits this novel with near perfection.
Similarly, while the writing absolutely is wordy, this is a case of characterization more than anything. You’ll find many novels written in the third person that are written with considerable distance from the characters, as though the narrator is “God” or a similarly omniscient figure, thereby giving descriptions and background in a clinical way.
Not so here. Every word of this novel is written in the voice of a character, and the wordiness is 100% in keeping with the way these characters see the world.
Now, on indulgence I give a half-point.
Allow me to explain.
The author goes to considerable length to explain some things that I found obvious, and does go to great lengths to clarify cultural aspects that I suspect are well known among those more familiar with eastern cultures.
However, I didn’t find any of it to be excessive.
I give it a half point largely because I can see it being tedious to those who might be more familiar with such things.
If I had to name a single thing this novel does extremely well, it would be characters. Every major character has an incredible arc and it was far beyond a joy to witness the growth of these characters.
The author also manages what I consider the “holy grail” of storytelling, which is the combination of plot and character. The characters are the plot, and the plot is the characters. You truly cannot separate the two in this novel. Every aspect of each character’s arc is a major plot point, and every major plot point creates progression along those character arcs.
Needless to say, I can’t give you specifics about exactly what in those arcs I loved so much without giving spoilers for the story. So what I will say here is that if you read this book (and you should), go into it with the commitment to finish it. Even if you find the opening dull, trust the author to lead you on a wonderful adventure that has one of the most fantastic endings I’ve seen in a standalone novel.
Another aspect of this story that I found absolutely incredible is the mixture of magic system and world building. I place the two together (against my usual method) because they really are inseparable. The magic system is as much a living, breathing part of the world as the culture of the Kaiganese or their enemies. And I find it fascinating. It does have something of an Avatar-meets-X-men vibe to it, in that certain characters or families have their own things that they can do, while pretty much everyone who can manipulate it has access to some variant of the natural elements. But it’s so much more than than. There are so many specialized uses for the abilities they possess, and so many ways they turn those abilities into so much more than a normal individual would expect.
It was phenomenal, and in the large battle where we get to see almost everything at work, the complexity and the setup that went into it blew my mind.
It’s a rare thing for me to laugh hysterically, stand up and cheer, and bawl my eyes out all within a single book. Much less a single chapter.
This novel accomplished all three extremes in a single SCENE!
Take a moment to absorb that and think about what that would take.
Now, this is the part where I would normally talk about things that I found problematic in the novel. I’ll admit that earlier in the book I had a couple things, but later on it proved to be merely that I didn’t have a full understanding yet of the characters or the way this world works. I was under some mistaken impressions.
I think the closest thing I have to a critique is the slow progress at the start of the book. I think I was probably 5 hours into the audiobook before I got so engrossed in it that I only put it down when I absolutely had to.
I spent so much of the book in complete awe, which was only exacerbated by the fact that for much of it I just couldn’t fathom how the story was going to keep going long enough to take up the rest of the runtime!
So, let’s discuss the ending for a moment.
As I alluded to above, there are some major emotional extremes to be found in the climaxes (there are several). Every time you think you’ve reached the emotional high and it’s going to start to wind down, you find an even higher emotional extreme that you have to find a way to come down from. Only at the very end, when you feel so wrung out that you wouldn’t survive another emotional dropkick, does it finally end and bring everything around full circle for one of the most incredible endings of any book I’ve ever read.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is absolutely my #1 novel of 2020.
Really, if you read only one fantasy this year, it should be this one. Even if fantasy isn’t normally your thing, read it. If superhero-eske books aren’t your thing, read it. If semi-historical isn’t your thing, still read it. And even if eastern cultures don’t normally do it for you, read this book!
You’ll be glad you did.
If you’re so inclined, you can pick up a copy from Amazon at what I consider a criminally low price!
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