✨ Spoiler Free ✨
Author: M. L. Wang
Publication year: 2019
Content warnings: War, violence, gore, rape, trauma, depression, suicide, major character death, death of a child.
The Sword of Kaigen is a high fantasy novel inspired by 19th-century Japan. It follows mother and son – Misaki and Mamoru – from the powerful Matsuda family, all of whom are jijaka’s who have the ability to wield water for combative purposes. When conflict breaks out in their small town of Takayubi, the Matsuda’s must fight to protect what they love.
What I liked
- Complex characters
- Character development
- World building
- Exploration of family
- Writing style
What I disliked
- Slow pacing
- Choice of POV characters
- Dense worldbuilding
Plot and Structure
The plot was military-centric with elements of family drama, romance and female empowerment. The characters were more of a driving force for the plot than the plot itself. I did find it difficult to grasp exactly what the cause of the war was, who the enemy was and why they were attacking, so I wasn’t too invested in the plot for that reason. I was more invested in the themes surrounding the plot and characters rather than the plot itself. There were high stakes throughout, but the plot did feel quite disjointed. There were shocking moments and it maintained intruige throughout. However, there were lulls in the pacing numerous times. The beginning was a very slow start and around the mid-point it lost my attention and I ended up putting it down for a few weeks before coming back to it. Ironically, the last half of the book picked up hugely and I became more invested as the focus shifted more towards the characters.
Structurally, the tone shifted dramatically making it feel like there were three distinctive parts. In the first third, it was focused on the younger POV character and his time at school; the second third was focused on the war and battle; and the final third focused on the characters emotions and process of dealing with the aftermath of the fighting. Generally, it was chronological but with some flashbacks to Misaki’s past. Although I appreciated the flashbacks for Misaki’s character development, they did sometimes feel a bit haphazard and didn’t fit within the wider story. I also didn’t particularly like that her past mainly served as a romantic sub-plot which was unnecessary and didn’t add much to her character or the story.
World Building and Magic
Considering this novel is a standalone, the world-building was fantastic. So much was packed into the 600 pages but it rarely felt like there were info dumps. The culture, norms, hierachies and gender roles were well established, but
I would’ve liked more context for the history and politics of the world, particularly around the conflict and government structure. These things were hinted at or mentioned in passing but needed more focus. I struggled at multiple points to distinguish the different families, countries, towns, cities, languages and cultures in the world. Since it is Japenese-inspired I also struggled with more minor language uses and phrases. There was a handy glossary in the back, but reading the Kindle edition made this less accessible and more difficult to go between as I was reading. Nonetheless, objectively the world-building here was phenomenal.
The magic system was rooted in elemental magic and those that possess this magical ability are called Theonites. There are two types of Theonites – Jijaka that manipulate water and Fonyakalu that manipulate wind. The magic system wasn’t outlined in extensive detail, but anybody that’s read my previous fantasy reviews will know that I prefer softer magic systems so I was happy with this. Different characters wielded their abilities in different ways and had varying levels of power, which was used creatively in battle. I loved how the Matsuda’s magic was characterised as a part of them and how connected their magic was to their environment, connecting them to their heritage and homeland. I also liked that the magic wasn’t used as a substitute for combative skill, but to elevate their abilities. It’s not a unique magic system, but was fun, interesting and blended well within the wider world. Sometimes the use of magic in fantasy can feel clunky, but it seamlessly fit within the story here. It was an important aspect of the world, but didn’t dominate everything at the expense of other worldbuilding details.
As a self published novel, the writing style really impressed me. It was clean with few grammatical errors and was incredibly well-edited. M. L. Wang’s writing style was immersive and detailed. She created vivid imagery of the mountain setting and provided detailed worldbuilding. When writing about the characters, it was highly emotive and emphatic. This was a positive in regards to enabling me to connect with the characters and empathise with them. However, at times too much time was spent on dissecting the characters every emotion and thought, becoming repetitive and losing its impact. The tone was melancholic, focusing on the depressive emotions of the characters and hopelessness of their situation, although towards the end the tone did become more hopeful. Overall, I really liked the writing style. It was clear, detailed and descriptive striking a good balance between dialogue, exposition and description.
Power was born into a person and lived in the wordless depths of their soul.
Characters and Relationships
This is where this book truly shone. The two main POV characters – Misaki and Mamoru – brought a fresh perspective to the fantasy setting through the eyes of mother and son. Their internal struggles contrasted each other. As a child, Mamoru’s worries and perspectives are more innocent and black and white, whereas Misaki’s worries weigh heavily on her and we see how this impacts her as a mother, and how in turn, this impacts her children.
Misaki stole the spotlight. She’s one of the best written and complex female protagonist’s I’ve found in fantasy for a long time; a complex female character that is physically, mentally and emotionally strong, yet vulnerable, flawed and emotional. She can be hard and she can be soft; forgiving and vengeful; loving and hateful; compassionate and unempathetic; cold and warm. She’s a myriad of conflicting things and her development throughout the book was a joy to read. I appreciated that motherhood was such a core component of her character and that her love and devotion to her children paired with her personal struggles at times impaired her ability to be the type of mother she wanted to be. I wish that more had been done with her flashbacks that went beyond a romantic sub-plot, because I actually felt like this didn’t fit with her character.
Unfortunately, I didn’t connect as much to Mamaru, and would’ve preferred to have other POV characters, such as Misaki’s husband, Takeru. Takeru had a lot of valuable insight to add to the story and although we did get one chapter from his perspective, he should’ve been introduced as a main POV character earlier on. Takeru was a mysterious character during first half, but towards the end more was revealed about his character and he really grew on me. His relationship with Misaki was so interesting and their dynamic was one of my favourite aspects of the book. The focus on these two as individuals and a couple is what made the second half work so well for me.
The family dynamics between the Matsuda’s was another strong point of the book. Misaki’s relationships with her children, her husband and her sister-in-law, Setsuko. The female solidarity and sisterhood between Misaki and Setsuko was a refreshing break from the dreariness of the story. Their scenes were always coloured with love, support and compassion. Generally, I really liked the portrayal of community and family.
The Sword of Kaigen is a strong high-fantasy standalone with detailed worldbuilding, an interesting magic system and well written characters. Although the plot itself wasn’t captivating, the characters relationships and development propelled me forward with the story, even during the lulls in pacing. Some more detail could’ve added to the richness of the world and helped me to feel more invested in the plot, but the shift in focus to the characters and their relationships in the second half made up for my lack of enjoyment in the first half. The writing style was succinct and meticulous, connecting me to the characters and setting. My favourite part of the book was Misaki and the relationships she had with her family. Misaki has immediately jumped onto my list of all time favourite female characters. Her relationship was her husband was a fascinating examination of a loveless, toxic marriage and was a unique and refreshing take from the usual romances that are in fantasy. I did go into reading this book with high expectations and not all of them were met, but it was an enjoyable read overall and I would highly recommend it for fantasy readers.
I’d recommend The Sword of Kaigen if:
You’re looking for an Asian inspired, military, fantasy standalone that gives you The Poppy War vibes, has high emotional stakes, a depressive tone and a complex female warrior character.
Have you read The Sword of Kaigen or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!
Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.