The Sword of Kaigen – Book Review

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Author: M. L. Wang
Genre: Fantasy
Series: Theonite
Publication year: 2019
Audience: 16+
Content warnings: War, violence, gore, rape, trauma, depression, suicide, major character death, death of a child.

Synopsis

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.

Writing Style

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.

Concluding thoughts

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.

The First Law Trilogy – Book Series Review

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Overall rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Author: Joe Abercrombie
Genre: Fantasy
Books: #1 The Blade Itself; #2 Before They are Hanged; #3 Last Argument of Kings
Publication year: 2006-2008
Audience: 18+
Content warnings: War, graphic violence and injuries, torture, mutilation, gore, death, trauma, misogyny, kidnapping, imprisonment, explicit sexual scenes, rape. Since this trilogy is grimdark it contains lots of dark themes so there may be some I’ve missed from this list.

Synopsis

The First Law universe is a dark, politically unstable world characterised by war and unrest. The trilogy follows 6 POV characters on their respective journey’s as they navigate the conflict and political games that will determine their fates.

What I liked

  • THE CHARACTERS!!
  • Character dynamics
  • Strong character development
  • Writing style and prose
  • World building
  • Dark themes
  • Morally grey characters

What I disliked

  • Slow pacing
  • Lack of plot
  • Open and rushed ending

Plot and Structure

This trilogy is known for not being big on plot, but that’s not to say that there is a complete absence of plot. Similar to most multiple-POV fantasy stories, the trilogy has six plot threads running through it focused on the six main characters. At various times throughout the three books, the characters’ stories intersect with thrilling results. The plot is focused on two central conflicts – the one between the Union and the North and the second between the Union and the Gurkish Empire. It’s primarily a war-focused plot, analysing the conflicts that take place from military, political and social perspectives.

Despite getting off to a relatively slow start in the first book, I really enjoyed the plot. There were lots of twists and turns, political intruige and fantastic action scenes. The plot was built upon more with each book, but I personally enjoyed the plot in Before They Are Hanged (Book #2) most. Although the fantastical elements were low, there was enough to keep me intruiged and I liked learning about the world’s magic and history. The ending was somewhat underwhelming and rushed. It was too open-ended for my liking and I felt that there were some characters that were done an injustice and questions that remained unanswered, but I appreciated that the ending generally fit with the tone of the world. It was bittersweet to say the least.

Structurally, each book is divided into two parts with alternating POV chapters between Logen Ninefingers, Sand dan Glokta, Jezal dan Luthar, Collem West, The Dogman and Ferro Maljinn. It’s narrated in chronological order for the most part with a handful of flashbacks relevant to establish the plot and characters’ back stories. The diverse personalities of the POV characters and their different stations and locations provided a broad perspective on the world and plot as it unfolded. I enjoyed every POV character, which is rare for me, and an attestment to how well Joe Abercrombie writes characters.

World Building and Magic

The world building in this trilogy was incredible. It’s one of the most detailed worlds that I’ve been able to create in my imagination; from the side alleys to the grand buildings and vast deserts, I see it all in vivid detail and felt as though I was living in the world with the characters. Abercrombie took the time to establish the world, drip feeding the information throughout the three books at a steady pace. Yet from the very first chapters I felt anchored in the world and had a strong sense of how it looked, smelled and felt. Through his writing, Abercrombie drew on all of the senses which connected me to the world even more. Although it’s a very dark and unpleasant world, it’s one of my favourite fantasy universes that I’ve read to date.

There was a lot of ambiguity around the magic system. More was revealed about the function of magic and the First Law the series is titled after – which outlaws contact with the Other Side – in the second and third books. Most of the information about the magic system was established through history and a lot of it was left unexplained. As a fan of soft magic systems, I personally liked this. The magic was prominent at times but for the most part it was a low hum in the background; I could sense it but it wasn’t tangible. Overall, the magic system was a lower priority in comparison to the characters and world building.

Writing Style

Joe Abercrombie writes with intention and is meticulous with how he chooses his words. His writing is carefully chosen to match the setting and characters. Each character had their own manner of speaking characterised by different sentence lengths, colloquialisms, dialects, phrases and patterns of thinking. I am yet to read another author that so distinctly differentiates between their characters. His flair for writing dialouge is equally fantastic. It’s sharp, witty and engaging. The style wasn’t flowery but eloquently conveyed the tone and emotion of the story and characters. There was extensive descriptions of the setting which enabled me to build clear images of the setting and world but it wasn’t too indulgent. Description didn’t overshadow the other elements of the writing and the balance between the various aspects was balanced well. Abercrombie also has a talent for writing war and action. All action and battle scenes were detailed, fast paced and thrilling. Likewise, his ability to write gut-punching and captivating scenes is fantastc. There are so many memorable scenes from this series that will stay with me for a long time. Overall, the attention to detail in Abercrombie’s craft was apparent. From dialogue to descripton to prose, it was concise, strongly written and it immersed me in the world and story completely.

Round and round in circles we go, clutching at successes we never grasp, endlessly tripping over the same old failures. Truly, life is the misery we endure between disappointments.

#3 Last Argument of Kings

Characters and Relationships

The characters were the triumph of this trilogy. They were simply phenomenal. Each one was complex, morally grey and awful yet oddly sympathetic. I couldn’t help but develop a love-hate relationship with them. They were compelling and unpredictable, but also completely consistent and fully fleshed out. Even when characters took turns I didn’t expect (which happened a lot!), it was authentic and believable. Each character had a complete arc and journey across the three books which was well written, developed and executed. Their development wasn’t linear, and some characters regressed in many ways, but that was very fitting with the nuance of the characters and is also reflective of the reality of being human. Growth is hard and messy and doesn’t happen easily. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all.

There wasn’t a single poorly written character. I loved every single one of them. The only character that felt a little weaker to me was Ferro, which was disappointing since she was the only main female character. In fact, my biggest critcism of Abercrombie’s characters is that there was a complete lack of female characters and the ones that were featured felt less developed than the male characters. However, having read two of the First Law standalones (Best Served Cold and The Heroes), I know that this is something he improves on later on in the series.

Admittedly, the characters won’t be to everyone’s tastes because they are so terrible. Unless you really enjoy characters that are genuinely terrible and morally corrupt, you won’t connect with these characters. They did awful things, sometimes for survival but sometimes simply because they could, because they wanted to or because it was the easier choice. They’re not the type of characters that are relatable or that readers can necessarily empathise with, but I became invested in them as people that were unfortunate to be born into such a volatile world that forced them to extremes for the purpose of self preservation.

I could take the time to individually analyse each character because there’s so much to say, but I will just mention my personal favourites – Logen, The Dogman, Jezal and West. These characters surprised me and developed immensely across the trilogy. Despite their flaws and darkness, there was a core sense of humanity that I connected with. That’s not to say the other characters weren’t as equally strong, because they were. The characters stand out in my mind as some of the best in fantasy. In the future, I plan to write character analyses on some of the First Law characters, so keep an eye open for that, if you’re interested.

Because the characters were so great, the character relationships wrote themselves and were so fun to read. Before They Are Hanged (Book #2) was my favourite book for this because of the new, unlikely friendshps that were made. I really enjoyed the dynamics between the Northmen – Dogman, Threetrees, Grim, Black Dow and Tul Duru. Despite their friendships being shallow on the surface, since their bond was formed on a need for survival, the dependence, loyalty and cooperation between them was touching. There wasn’t much emphasis on romantic relationships which I appreciated, since I can sometimes find that romance is shoe-horned into fantasy unnecessarily. I also liked that the romantic relationships that did form weren’t idealised and were actually quite un-romantic. It was in keeping with the tone of the book.

Concluding thoughts

The First Law is a dark, gritty, character driven fantasy trilogy set in a rich universe inspired by medieval Europe. Despite a slow burn plot, it’s a thrilling, compelling and encapsulating story with plenty of twists and turns. I was diappointed by the lack of female characters, but the trilogy makes up for it with the complex, dynamic and intruiging cast of characters it does have. It also makes up for this short-coming in other areas such as its attention to detail, world building, character development and well crafted writing style. Abercrombie’s sharp minded wit and dark humour makes for some brilliant dialogue, character moments and character dynamics. All of this comes together to create an immersive, exciting and unforgettable read which kept me on my toes and made me feel the broad spectrum of emotions from elation to sadness to anticipation and shock. Overall, this trilogy is centered on the characters and is a must-read for character driven fantasy readers like myself.

I’d recommend The First Law trilogy if:

You’re looking for a character driven grimdark fantasy with low magic, complex morally grey characters and a dark world akin to George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

Have you read The First Law or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.