Review: The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang


A mother struggling to repress her violent past,
A son struggling to grasp his violent future,
A father blind to the danger that threatens them all.

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?

High 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.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

The Kusanagi Peninsula bred warriors, and not just any warriors, but the fiercest that ever were. Years of defending the Kaigenese Empire against its foreign enemies earned the province the nickname “the Sword of Kaigen”, and enshrined it as deeply as any truth whispered to the gods before an altar.

Fourteen-year-old Matsuda Mamoru wants to claim his legacy as the son of the most eminent warrior family in the Kusanagi Peninsula, but it is too hot to the touch. Mamoru’s friendship with Kwang Chul-hee, a new transfer student at the elite Kumono Academy, had forced him to confront uncomfortable truths about the government and the insidious lies they circulate to justify bleeding great gouts of Kaigenese men in never-ending wars, so those in power could pull the world’s riches to themselves like well-dressed spiders in the center of a golden web. The questions are something of a snake eating its own tail, and Mamoru could not dig himself out, so he turns to his mother, Misaki, for answers. But Misaki—who had once been a warrior herself, walking side by side with death, but who gave it all up to seek some mute purgatory where she could live as the wife to the distant and hard-hearted Matsuda Takeru—could only offer him halting truths.

Misaki had left the past behind, like a photograph abandoned on asphalt under an unforgiving sun, but when an attack sends her family careening alone into the fearful darkness, it is as if someone had removed a fuse in her mind. Misaki will protect her family and she will not count the cost.

She had thought she was water that could adjust to fill any container, be as strong in the shape of a mother as a warrior, but in the end, maybe Koli had been right about her. She was a knife, a sharp edge, that killed or cut anything it touched.

It is always a pleasure to find a book you could give yourself up to, that you could curl up inside and let the rest of the world flow around you. The kind that leaves you marooned, like a sleepwalker awakened mid-dream wondering what exactly you’d been doing.

The Sword of Kaigen is quite a massive book. The sheer volume of backstory provided here amounts to literary whiplash: the world of potent gods, undaunted warriors and horrific monsters is brimming with detail and full of different approaches to gender, sexuality, faith, and language. In a lesser author’s hands, this could easily become potboiler, but Wang plots with the meticulous deliberation of a piano tuner. She keeps the dialogue slashing, the prose detailed yet concise, and the action so enthralling my own heart often flied out ahead of me. There’s also a persistent sensation of dread throughout, a sickening suspicion of where the story might be headed that I didn’t dare speak out loud, lest that would make it true.

As a result, The Sword of Kaigen speeds by at a quick clip, and for the space of a few hundred pages, everything else in my mind took a step back to clear space for this book. I found my eyes reluctant to look anywhere else, and, I kept going, going, going, as if someone were about to snatch it from my hands. I read as plot twist after plot twist went off like a shotgun blast in the quiet of my room, and I thought the words should make some kind of sense. (A text I sent to a friend read: “please tell me this did not just happen.”)

The Sword of Kaigen brims and bubbles with suspense and nonstop, cleverly choreographed action sequences that will have readers on the edge of their seats. But some of its most memorable moments occur in stillness, and the reader would come to think of these moments, small and ordinary though they may have seemed, as a harbinger of what was to come. The novel is, after all, a source of scalpel-sharp insight and unexpected power, and Wang is able to strike at so much of what ails not only her fictional world but also most areas all over the world today. The true monsters of The Sword of Kaigen are eerily familiar: propaganda, disparity, militarism, and the ways countries can both liberate and dehumanize.

What sort of a man closed his eyes to the world and called it clarity?

It’s the novel’s greatest triumph, however, that its characters seem to carve out their own patterns organically, without being prodded into place by the shape of the story. Wang never takes the easy way out—she mercilessly tightens the noose on her characters from the very first page, offers them a few outs only to deny them right as they leap to accept, and pummels them until they think they have nothing left to give. This drives the plot to stunning moments that had me laughing from somewhere deep inside, and crying, too—my tears raging, practically leaping from my eyes in full, fat drops like rain.

Crafting a multi-voiced novel can trip up even the most seasoned of authors, but Wang succeeds on that front in spades. Her characters radiate an extraordinary vitality, and their points of view are raw and sharp by turns. Wang is exceptionally good at flipping the reader’s perceptions and offering unexpected moments of clarity. As the plot tightens, these people tell us who they really are. Too often, it is as if we have always seen them from one angle, and now that they have turned, rotated, we are confronted with another facet. The fact that the author had me feverishly rooting for characters I spent most of the novel hating with a Casanovian passion is quite the remarkable achievement.

Misaki, in particular, is an exquisitely refreshing protagonist. Through a series of flashbacks, we witness how her personality had flipped from a sharp, hot-tempered teenager to an older, detached, mute facsimile of herself. The insolence is gone, that old aggressive glint: Misaki had curled into her good-wife place like a bird bred in a cage, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. But over the course of the novel, she becomes something else entirely: a column of red energy, the inside of a coal furnace. Misaki grows tired of listening to her husband, tired of the weight of his will crushing her smaller and smaller, tired of minding her place. She was a woman—not just a body, not just skin and softness, not a toy or a tamable creature.

But it’s Misaki’s relationship to her sons that snagged at me the most. Misaki had four children, and for years, she had not seen any of them clearly. When she looked she saw only the mirror of her own faults, and she had stood, and watched them recede from her, shrinking to the end of a tunnel. The exploration of motherhood is so acute, so candid that we feel the sting of it as as surely as one feels the sting of shards when an hourglass tips off a shelf and smashes. “How had a soulless block of ice like Takeru and a selfish thing like her”, Misaki muses at one point, “created something so bright?” 

All in all, The Sword of Kaigen is an adventure and a half, and I do not doubt that every single fantasy reader will hungrily devour this novel.







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