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.
The Sword of Kaigen is the 2019 Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (AKA – SPFBO) winner, and after reading it I can see why. The book is excellently-written, a story of warriors and martial arts and cool swords that also succeeded in pulling some emotion out of me and make me feel things (RARE!). Author M.L. Wang has managed an extraordinarily well-balanced book and made a big fan out of me.
One of the aspects of this book I absolutely love is the world building. The story is told in third-person from the perspective of the Matsudas, a family of warriors who live in an area known as The Sword of Kaigen and have protected the Kaigenese Empire for centuries. Through their eyes and experiences the reader learns not just about their sword-wielding family, but also the support families: the ones who govern, the farmers, the blacksmiths, etc. The way Wang develops these families and their talents and contributions to the protection of the Empire through action and dialogue in the story is a particular characteristic of the writing that kept me interested. For a world with such a rich and deep history, there are no info dumps that took me out of the story.
Another strong statement about Wang’s work: she knows how to build up characters. Just a few chapters in, I already loved them all (which a dangerous place to be in a book like this). The author wrote them in such a way as to get at the real heart of each one. Not just the big stuff, either. Each characters past experiences and personalities are really important, but what Wang does so well is to blend the macro with the micro. The reader gets to follow these characters in their day-to-day lives and directly confront their joys and sorrows, fears and acts of bravery, failures and accomplishments. This adds to the emotion of the story, as the reader feels what the characters feel and experience the ups and downs right along with them. By the time the reader gets to the climactic scenes they are so invested it is impossible not to feel it acutely. It takes a lot to get emotion out of me, so congratulations to the author on that accomplishment.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the swords and magic, which are really compelling aspects of the book. Being a warrior family, there is a lot of sword play. It is fun to see the daily training they go through and the fact that they name their swords. And the martial arts and sword fights during battle were really cool. One thing that sets this book apart is the use of elemental magic. While this is not explained in extreme detail there is a nice chart at the front of the book that that shows the different elements humans can control elements (wind, water, fire, etc, along with a few other types). The Matsudas are adept with water, being able to use it in many different ways – and they can even change its form; much of this story centers around them turning water into ice for use as projectiles or ice swords. The way other peoples use their elemental magic is really interesting, also. Seeing as how this is one of the coolest aspects of the book, I do not want to ruin it by saying to much. It is a really interesting and fun part of the story.
The only thing keeping this book from a perfect score was that there were a few small instances in the story that felt a little forced to me. These plot points were few and far between and did not really take me out of the story for the most part, except for the last chapter. There was one part of the end that clashed with the rest of the story, to me. I did not knock it down much, though, because it is a small piece of what is an otherwise amazing book.
I am not sure what took me so long to read The Sword of Kaigen. This East Asian-inspired story is full of exciting warrior components (martial arts, swords, and elemental magic) not to mention the amazing characters and the emotion wrought by their stories. I absolutely loved it and highly recommend it to all fans of fantasy. If you are like me and have put off reading this book, what are you waiting for?