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.
Perhaps considered the godfather(mother) of indie-fantasy, I was so excited to delve into this story that has so frequently been compared to The Poppy War series (one of my favourites of 2021) and Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Whilst I can absolutely see the similarities, I would argue that this fantasy story is unlike anything else I have ever read in the most refreshing way. The story is a dual POV following Misaki and her son Mamoru as they are plunged into war as an old enemy arrives on their doorstep and they are forced to fight to protect those they love the most.
I adored this story, I adored how Wang really blew the lid on what it means to write a ‘character-driven’ story, particularly with her creation of Misaki.
One of my biggest irks of the fantasy genre is the poor representation of female characters. So often, I’ve found brilliant books I’ve struggled to read due to borderline offensive portrayals of women – more often I find books with characters that I can really appreciate, but after reading this absolute masterpiece, I can confidently say it has paved the way for female characters in the genre.
Misaki is a female warrior, and a mother. She loves her children. She will do anything to protect her family. Sounds pretty cool right – wait, let me add some more depth for you – she’s riddled with guilt about not feeling the love she should for her children, she’s regretful of the life she rejected, she feels responsible for previous miscarriages, she feels mum-guilt everyday, she feels rage at elements outside of her control, the list goes on. What makes this character so essentially different is that she feels real.
Reading this book I felt a sheet had been pulled from my eyes and I was reading a character that I hadn’t realised I’d been craving for so long, that the entire genre has been craving for so long. Such an accurate representation of what it means to be female. Not a diversity box. Not an interchangeable character. A character that truly experiences life with feelings and thoughts I never thought I’d relate to to this extent – whilst of course kicking serious ass (can’t relate).
Evidently Misaki was my favourite thing about this tale, but I loved seeing the family dynamics unfold as the story progressed, particularly between Misaki and her husband Takeru. This is such a complex relationship that stems from decades of trauma and hurt and its truly fascinating to read about. In this sense, I feel the story frequently reads like that of a literary fiction, with it being a portrait of the family dynamic. I haven’t encountered this particular blend of genres before, but I have to say, it really worked.
Moving onto the more traditional fantasy elements – the magic, oh my goodness, the magic. Initially I was a little put-off when I discovered this uses elemental magic as I thought it a little unoriginal, but I was SO wrong. We primarily follow the Jijaka, Theonites that can manipulate water, and I can honestly say I was blown away by the level of consideration and creativity added into these abilities. From ice / water snake dragons used in combat, to being able to detach from emotions to become at one with a snow-covered mountain, I was consistently astounded by the continuously original application of these powers.
Wang’s writing style was also dazzling, particularly for a debut. There are some passages within this story that are incredibly beautiful and whilst my copy is tabbed to the brim, the most stunning elements are drawn from huge moments between characters so to add them would be big spoilers.
From start to finish this book was an emotional rollercoaster and I feel privileged to have shared the journey with Misaki and her family, even if they are fictional! It completely broke my heart, it felt raw, it felt emotional, it felt real, and it is absolutely beautiful.
This book is marketed as a ‘Theonite War Story’, which is true, but I’d say it is far more than that. This is a story of family, loyalty, endurance, and ultimately strength, not the warrior kind, but the inner kind. What Wang has created is an absolute masterpiece and I would recommend this to fans of fantasy and literary fiction alike.