Simply phenomenal; The Sword of Kaigen is a stunning achievement of empathetic and masterful storytelling.
Every once in a while, a book comes along that sinks its hooks and claws into your very soul. It transcends beyond what a 5-star book usually means to me. It is a book that I will plead, beg and maybe even force everyone to read, so that they can experience the same awe and emotions as I did. Thus far, I have not gone down the road of awarding 6 stars to some of my favourites, but there are several that I could easily place in that category. Namely The Stormlight Archive, a few titles from Malazan Book of the Fallen, and Heir of Novron, the final omnibus of The Riyria Revelations. Now, this extraordinary stand-alone fantasy novel, which is a rarity in itself, has earned itself a well-deserved spot among these masterpieces.
The Sword of Kaigen is the most well-balanced stand-alone fantasy book that I’ve had the pleasure of reading. From its convincing worldbuilding and awe-inspiring elemental magic system to the intensely epic action scenes and the quiet, contemplative moments, and most of all, its stellar character development. Throughout the entire novel, there was not one moment which did not matter, and a palpable tension permeated every turn of the page.
The world was heavily inspired by our Far Eastern cultures and its people. The Kaigenese are reminiscent of the Japanese and the Ranganese the Chinese. A lot of new and unfamiliar terms, such as those used to describe time, length, clothes, social classes and honorifics, did result in a rather steep learning curve at the beginning. Fortunately, there is a detailed glossary available with the book, and after reading several chapters, context helped to enhance the understanding of these strange words. I do not know much Japanese, but I have an inkling that a lot of these words are derived in some form or another from this language. A lot of care and attention to detail evidently went into creating a world that was entirely new and yet felt familiar and believable.
I will not elaborate on the plot as the book’s synopsis did a great job of revealing just enough without any spoilers. Misaki is the only daughter of a well-standing and powerful family who had to turn her back from her exciting life of adventure and the man she loved when she married the second son of the Matsudas, one of the formidable old warrior houses whose bloodline wields the legendary Whispering Blade. Such a union of powerful families through arranged marriages was a tradition observed to maintain the lineage of the bloodline. Wives are expected to bear as many sons as possible for their husbands or are deemed a failure. The treatment of women as portrayed in The Sword of Kaigen was a brutal reality in our Far Eastern patriarchal societies. While advancement and progress have decreased the extent of such gender discrimination, it still exists in the more traditional and prominent families who treasure the continuation of their lineage above all else.
It was entirely by chance that I ended up finishing this book on International Women’s Day. This book, which honoured the strength and courage of women, and their capacity for sacrificing all for the ones they love, could not have come at a better time. I have either too many words or not enough to describe the characterisation of Misaki. As an Asian woman, the distinctive cultural sensibilities in Kaigen, and Misaki’s inner turmoil as she teetered between resistance and submission, resonated like a windchime. The empathy and strength of her character made for one of the most enthralling and relatable portrayals of a woman that I’ve come across. Undoubtedly, Misaki is now one of my favourite female characters of all time, if not the favourite.
She had taken every hardship like a stroke of a hammer, turning it into strength.
No character, regardless of how well-written, can stand on his or her own. What made The Sword of Kaigen spectacular was that the author gave even the supporting characters equally masterful strokes. This enhanced my level of emotional investment which made the story so intense and gripping.
I had high expectations when my co-reviewer mentioned that the action and magic battle sequences were Sanderson-worthy. I was far from being disappointed, and was gifted with two exceptionally memorable scenes. Barely halfway into the book, the power of the gods made manifest in humans clashed in a devastating battle of wind and ice. Sometimes action scenes in fantasy can be written with either just a bit too much of a technical or abstract quality that I find it hard to picture the actual fighting. In The Sword of Kaigen, this was astoundingly well-written and with such clarity and simplicity that I could see and feel everything that happened. I could feel the force of the wind crushing the air out from my chest, and the sharpness of ice piercing the armour of my soul. The unrelenting power of destruction rained upon the civilians, defenseless in its wake. The vivid imagery of the forces of nature wielded by men and women of superlative skills, battling for supremacy. The vicious desperation of a lone mother protecting her family. As the madness of war abated, I could see the hauntingly blank faces of survivors grappling with loss and grief. The poignancy in the evocative contrast of snow and blood amid the peaceful yet ghastly aftermath of violence and death; dark red essence of life against the purity of white.
Then came one of the most breathtaking scenes that I have ever read. From each of the little or not-so-little moments that have transpired, and from each flicker or flare of emotions, culminated an intense scene of such ferocity and strength of will that it belied how small it was on an absolute scale. The sheer intimacy of this fight, fueled by anguish and anger suffered in silence for years, overwhelmed me in an emotional hurricane of ice and snow. My already crumbling armour shattered into a million pieces.
What followed after that was a beautifully written and lovingly crafted closure to Misaki’s story. I appreciated that the author took the time to draw out the ending in what I felt to be a fitting send off for these characters in whom I’ve grown so invested. I cannot imagine saying goodbye so quickly after that emotionally powerful scene. I needed to see better times ahead for these people, who after so many years of harbouring pain and loneliness, have finally found hope. Sword of Kaigen was for me a love story, or to be more exact a story about love. It was about the love of a mother for her children, the love between a man and a woman, the love between siblings, family and friends, and the love for one’s home and its people. It was about being a bigger person than you thought possible to protect what you love, no matter the costs. And to let go when you had to, no matter how hard. In Misaki, it was ultimately about a woman’s capacity to love and forgive, and in doing so, achieving wholeness.
Maybe this was the ‘how’ Robin had been looking for, the simple magic by which she held herself together. Love for what she had and what was gone. Love no matter the pain.
I can’t praise this book and its author, M.L. Wang, enough. I also can’t believe that I’ve not even heard of her before. This exceptional book only proved that the fantasy genre has once again been blessed with the emergence of a brilliant young talent.
Do I need to elaborate any further on how amazing The Sword of Kaigen is? Run, don’t walk, to get this book and read it. Now. You can thank me later.