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.
If I wasn’t already starting to think that, by not reaching for self-published work, I was missing out on some brilliant novels, The Sword of Kaigen is over 600 pages of proof that that is indeed true.
I don’t mean this to invalidate self-publishing in any way, but if this novel doesn’t get picked up by a big SFF publisher like Orbit or Tor, I’ll be very, very surprised. This is such a good book. Shout out to Kaitlin @ Kitty G for bringing it to my attention.
In this Japanese-inspired fantasy novel, the community who live on the Sword of Kaigen, named because they are considered the country’s first defence should they be attacked by a rival nation, keep to the old ways. Technology is available in the bigger cities and is starting to creep into their own way of life, but this is a community where learning martial arts and marrying well amongst the wealthy, upper class families is still considered the norm.
Misaki is a somewhat unusual woman in that she has experience of the world outside of her own culture when she was at school, but after her schooling has settled into the expected role of wife and mother after she was married into the respected Matsuda family. Throughout The Sword of Kaigen we follow Misaki and the eldest of her four sons, Mamoru, as they try to strike the perfect balance between serving their family and being true to themselves.
For Mamoru his struggle is in his discovering that the Empire he’s been raised to serve might not value him and the warriors who’ve come before him as they should, while Misaki, a talented swordswoman in her own right, chafes against the confines of what’s expected of her as a woman.
This is such a difficult novel to review because it’s the kind of novel you need to experience. It’s intense and nail-biting and often absolutely heart-breaking, but the depth of research Wang has done for this book is clear from the very first page and her character work is exquisite. Mamoru is the sweetest of beans and Misaki is an absolute triumph of a character. She’s one of the best heroines I’ve ever encountered in fantasy, and one of the best mothers I’ve encountered in SFF since Essun in The Broken Earth trilogy.
On the surface The Sword of Kaigen is a military fantasy novel, but it’s so much more than that. There are a lot of fight scenes that go on for pages – I don’t think I’ve ever been so stressed while reading a book before in my life – but Wang also explores the horrors of war and the short and long-term impact it has on individuals and entire communities without any of her exploration being gratuitous. One character, for example, is the victim of sexual assault, but Wang handles the topic with great respect and dignity.
There’s also a fantastic female friendship in this book between Misaki, her sister-in-law and their shared friend, and their scenes together were some of my favourites to read. Women supporting women is something I love to see in all novels, but especially in novels like this which are set in a patriarchal society.
The only reason I knocked off half a star was because, for me, Misaki forgave her husband for his behaviour a little too easily. I can’t say anything else because that would be going into major spoiler territory but, while I do ultimately love how this novel ends, I’d have a few choice things to say to Takeru if I were Misaki. The moments when she does stand up to him are glorious, though. Misaki is the best.
If you read one Asian-inspired fantasy novel this year, make it this one.