Elemental Magic, Family Trauma, And Finding The Strength To Fight Back–’The Sword Of Kaigen’ Deserves All The Hype
There’s a blurb at the back of my The Sword of Kaigen copy that reads: “The Poppy War‘s darkness meets The Last Airbender‘s elemental magic.” I think that encapsulates this fantasy novel pretty well. But I’d say that–on a personal note–it also has the rawness and heart I experienced in reading House of Earth and Blood (Crescent City #1).
I have to admit that this title first caught my eye because so many of my friends on Bookstagram were hyping it up. The buzz surrounding it got me intrigued to know more about this book that’s seemingly underrated, but so beloved by those who’ve read it. The day I started reading my copy, I finally understood why. When I turned the last page in this epic journey, I was ready to sing it the best of praises.
Synopsis: 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.’Read full synopsis here
The Sword of Kaigen is a rich, rich, story on family, love, loss, power, and how each of that adds up to one’s reason to live, survive, and fight back.
Perhaps one of the strongest things that sets this title apart from other fantasy books is its unique structure. There’s a distinct division between “before”, “after”, and the incredibly moving turning point in-between. Of course, I don’t want to spoil the experience for anyone who wishes to read this, but the “climax” is going to hit you way before you’re ready, and the aftermath is just as heart thumping as it is gratifying. It’s truly a journey like no other.
Now, how to review this?
I think the best way for me to show you guys how I feel about this novel is to dive deep into the three aspects I think shone the most throughout the whole experience. 🥺 And what better way than lengthy paragraphs with all the love for characterization, world-building and story progression?
All the characters in The Sword of Kaigen pierced my heart, in one way or another. With the way M.L. Wang solidified their personality (regardless if we’re reading their inner psyche or no), and presented their core motivations, they all just felt so… Raw. In the best way possible. This story is definitely more character-focused than plot as the prequel to the official Theonite Series, but with no absence of the necessary action and progression to keep everything exciting.
Misaki, the mother struggling to let go of her fighter past to fit into the Matsuda family’s (and the rest of Kaigen’s) definition of a proper woman and wife. The more I read about Misaki’s past and her current inner conflicts, the more I fell in love with who she is and what she stood for. I could feel myself urging her to show her true self. When she finally did, I couldn’t help the pride that swelled inside me.
She was a great way to represent the strength of women, the love of mothers, the journey from one to the other, and the interconnectedness of both. I really think M.L. Wang wrote her to be the core of this novel, with her being the instrumental force to push everybody else’s character arc forward.
Mamoru, the 14-year old bearing the weight as the oldest son of Kaigen’s most powerful and reputable family of warriors. All his life, he was taught to defend his homeland and the Empire. But after a foreign classmate shattered all of his beliefs, he’s left confused on how to truly pursue his life’s “sole purpose”.
Mamoru, in contrast to Misaki, was a heartwarming picture of youth and trying to understand your place in the world. He represents so many of us who struggle with national identity in light of a nation’s history, and the complexities of fighting for a home you might have never truly known. His journey as a warrior was SO POWERFUL.
(Most of my tears from this novel were actually caused by the heartwarming moments between mother and son.)
Other notable characters
I could list down all the reasons each character made me tear up, but I really shouldn’t. What I’m going to say, though, is that CHARACTERIZATION is the main thrust of Sword of Kaigen, specifically how the plot impacts all of them in different ways. Even those with less “screen time” had an impact on the story and my own connection with this cast grew the deeper I got into this story.
As the blurb from above suggested, it has the darkness of The Poppy War trilogy, which is known for its dark depiction of war. Meaning that it dives deep into the harrowing reality of brutal battles and the humanitarian issue it leaves behind. The whole community across the mountain island of Kusanagi poignantly depicted that. It can get pretty gruesome at times and massively disturbing, but I think it was handled with grace and respect for the issue. Major props to that.
Theonite families along the Kusanagi Peninsula mountainside have the ability to manipulate water, and in an island surrounded by it, their powers are even stronger. (Think: the water tribe from Avatar: The Last Airbender). This is ten times the case for the Matsuda family, whose legendary descendants feel physically connected with the mountain and the ocean surrounding them. With core characters having this strong connection with the “world”, it just amplifies the world-building even more because the sea, mountain, trees, and snow are more than just “background”.
Even beyond the Peninsula, despite us not being anywhere else physically, M.L. Wang was able to capture how different the culture, technology, and practices are from where our characters resided.
The main characters live in a village and island that’s very much rural and traditional, and they’re very content with that. Women are expected to only be child-bearers and wives, and their husbands practically own them and their children. They don’t have communication devices right now, which is what brings Mamoru’s classmate’s family to the island, to build infrastructure for such. They are also very much set on their warrior ways, as the Kaigenese Empire’s first line of defense on their side of the territory.
All in all, the world-building was tied together really well, and it created a vivid sense of isolation from the rest of Kaigen–in terms of culture, beliefs, and everything else. That isolation helped amplify everything that happened.
Like I said, one of the strongest things about Sword of Kaigen is its unique structure. I’m going to keep this part brief because I think it’ll be so much more impactful for you to experience it for yourself. But holy cow it was sooo powerful. 😭
Even after the big climax, the story among the characters themselves was enough to reel me back in. And by that point, I was already 100% committed to these fictional storylines anyway. 😅 Just know that this story will suck you right in just by the first few pages, and leave you emotionally devastated by the end. The build up was strong, and the conclusion was enough to piece my heart back together.
Final Verdict: The Sword of Kaigen
Read this book if: You want to dive deep into a new fantasy world without the commitment of starting a a new series.
Read this book if: You’re a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender!
Read this book if: You want to cry over family (found and blood related)–or just to cry in general.
I think, if you’ve read everything I wrote above, you already know that my final verdict is: HIGHLY RECOMMEND, ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT. 🎊
This standalone novel far exceeded my expectations in terms of its Avatar: The Last Airbender-like water bending magic, the cinematic writing that (I’m not exaggerating this) made me feel like I was listening to an OST at pivotal moments, and the emotional ties that stitched them all together.
The Sword of Kaigen is self-published by M.L. Wang so it’s pretty difficult to get a copy. I got mine from Amazon by participating in this pasabuy from a local online book shop. Not gonna lie, it’s above my usual budget for paperbacks, but I honestly think it’s worth every penny. Especially considering how rare this book is.
If this sounds like a book you’ll be into (and if you’re into fantasy and dynamic characters, I think it will be), I highly implore you to get this book when you can! It’s underrated in a sense that not a lot of people have read it. But among those who have, I’m sure they’ll agree with everything I said above!