I always have difficulty speaking about the fantasy books that win me over as completely as The Sword of Kaigen has. When you come across greatness, your first instinct is to fall silent. But damn it all if I’m a slave to my instincts! I’ll talk about M. L. Wang’s latest novel, hell, I’ll scream about it from the rooftops if that’ll get anyone to listen!
Before the screaming begins, here’s what you need to know: this is a fantasy novel inspired by Japanese warrior culture with modern-day elements which are more often talked about than seen – satellites, planes, info-com devices and broadcasting towers, to name a few. The magic system is elemental, reminiscent of Avatar: The Last Airbender but with the added benefit of being aimed at adults and not constrained by a PG rating*.
Takayubi is a small village within the Kaigenese Empire, unremarkable in most ways except in one – it is home to the mightiest jijakalu, water-wielders, that the Empire has ever known, the Matsudas. These powerful warriors spend their lives training for a conflict that won’t come with a rival country whose last strike on the Sword of Kaigen, as the Takayubi warriors call themselves, ended in utter defeat. Or so the history books say.
The Ranganese Union was—and always had been—more powerful and cunning than the ruling Kaigenese were willing to admit. It was an arrogant misconception that had already cost them two thirds of the Empire.
Onto the screaming: The characters! The action! The tragedy, first and foremost intimate and personal, but also deeply communal.
Alright, done screaming, let’s break down what made The Sword of Kaigen a transcendental experience. The ultimate foundation of this novel is doubtlessly the character work. I did not expect to discover characterization which equals that of Robin Hobb, who is the hallmark by whose characters I’ve come to judge all others. But it does; character action (and inaction) is the driving force behind much of what happens in M. L. Wang’s 2019 SPFBO entrant. At the centre of the interconnected web of characters around which this novel revolves, lies Misaki, the wife of Takeru, the younger of two Matsuda brothers. Misaki, a mother of four, at first appears a docile, even meek, housewife, accepting of her role to ‘push out Matsuda babies’ who are to be trained as great warriors, more vessels of divine power than human beings with a will of their own. But what at first appears as complacency in Misaki is in fact the result of a constant conflict between the strength of her personality and the expectations of the traditional, conservative society she is part of.
And what a traditional society it is! The Kaigenese empire, alone among virtually all its peers does not permit women to take part in its military or its political life; outside their family, Kaigenese women are voiceless. Some, Misaki among them, have no voice even within their families. There’s a real disconnect between all the scientific advances the Kaigenese Empire has at its fingertips and the pre-Industrial way of life of its warrior caste. This forces home a point about the nature of this empire and its relationship to its subjects; I won’t spoil it here but it is nonetheless a poignant commentary on duty, loyalty and obedience.
It’s in Misaki where all this conflict finds its catalyst. Locked between personal drive and duty to the larger societal whole and familial tradition, Misaki loses her sense of self and becomes a prisoner of her own thoughts, unworthy of her life and new family in her own eyes:
She might not be worthy of belonging to this family, but she was going to protect it with every bit of venom, and bloodlust, and underhanded trickery in her.
Playing into this is Mamoru, Misaki’s firstborn son, who is as fascinating as his mother – having grown in a world of ice-cold certainties, he nearly crumbles when faced with proof that everything he’s believed in is based on half-truths and deceptions. Only fourteen years old, Mamoru goes through a harrowing experience that most grown men wouldn’t be able to deal with anywhere near as well as he -- such a substantial shift in worldview makes or breaks a person. Following the changes that overcome him as he adapts to a world more complex than he thought possible is a treat, his pain understandable and his growth rewarding.
Takeru, Mamoru’s father and Misaki’s husband, is a cypher – cold and distant, a tyrant to his family, you nonetheless feel there’s more going on in his internal world than he lets on. M. L. Wang offers up the pieces of the puzzle one by one, from the first time Takeru is mentioned all the way until everything falls into place – and although, or perhaps because, there are plenty of flaws in the younger Matsuda brother, he is one of the most fascinating male characters I’ve encountered this year.
The relationship between Takeru and Misaki is the key to this novel and to the prisons each of these characters have made for themselves.
She may never have loved Takeru, but he fascinated her, in the way that powerful theonites always fascinated her. It was why, when her parents told her she was going to marry a Matsuda, she thought she might grow to love him. Love might grow out of awe.
Mamoru and Misaki’s relationship is fascinating, as well – despite being mother and son, the two don’t know each other too well and as that changes, as Misaki, at last, finds someone to whom she can show her true self, the way this fourteen-year-old boy sees and accepts his Kaa-chan once she reveals more of herself to him than to anyone else is beautiful.
It’s not just these main characters that shine; the supporting cast is spectacular, as well. Yukino Dai is a swordsman unparalleled by anyone in the village with the exception of the Matsuda brothers, and Mamoru’s teacher in the Takayubi academy. His faith in Mamoru plays no small part in the kind, hardworking nature of his most promising pupil. Takeru’s brother Takashi is the poster-boy for power incarnate, a jijaka warrior whose manipulation of ice is awe-inspiring.
Takashi was a creative, devastatingly powerful swordsman with an explosive fighting style and a thousand tricks up his sleeve. But when it came down to jiya against jiya, his ice was not a match Takeru’s focus.
He is something of a rule-breaker as well, having married a fisher-girl of low birth from the seaside village. Further, Takashi is the perfect foil to Takeru – a powerful theonite who is outgoing and willing to break a few traditions when it comes to his own happiness. This fisherman’s daughter Takashi married is Setsuko, eventually Misaki’s closest friend and the reason the latter is alive, in Misaki’s own words. The younger Matsuda siblings are all memorable, as is Mamoru’s friend Kwang Chul-hee. And there are more, so many more characters I could mention, but won’t. I’ll let you discover them for yourselves.
Action is difficult to write well, but more difficult to write in such a way that every exchange of blows, be they sword strikes or the back and forth of magical assaults, elicits an emotional response not only from the characters but the reader as well. Truly, nothing is off the table with Wang, and no character is safe. The display of intricate ice and water-based abilities by the Matsuda brothers show a brilliantly imaginative side to M. L. Wang’s writing as well – it’s the sort of creative power use that fans of both Sanderson and Erikson would enjoy, following a set of internal rules while being visually spectacular.
I feel nothing but admiration for M. L. Wang after reading this. Misaki is among the most complex characters I’ve come across, and her journey to self-realization is the centerpiece of this 650-page standalone novel. I recommend this book to every fantasy fan out there; hell, if you’ve never touched the genre before, or want to introduce someone to the heights of what fantasy can accomplish, this is the book you want to do it with. It’s heartachingly beautiful, a story of lost potential, betrayal and perseverance in the face of unimaginable loss, so beautifully human that it will leave you speechless.
*This is not a slight against Avatar; merely an admission that M. L. Wang can do a lot more in an adult fantasy than anyone can in an animated children’s series with what is a destructive ability.
This is not an official booknest.eu SPFBO 5 review; I got this book on a sale and the opinions above are solely my own and not those of booknest.eu.