The Sword of Kaigen is an Asian-influenced fantasy with a world that features both very traditional rural environments as well as more advanced technology in the world at large and a magic system that seems to be built around the manipulation of elements. The mixture of old and new can catch a reader off guard at first, since the majority of the storyline takes place in one of the most isolated and traditional parts of the empire.
The story follows two members of the Matsuda family. Mamoru is the eldest of the newest generation, and at fourteen is a mixture of youthful confidence and self-doubt. He is a warrior, born and bred; strongest in his class and yet still feels inadequate for not having mastered his family’s specialized magic technique, The Whispering Blade. It’s hard not to empathize with Mamoru as he struggles to live up to the expectations of him or with the confusion he feels when he discovers that some of what he’s been taught all his life is little more than Imperial propaganda.
But the emotional heart of the novel is the character of Misaki, Mamoru’s mother. For years she has cultivated a persona for herself, that of a dutiful wife and mother. As the book progress, and we see some of her life prior to her marriage, it becomes apparent that she is far more capable and resilient than she might appear. Her fierce love for her children as well as the anger concealed at her core is extremely well handled, building a picture of a woman who has more or less forced herself to become what she, and others, think she should be. When the tensions within her family, as well as an attack from outside the Empire, mean that she has to once more embrace her warrior nature, it’s almost like a dam bursting within her. Misaki is possibly one of the best-realized characters I’ve read in a long time.
I really liked the depictions of the magic used during the book, especially in the action scenes. Members of the village fight with a mixture of water/ice attacks and their katanas which is both unique and very cinematic. Although there isn’t a huge amount of page time devoted to such scenes, they are certainly memorable.
While the narrative, with the exception of a handful of flashback chapters, takes place within the environs of Mt. Takayubi, it’s obvious that the world beyond it has been planned out with great attention to detail. There are mentions of other nations, cultures etc.; all of which add towards making it seem as if this work is only a small part of a greater world. (NB. This is actually the case as the author has a further series set in the same world.) If there is one thing that I might nitpick, it’s that while the multitude of honorifics, terms and titles do contribute to showcasing the level of world-building involved, it was occasionally confusing trying to keep track of which term related to what. A glossary is included at the back of the novel for such instances.
One other thing that I particularly liked, which I won’t go into too much since it verges on spoiler territory, is that the storyline shifted in a direction I wasn’t expecting mid-way through. While I didn’t see it coming, looking back, the progression is entirely organic and gives the book both added depth and a greater emotional resonance. The Sword of Kaigen might be a slow start but perseverance is rewarded in a multitude of ways.
9 out of 10 icy swords.