The Sword of Kaigen – Clumsy Wonder

Today I am diving into the increasingly popular The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story by M.L. Wang. This self-published, Japanese culture-inspired novel has been making larger and larger waves in the fantasy genre over the past few years and is held in quite high regard. I finally managed to find a moment to dive into the novel and found something very different from my expectations. Typical of self-published books, Kaigen is a story with extremely high highs and some very obvious lows that combine into certainly one of my most unique reads of the year so far. So let’s dive in and help you find out if this sleeper hit is worth your time.

Kaigen tells the story of the legendary Matsuda family. A very traditional family of ice-wielding samurai who live on the tip of a peninsula called The Sword of Kaigen. The Sword is the first line of defense for the empire against all of the surrounding countries that do not hold the empire in good regard. As such, those who live on The Sword spend half of their time living contemporary modern lives, and half of their time brutally training to deflect any upstart invasions of their territory.

Our protagonists are three members of the Matsuda family: the eldest son Mamoru, the patriarch Takeru, and the mother/wife to them both Misaki. However, the book very heavily focuses on Misaki’s POV. Mamoru is experiencing a coming-of-age story, struggling with the expectations of his family, and trying to master the legendary Whispering Blade. Misaki is struggling with being a skilled woman stuck in a deeply sexist and traditional society where expectations of her are myriad and contradicting. Takeru is struggling with being a likable character.

There is a lot of good in this book and the characters are the best of the best. While the page time is extremely uneven, all of the characters are interesting, fairly complex, and go through significant growth over the course of the book (including the side characters). Misaki in particular is always giving an Oscar-winning performance, and her journey as a person is wonderful to behold. The tender character moments she has with a number of main and side characters are excellently set up and rewarding to experience. Her arc is both complicated and thought-provoking and she makes interesting observations about traditional societies. In all aspects, she is an all-star lead that kept me coming back to the book. Her unique POVs as a mother and wife are something the genre could use more of and are a wonderful addition.

A contested area in the book is worldbuilding. On the one hand, the worldbuilding in this story is wondrous in its scope and detail. Kaigen has a richly imagined world with numerous cultures, many of which are inspired by real-world allegories that don’t get a ton of time in the fantasy genre. The elemental powers are richly detailed and add new fun twists to very beloved fantasy magic systems. The patriarchal and traditional issues that plague the story as sources of conflict easily and impressively map onto the world in a way that makes it feel real and alive. On the other hand, most of this lore is delivered via a firehose that feels like it could cut the reader in half.

The delivery of information in this book is a struggle and uneven. The first chapter treats the reader to a majestic stroll through the Sword and helps you begin to understand the world you are stepping into. The next chapter has Mamoru go to a history class where the teacher just recites a dry, slow, and uncompelling history of the entire world for 50 pages. Wang has built a world that is exciting to explore but struggles deeply in getting that information to the reader. She feels like she is trying to jam a zip file into your brain so you can start to appreciate her nuances but it absolutely cripples the pacing of this book—a theme that continues once we get past the historical download.

The book can be roughly divided into the following sections: first some setup, followed by a lot of excruciating lore dumping. A few incredible character moments that get hooks into you, then the longest action sequence I have ever read and the climax of the book. Some more wondrous character moments and a 150-page epilogue focused on setting up the next book. Uneven doesn’t scratch the surface of the adjectives I would use to describe this. The action in this book is very good, with cool action sequences, interesting elemental combat magic, and satisfying character moments told through combat. I have read other novels that I wish could have had a fraction of the skill that Wang has for setting up combat. That being said, 200 pages felt like a deranged length of time for a standalone novel. This felt longer than the final battle of The Wheel of Time. The initial adrenaline rush had long worn off for me and the combat began to feel like a slog at the halfway point. But the most offensive element of all of this is how much space at the end of the novel is devoted to the sequel setup, only for the series to be discontinued. Even if the sequel was coming it felt like too much but finding out it is for nothing is immensely disappointing.

Finally, I don’t know how I feel about all of the themes, ideas, and core tenets of the story. There are some that I enjoy and I think are executed well, like the importance of shaping your own life and Misaki’s journey as a woman through several different societal roles. There are some themes that are central but feel too oversimplified to be valuable, such as the commentary on propaganda, murder, and genocide. Then there are themes that I struggled to understand Wang’s argument on, like the balance between tradition and modernization, the inherent sexism of tradition, and culture clash. All of these themes could have benefited from more polish and decisiveness in the story because as it stands I am not exactly sure of the takeaways of Kaigen.

The Sword of Kaigen is an extremely impressive self-published book that is brimming with creativity and showcases characters that we need more of. However, it very much could have benefited from more time with editors and the discontinuation of the series when the first book spends so much time on setup is very disappointing. If you are looking for more Asian-inspired fantasy then you will likely have a good time with this, but I would be hesitant to give Kaigen a blanket endorsement.

Rating: The Sword of Kaigen – 6.0/10

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