REVIEW: THE SWORD OF KAIGEN

Long live the emperor...


THE SWORD OF KAIGEN is widely lauded as some of the best that Indie Fantasy has to offer. I'd heard so many wonderful things about it, that I stupidly splurged for the gorgeous Wraithmarked Kickstarter edition even though I'd never read this before. Thankfully that purchase paid off in the end. 

HOW I RATED IT 
5/5 M.L. Wang's acclaimed novel is one of the few instances where I personally felt that a hugely popular book actually lived up to all it's hype. Intricate world design, devastatingly beautiful character arcs, and some explosive action sequences kept me hanging on Wang's every word.

CHARACTERS
While this story balances characters and plot wonderfully, I think it is worth noting that every single character in this book felt so vividly real to me and I was fully invested in everything that happened to them. This novel isn't really an ensemble situation. The perspective does shift between Misaki and her son, Mamoru within many of the chapters and there is a brief section of one told from a third point of view that I won't spoil. I actually appreciated that there wasn't a ton of "head-hopping" as I frankly don't always feel as though that makes a story stronger (in many cases, I think it can slow it down). With that said, I do greatly appreciate when there is a strong supporting cast and Wang really gives us a masterclass here in how handle minor characters. Every single person involved in the events that unfold felt distinct from one another and the way that they are handled made them so lifelike. I think a big way in which this was achieved is that they all have things to do off of the page. Everyone has a backstory, each character has their own motivations that seem deeply personal to them, and they are given a certain level of narrative autonomy in that everything they do doesn't necessarily always revolve around the main plot. These people are complex, many are deeply flawed, and in their own way, each is trying to do their best even if they fall short of the people they should be. In many ways, Misaki's personal journey is at the core of the narrative. Her character arc is so crushingly human in ways that are both unbearably sad and yet also uplifting at the same time. Some of the people in Misaki's life have personal journeys that I found to be similarly beautiful in their own way. There was even a character or two that I did not think I would ever find it in me to like that I Wang somehow managed to make me fall in love with as well. 


PLOT/TONE
As much as I appreciated the amazing cast of characters this book has to offer, I was equally delighted to find that the core plot was just as layered, nuanced, and beautiful as the players who surround it. It's rather difficult to go into details without delving into spoilers, but I think I can say that the heart of the story really centers around a family drama. The way that Misaki relates to her sons, her emotionally distant husband, her sister-in-law, her brother-in-law, and a dear friend from an allied family serves as the basis for much of the story's early sources of tension and relief. The resentment that Misaki holds and the regret she carries around made her story compelling and also entrenched in mystery. There are a couple of segments/chapters where we actually get a glimpse into the life she left behind which I greatly enjoyed. I was also blown away by how all of those flashbacks culminated into the story's final chapter and how things tied together thematically in such a powerful way. In parallel with Misaki's side of the story, her son, Mamoru is faced with some difficult truths about the reality of the country he lives in. The slow-burn government conspiracy subplot/theme/trope is something I always tend to be gripped by and the way it factors in here was so intense. Because the main story largely stays within Misaki's small village, it was easy to feel a sense of isolation from the rest of this fantasy world. The machinations of different political powers play out beyond the scope of the reader's view and that made it so much fun to learn things alongside the characters. A nice foil to this is the additional context for the broader world that Misaki is able to bring as one of the few people who has spent any time outside of Kaigen. 

I suppose the last item to touch upon is that this does indeed live up to the subtitle of "A Theonite War Story." Physical conflict is abundant in this novel, from intense training sequences, to a full-scale battle that spans multiple chapters, and even some one-on-one duels thrown in at different points for good measure. Whether combat sequences land or not can heavily depend on the author's ability to render them with the written word. Thankfully, Wang does a marvelous job of depicting both wide-scale fight scenes as well as more intimate conflicts. All of this is woven together with superb pacing and while the type of conflict shifts from personal to physical at different points in the story, there isn't a single part that I would describe as the "slow part" nor did I ever feel like things were progressing too quickly for me to adequately keep up. 

SETTING/WORLD
The best way I could probably describe this world is that it felt something like a darker, more adult version of the world in which AVATAR THE LAST AIRBENDER is set. It is a world filled with supernatural beings known as Theonites who can manipulate the world around them via specific elemental abilities that are specifically tied to their genetics. The people of Kaigen primarily control the element of water, though Misaki's family line has a special ability to also affect blood to some extent. There are other people who appear who can make wind, fire, and light bend to their will. There are supposed to be those who can command the earth itself, but I don't believe any such individuals actually make an appearance. If this all sounds a little cheesy, I would just say that the elemental mastery is really where this story's similarities with the popular children's cartoon come to an end. The ways in which the various Theonites manifest their abilities felt creative and interesting, even if elemental magic isn't especially new to fantasy. I appreciated how in-depth the magic system got with how genetics play a role as well as the effects that has on how marriages between the most powerful families are made. There's some interesting commentary on the morality of striving for this sort of near-godhood as well. 

Although the story is largely confined to Misaki's small village, I really appreciated the short glimpses and bits of information that we got about the broader world. Some of this is delivered through flashbacks, some through commentary from Misaki that explains things other characters wouldn't know, and some from dialogue with characters who are not native to the village. There are interesting tidbits on how religion, magic, race, and politics work in this world. While none of these concepts are explored in depth, their presence gave the setting a sense of nuance that is reminiscent of the complexities of our own world. The way that language is handled is also something that I found really fascinating. While I don't know if I specifically need a direct sequel to this story, I think it's a little bit of a shame that there aren't more books set in this world. I'd love to follow other characters from other corners of it or maybe see a sort of spinoff with a pair of minor characters Misaki interacts with during the final chapter. This is a setting that's brimming with potential, so I hope the author returns to it at some point to tell a new story. 

THE KICKSTARTER HARDCOVER
To first address the obvious, I am indeed an idiot for splurging on a Kickstarter special edition for a book I had not read yet. It's just that I had heard so many wonderful things about this book and I was seduced by how gorgeous this particular edition is. I have nothing else to say in my defense... Thankfully, my purchase ended up paying off as I ended up enjoying this book immensely. I can also say that there is probably no better way to read it than with this edition. The shiny silver edges, the gorgeous cover art on the dust jacket, the striking, foiled design on the hardcover, the lovely black and white art interior art pieces, the printed texture/weathering on the pages, and the lush interior formatting, all made for a truly exquisite production. If I can be a little bit greedy, I do wish that a couple more pieces of interior art were included, but the two that we got were quite spectacular at least. It is my understanding that this edition isn't really available outside of the Kickstarter, but if the opportunity ever arises to get your hands on a similar copy, I highly recommend doing so. 


CONCLUSION
It's an extremely rare occurrence that any book manages to extract tears from me, but that is exactly what happened during a couple moments in this story. Wang had me hanging on her every word as we got to know these characters, slowly uncovered secrets about the world, and progressed through a pulse-pounding main plot with so many incredible twists and turns. This book gained so much traction for very good reason and I hope everyone gives it a change. 

(+) Characters that felt distinctly human in so many ways
(+) Brutal, bloody, and bombastic action scenes
(+) A complex world filled with amazingly nuanced details
(+) Expertly paced plotting filled with different types of drama
(+) Some heart-wrenching moments and deeply moving character arcs
(+) Strong thematic elements tying various story elements together
(+) A stunning special edition, though I would have loved at least a couple more pieces of interior art. 
(-) There are hints at additional story threads that do not appear as though there are any plans to follow up on.

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