SPFBO Finalist Review: The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang

kaigenI’d be lying if I said I wasn’t reading the longest titles first. 😀

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.’

Born into Kusanagi’s legendary Matsuda family, fourteen-year-old Mamoru has always known his purpose: to master his family’s fighting techniques and defend his homeland. But when an outsider arrives and pulls back the curtain on Kaigen’s alleged age of peace, Mamoru realizes that he might not have much time to become the fighter he was bred to be. Worse, the empire he was bred to defend may stand on a foundation of lies.

Misaki told herself that she left the passions of her youth behind when she married into the Matsuda house. Determined to be a good housewife and mother, she hid away her sword, along with everything from her days as a fighter in a faraway country. But with her growing son asking questions about the outside world, the threat of an impending invasion looming across the sea, and her frigid husband grating on her nerves, Misaki finds the fighter in her clawing its way back to the surface.

Wholeness, she had learned, was not the absence of pain but the ability to hold it.

This is the story of the Matsuda family. They live in a small village at the edge of the Kaigenese Empire. With magical abilities allowing them to manipulate water and ice, their superhuman powers on top of years of sword training make them peerless warriors, and so their region is known as The Sword of Kaigen. They are the protectors of the Empire, or so they are told.

Mamoru is a 14 year old boy, learning swordsmanship at the local academy run by his family. He is expected to master the family’s trademark move, the Whispering Blade, like his father and his uncle before him. When Mamoru befriends a foreign student who opens his eyes to the world outside of his hometown, it changes the way he sees everything, including his family, and their role in the Kaigenese Empire.

Masaki is Mamoru’s mother, and she is a housewife, not allowed to fight or get into ‘men’s business’ – but what many don’t know is that she was a warrior herself, once upon a time. A vigilante crusader with her friends in a city across the world from Kaigen.

This was a very well written and well edited book. I didn’t find one typo or grammatical error in the entire thing and that’s kind of impressive given its length. It was quite easy for me to imagine the world, and I really enjoyed how much like Japan Kaigen was. An adolescence (and adulthood ^_^) of watching anime prepared me for many of the intricacies here, like the honorifics (-dono, -sama, etc), or the occasional Japanese word thrown in there, or what hakama look like and stuff like that.

Kaigen is a very traditional place, and also heavily propagandized and held under pretty strict government control. This lent an interesting element to the story, seeing this culture of very traditional people sort of cordoned-off in a way from the rest of the world and told exactly what the Emperor wants them to know and not much else. This story takes place in a modern world. Things like the internet, cell phones, television and so on exist, but are not at all widely used in this village. Most things, from day to day dress to blacksmithing are traditional, so it gives the book an… in-between feel.

The characters and their complexity are what really shine in this book. I really liked Misaki throughout the book, especially when her POV chapters were flashbacks into her past of… pretty much being Batman in a foreign city (the best part about this is that the leader of the vigilante group she is a part of is named Robin, lol). She was an easy character to cheer for. I wanted her to rise up and win the day and shrug off the traditional housewife role she had been more or less smushed into. I also liked Mamoru, and while I didn’t start out liking him, he grew on me as the book progressed. The characters in the forefront really grew over the course of the book. From Mamoru, to Misaki, to Takeru. The entire Matsuda family grew and changed as the events of the book shaped them and I was here for it.

The main problem that I had with this one was the first 25% or so. This first chunk of the book was home to some pretty big infodumps that were presented in the form of lessons or stories. ‘Once upon a time, here is the entire history of blacksmithing and how it relates to the Matsuda family,’ more or less. They do serve as part of the worldbuilding, but they were quite tedious to read through and I just wanted more of the superpowered-highschoolers-falling-off-cliffs action that was happening around the history lessons.

That said, once I hit the 30% mark and was more familiar with the characters and the strange modern-but-traditional world in which they live, it became more and more difficult to put this one down to do things like work, or sleep. The action ramped all the way up at this point and took me on a frankly unexpected thrillride of ups and downs. This book is not afraid to kick you in the face, and it is not afraid to kill off your favorite characters. The climax happens right around the middle, and then at about 65% it slowly (but not as slowly as the beginning) sets you back down into a world that is then entirely different than the one you started out in. It didn’t feel too long though, despite the ‘big event,’ so to speak, coming earlier in the book. One of my favorite parts of this book happened well past the action, in fact.

One last thing that bounced off me was the inclusion of  a rape scene that seemed entirely unnecessary, as the character(s) involved just kind of disappeared in the end without seeming to have affected anything in any tangible way. I didn’t get the impression that this was a ‘the bad guys are very bad’ move, as that was already abundantly clear. I did get the sense that a character involved is going to have a story in the future. I just wish that, if this is the case, that it was made more apparent to make the circumstances leading to it seem less superfluous. Had they been more included as part of the cast, for example, rather than just put somewhere and sort of forgotten about, I’d have had no problem with it.

So, all told, this one started slow, but ended satisfyingly, with a whole bunch of character growth, elemental magic, and the occasional decapitation in the middle. I enjoyed it a lot once it got going, and despite it being one of the longest books in this contest, it didn’t always feel quite so long at all. I had 7.75/10 stars of fun with this one. I recommend it to fans of darker samurai anime, fans of elemental magic systems, or someone who loves character driven stories.

Finalist Score:

Kristen: 7.75
Esme: 8.7

Average: 8.225

SPFBO Final Score: 8/10

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