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The Sword of Kaigen by M. L. Wang – SPFBO #5 Finalist Review
4.5
Book Name: The Sword of Kaigen
Author: M. L. Wang
Publisher(s): Self-Published
Formatt: Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Science Fantasy
Release Date: February 13, 2019

Two reviews… on the same day? Yes indeed. These are the final two reviews for this year’s SPFBO. The fifth—that’s five years of SPFBO goodness and some truly awesome books. However, there can be only one winner of the competition and you’ll have to visit Mark Lawrence’s finalist table to find that out!

*Disclaimer*

Writing and reading is a subjective art. What some folks will absolutely love, others will dislike. It is a bit like Marmite in the UK—normal people dislike it intensely, but some weird folks actually enjoy the taste of warm road surface and fresh roadkill upon their tongue. To each their own, I suppose.

However, these are the finalists. Well respected blogs, reviewers and readers out there chose these books as the best of their bunch. On that basis alone they deserve a hearty well done! With that in mind, we will review each book honestly and give our opinion (and score).

Blurb

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 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.

Judges’ Thoughts

G R Matthews

OK, I liked this one. I really, really did.

There seems to be a wealth of worldbuilding and backstory full of political machinations which are never made explicit—likely because this book is a prequel to another series. The Asian feel to all the kingdoms works really well, and there are some aspects of the underlying tropes which speak of Kung Fu and Samurai movies; the rise of nationalism, the development of skills and powers based on internal strengths, the idea of honour, obedience, and the slavish devotion to an Emperor even unto death and sacrifice (which, to be fair, applies much more widely these days).

What I really loved is the story isn’t really about the defense of the mountain, about the skills of those involved, or even about the wider political troubles and the coming war (which is implied rather than explicit). It is really about a family, about misunderstandings and a lack of communication—this book has a heart, though it will destroy the readers time and time again. Oh, there is a definite Avatar (not the blue alien things) about this story—elemental powers (bending), but it is all done without labouring the point, it makes sense for the world.

My one gripe, the mash of technology and traditionalism, which works for 99% of the book, it doesn’t in relation to guns. There planes, trains, computers, satellites, but no guns. Now, I know this is a traditional area and almost everyone has some form of power with which to defend themselves, but those who don’t are relegated to bow and arrow? Why? For hunting, a rifle is better, for self-defence against multiple enemies a handgun, a machine gun is better—and the technology is there, there is mention of bullets. I saw it as a take on the Seven Samurai concept—where each Samurai who dies is killed not by the sword, but by the gun—the sad, lost triumph of progress over traditionalism, but that doesn’t really apply here. It is one gripe, and a tiny one at that. I can justify it away easily enough.

I will say, read this book… it is fantastic!

Mariëlle

The Sword of Kaigen is a book that had me truly invested in the main character.

I’d heard many good things so my expectations were high. I knew it had an Asian setting, contained (sword-)fighting and a badass female main character, the latter always being a big plus for me, but I was so pleasantly surprised!

I genuinely loved the main character Misaki, it was wonderful to read about a main character I could identify with so easily because she was so much like me, a-not so young anymore-woman and a mother. She is a very complete (and complex) character that had me wonder about some of her decisions until she found out the reasons for herself. I don’t think I’ve been this invested in a main character since Fitz in the Realm of the Elderlings books by Robin Hobb.

The story started a bit confusing for me because of the sheer amount of information about society, different powers and different parts of the world. I did really enjoy the combination of eastern traditional world and high-tech modern tools. Overall the book is fast paced, original and had me crying several times (this does not happen often!)

I’d love to read more about the world and the characters, but learned the author is taking a break.

Although I would have loved to read more right now, I admire her for her decision and I’m hoping she will continue the series in the future, I can wait. Anything she’ll write in between, I’ll definitely read!!

A. M. Justice

This book slayed me, in a good way. First, the writing was beautiful and subtle, the sort of prose that sinks into your bones without being flashy or purple. I also loved the literary quality of the symmetrical, narrative structure. This novel is a paper mountain, with a gentle rise at the beginning, with the incline growing increasingly steep and treacherous through nail-biting action, up to the summit, where a pivotal event occurs at the novel’s midpoint. The action drops through one of the most emotionally powerful duels I’ve ever read, and gradually descends through a denouement that hints at much more to come. 

I’m very partial to science fantasy, so I thought the worldbuilding was terrific. I loved the portrait of this small, insular and ostensibly backward community, contrasted with the larger world with its more sophisticated technology and political structures. It all worked beautifully for me. 

Finally, the emotional punch: wow, just wow. Wang pulled off a brilliant hat trick at the 50% mark when she turned the story on a dime from a tale of strife to one of healing. For me, it was all stunningly well done.

Lynn Kempner

This book will stand as one of my favourites for the year. Although the oriental lore, language, and customs are a popular theme for fantasy in this year’s competition, there is still a lot to draw from in such a rich environment and this story does so with aplomb. The story is emotional and at times heart wrenching as my connection to the main character, Misaki, and her family were strong ones.

Although the differences between the ancient blood lines in Kaigen have left the old ways untouched by modern technology, their elemental magic, which is captivating from the start, has kept them protected but isolated. Outside the mountains on the peninsula where they live, there are cities and technology. Their are aircraft, guns, and bombs. The people of Kaigen, fed only propaganda with their limited connections and distrust of strangers, aren’t prepared for the devastation that such technology can cause when combined with elemental magic. 

This book is highly polished with good editing and accomplished prose. As a sci-fantasy, this has more heart than most and I was quite moved by the emotional depth. The riveting elemental magic is woven in well from the start, and the characterizations have a great depth of feeling. A breakout adult book for this YA author, it’s an excellent standalone that builds into the existing worlds of her Theonite series as a prequel.

– – –

Well, that’s SPFBO 5 complete for the Fantasy-Faction team and we would love to thank all the authors who entered and everyone who follows the competition. Also a big congratulations to M. L. Wang for achieving the highest score from Fantasy-Faction this year—it truly is an amazing book which you should go and read. Like, now…go on…go read!

There has been a really high standard of books in the finals this year, and our top three books were all by female authors, which may not be a surprise as 6 out of 10 finalists were from female authors. Next year’s batch has a lot to match up to, but I’ll bet there’ll be some real gems amongst them!

So, for now, that’s the FF team signing off this year’s SPFBO… and again, well done to M. L. Wang and The Sword of Kaigen!

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