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.’
The Sword of Kaigen is one hell of a damn book. Why read fantasy if you don’t like fighting? Wang’s ice-magic wielding, old fashioned samurai give us one massive, book-defining set piece. But The Sword of Kaigen is a deeper work as well, with the characterization and the action each complementing the other. Structurally, though, the novel is a bit jarring, which is my one quibble.
The broader world that Wang talked about in her guest post has a heavy African inspiration, but Kaigen (the setting of The Sword of Kaigen) is very strongly inspired by Japan. But it isn’t a feudal Japan. I was a little thrown off at first. I was expecting more of a traditional fantasy setting, but the level of technology is close to current day (e.g., palm-sized info-com devices and jets exist). The small town where the story is set, though, is a throwback, which gives the entire story a last samurai vibe. The great houses, including especially Matsuda, are distinctly samurai in flavor. They “keep to the old warrior traditions the rest of the world has forgotten and [they’re] proud of it.”
The Kaigenese Empire’s great rival is the China-inspired Ranganese Union, with fonyakalu wielding air magic to match the Kaigenese water magic.
The Sword of Kaigen starts with two main characters and two POV characters—Mamoru and Misaki, both of the Matsuda house. Mamoru is the eldest son of the Matsuda house; Misaki is his mother and a woman with a bloody past. Other significant characters include Takeru, Mamoru’s father and Misaki’s husband; Takashi, Takeru’s brother and the head of the family; Yukino Dai, Mamoru’s sensei; and Kwang, a new student to Mamoru’s dojo from the less backward part of the empire who begins to open Mamoru’s eyes to the fact that not everything he has been told by the empire is true.
The Kaigenese and, especially, members of the great houses like Matsuda have the power to manipulate water through elemental magic. On the snowy mountains where the story is set, this usually means wielding ice. The greatest houses pass down secret bloodline techniques, like the Matsudas’ famous Whispering Blade—a blade of ice so sharp it will cut steel. But the Matsuda are as comfortable wielding steel as wielding ice.
The first part of the book is devoted to setup. Spurred by Kwang, the teenage Mamoru begins to question what he has been told, inevitably leading to some small rebellion against his family. Misaki, on the other hand, continues to struggle with her role as mother to several children, with frequent flashbacks to her days fighting street crime (more on that in a bit). The peace of the village, though, is a false calm before the storm.
At least 10% of the book, right in the middle, is devoted to what is honestly one of the best—if not the best—set pieces I’ve ever read. It’s massive, taking up a big chunk of the book. But it never slows down, never gets boring. Just page after page of heart-stopping, pulse-pounding action. Wang has already hinted at and told us about the uses for the water/ice magic, but now she shows us, and it. is. awesome. It has all the best aspects of modern video gamey action without ever losing a pulpy appeal. But most of all it shows that Wang understands one of my favorite things to harp on. Characterization is not what happens when action isn’t happening. Action can be a wonderful catalyst for character development and, like those old sports posters said, it can reveal character that all of that dialogue never did. Read this set piece and you will walk away thinking about the primary characters involved in a dramatically different light.
And this is, ultimately, a character-driven book. The rest of the book, then, is about how that events of that set piece change the characters and dealing with the aftermath. Violence like that doesn’t come without a terrible cost.
It was horrible to hear the cries of grief and denial from family members that greeted each new body, but . . . it was more horrible still to watch a body appear over the ridge to silence. Some of these people had died along with everyone who might remember them. They lay alone on their ice slabs, with no one to mourn them.
The Matsudas and the villagers learn in the aftermath that they mean nothing to the aftermath. Not their lives and, worse, not their honor. But that isn’t the real focus. I will say no more for fear of spoilers. Really, you are going to want to read this one.
I will, though, say a bit about my one quibble before closing my review. Or maybe it is really a couple quibbles. The first is that, as the bulk of my review above suggests, The Sword of Kaigen has an unorthodox structure. That threw me off, and I never fully recovered.
The other thing is that, while The Sword of Kaigen is a standalone, it is connected to the world of the main series. I knew very little about the main series walking in. Knowing a little bit more now, I see the secondary reason for Misaki’s flashbacks and the ending, which tie the two together. The main series is much more of an urban fantasy, superhero, YA work (with portal fantasy aspects as well). I preferred the parts of The Sword of Kaigen that were more traditional fantasy to those that veered into urban fantasy/superhero/YA because I pretty strongly prefer the former to the latter. Which is also why I probably won’t read the main series despite loving this book.
4.5 of 5 Stars.
Petrik on The Sword of Kaigen at Novel Notions.
Nathan on The Sword of Kaigen at Castalia House.
Disclosure: I requested and received an advance review copy from Wang.