- published by:self-published
- genres: high fantasy
- content warnings: death of a child, depictions and themes around war/death, mentions of miscarriages, violence against women, spousal abuse, suicide, rape & sexual assault
- Read if you liked: The Poppy War, Avatar: The Last Airbender,
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.
Welcome to today’s stop in the Sword of Kaigen Blog Tour! First of all, before I start this review I’d like to thank Karina for inviting me to participate in this blog tour, as well as M.L Wang who is appearing as a guest.
The Sword of Kaigen feels like a really unique fantasy, primarily because of the way it blends elements of the family saga into this high fantasy book. Although Sword of Kaigen features elemental magic which for me felt reminiscent of Avatar: The Last Airbender, this is a more introspective book that focusses on exploring the effects of trauma, war, tradition and family on its central characters.
The Sword of Kaigen is set in an Eastern Asian inspired world where the Kaiganese Empire rules and powerful families with elemental-like magic jostle for power and influence. Tradition, family lineage and power are extremely important in this Empire. The characters coming into conflict with these ideals, and grapple with the discovery that the Empire that they suffer for, is built upon a foundation of lies.
The central protagonist of The Sword of Kaigen is Misaki, a 34-year-old housewife who used to be a trained fighter and vigilante. The choice to centre a character like Misaki in this book was an interesting choice, but one I ultimately appreciated. It made this book feel fresh and presented a new perspective in this genre which is often dominated by young, active and frequently male protagonists. Misaki is an intricately wrought character with a rich backstory that is intertwined carefully through the book. Throughout the book, Wang contrasts the perceived freedom of her youth with the constraints of her life as a mother and wife. I enjoyed how Wang unpacked this dichotomy and wrote a character so outside the regular mould, who has so much complexity and presence in this story.
I loved Misaki, and I’m thrilled M.L Wang has actually agreed to appear as a guest on my blog, to talk about her process of creating a protagonist like Misaki. That guest post can be found at the end of this review!
Aside from Misaki, I also loved the characterisation of her son, Mamoru. Mamoru was so sweet! I enjoyed following his turmoil and struggle throughout the book. Although he was a more ‘typical’ character than Misaki, he’s also the kind of character I always love. His relationship with Misaki was also portrayed beautifully and the way this relationship is explored is reminiscent of a family saga.
“ I know you might feel broken, but we’re jijakalu. We’re water, and water can shift to fit any mold. No matter how we’re broken and reshaped, we can always freeze ourself strong again.”’
Although I did like a lot of things about this book, I did also have a few issues. For me, this started off quite slow, and I was unsure of the direction it was taking. Once the action started, I was really into it. However, I did feel parts of this book were longer than necessary, and although many parts were absolutely riveting, other parts did make me feel that 651-page count.
My other issue with this was the ‘redemption arc’ of a major character. I wasn’t convinced by the redemption here and felt some of the development of the two characters relationship was rushed and almost forced. I am notoriously picky with redemption arcs, and this one didn’t do it for me. Primarily because I felt some of the earlier actions of the character weren’t wholly redeemable. With that said, I have seen others praise this plotline, so perhaps this is more of a personal gripe.
What I did like about this arc, however, was how it tied into the wider themes about discovering the true and hidden parts of others, and how perspectives can fundamentally alter how one person sees another. It also helped to explore Misaki’s feeling of regret and confinement and more fully flesh out and complete her character arc, which I liked.
Overall, The Sword of Kaigen is an extremely fresh and unique take on the high fantasy genre. I loved how this book took elements of the family saga found in adult fiction to create characters that were complex and had large, fleshed-out character development arcs. The inclusion of an atypical main character was a highlight, and although parts of this book were slower than others, the action scenes and the scenes between characters like Misaki and Mamoru are gripping, intense and heart-wrenching. People looking for a fresh take on fantasy, who enjoyed works such as The Poppy War and Avatar: The Last Airbender should absolutely consider picking up The Sword of Kaigen.
Making Misaki (or How Not to Create a Protagonist) – words from M.L Wang, the author of The Sword of Kaigen!
The earliest reviewers of The Sword of Kaigen commented on was how refreshing it was to see a fantasy protagonist who was a housewife and mother. I’ve always felt uncomfortable taking credit for this creative decision because it wasn’t so much a decision as a costly accident.
Because Misaki, as a character concept, is a terrible idea. Any author will tell you that there is a method to character design. Protagonists are typically young, active, mobile, and strongly motivated for good reason. A mobile protagonist can get
around enough to maximize their involvement in the plot. We see so many teenage protagonists because adolescence is a point in every person’s life during which they can be expected to grow fast enough to achieve a satisfying character arc in one book.
A protagonist with a clear goal is easy to root for. It’s just good design. Misaki is the antithesis of this functional design: a 34-year-old mother of four, physically confined to her narrow role as a housewife, emotionally confined by her own depression, narratively confined between two archetypes, the most exciting part of her life decidedly behind her. She is, from a utilitarian perspective, the worst-designed protagonist for an action story, and not one I would have constructed on purpose.
In order to understand how I arrived at this bad design, you must first understand that Misaki was originally built to fill a completely different archetype. She has her origin in my YA series, Theonite, which takes place fifteen years after The Sword of Kaigen. I started writing Theonite when I was twelve—too young to read, let alone conceive, a story like The Sword of Kaigen—and the Matsuda Misaki invented for that story occupied the role of the unconditionally supportive but a little bit badass parent and mentor figure—incidentally, the same role inhabited by ever likable character over the age twenty. You could say that I lacked range.
To give my preteen self a little bit of credit, the Misaki of Theonite is competently designed in this regard. The classically functional mentor is experienced enough to know plot-relevant information, articulate enough to dispense that information when necessary, and removed enough from the action that they can’t destroy the tension by solving the protagonist’s problems for them. There are two ways to keep an overpowered mentor away from the main plot. The easy way out is to kill them, relegating their inspirational speeches and wisdom dumps to flashbacks.
Misaki survived my many drafts of mentor-slaughter because she is removed in the second way: confinement. She spends the duration of the Theonite series in the kitchen—specifically, a kitchen on the other side of the world from most of the action, accessible by phone, but never close enough to swoop in and save anyone from danger.
There are only three things the Theonite protagonists really know about Misaki: 1) she is nice, 2) she used to run around fighting crime with her friends as a teenager, and 3) now she is a friendly housewife in her forties who no longer does that. It’s not much of a character.
This is why, when I first outlined The Sword of Kaigen, I thought that I was embarking on a simple novella-length story about a simple mother and her oldest son. However, when I started writing Misaki in her restrictive kimono, in the cold halls of her husband’s house, I realized that there was a more complex character in that little housewife. That complexity sprang from the sheer contrast between a reckless teenager sprinting across rooftops and a poised mother of four. My now-adult writer’s brain recognized that there must have been a period of transition between the spirited teenager and the housewife of infinite patience—and that that transition could not possibly have been painless. We know from Theonite
that Misaki loved her old life, loved fighting, yet she left it behind at the age of nineteen to marry a man she didn’t love at all. Logically, that decision had to be a source of regret. And the Matsuda family, with their cold aura and repressed emotions, is a place where that kind of regret could only fester and grow in silence.
Faced with this unaccounted-for gap in Misaki’s story during which her heart belonged to her exciting past while her body was trapped in an oppressive present, the first thing I did was address her bottled-up pain. With no socially acceptable outlet for her emotions, Misaki’s regret naturally turned into a long depression that eclipsed experience of motherhood. The picture that emerged was a smothered, bitter, fragile figure so different from Misaki’s Theonite characterization that it raised a whole new set of questions:
How did Misaki come out of this long depression to become the optimistic, wise mother she is in Theonite? What was the catalyst? What was the catharsis? How did she get there after so many years of accumulated resentment and silence? Is that even humanly possible? Those questions turned into the most challenging character arc I’ve ever written and the driving conflict that turned The Sword of Kaigen from a novella into an epic.
Sometimes a reader picks up a story at exactly the right point in their life. I think I wrote The Sword of Kaigen at the right time in mine. Because at first, I was at a loss for answers. Misaki’s revelations were mine, caught between the adventure of young adulthood and the realities of adult adulthood. There was no outline for the second half of The Sword of Kaigen. I had to push through it, one painful step at a time, as Misaki did, and grow with her.
The Theonite protagonists are mostly fire elementals, energetic, fast-growing, and bursting with promise, as YA protagonists should be. Meanwhile, Misaki is an ice elemental, made of the frozen darkness after those fires go out. She was never built to be a protagonist, but in accidentally dropping her into that role, I had to confront my own fears about adulthood, legacy, responsibility, and regret.
I don’t recommend this method of writing a protagonist like I wouldn’t recommend most of the decisions Misaki makes. It was grueling, and painful, and far too long in
the making. But I did grow from it—not all at once like a flame, but slowly, like ice forming up with winter, hard and strong.
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About the Author
M. L. Wang was born in Wisconsin in 1992, decided she wanted to be an author at the age of nine, and never grew up. She got her Bachelor of Arts in history in 2015 and currently works at a martial arts school in her home city of Madison.
When she isn’t building worlds on the page, she builds them in her aquarium full of small, smart fish that love to explore castles and don’t make noise during writing time.
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until next time!