I have never read a self-published book before and when I asked for recommendations, this one title floated above the rest. The Sword of Kaigen is a fantasy standalone book set in M. L. Wang’s Theonite sci-fi series, and all I knew about it going in is that it is a war story (as it says on the front cover)
I was quite disoriented at first but what I quickly learned is that the world that The Sword of Kaigen is set in is a world similar to our own but West Africans (the Yammankalu) won the civilisation lottery, dominating the globe and colonising Europeans (Hadeans). And more importantly to this book, Japan (Shirojima) is actually a vassal state of Korea (Jungsan) which together, forms the Kaigen empire. The war story that this book is obviously drawing from is the Second Sino-Japanese War—like R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War—except in this case, China (the Ranganese) is the aggressor. As the author herself put it in an interview,
Readers of Theonite, whatever their background, are intended to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.Interview with M. L. Wang (2019) from Novel Notions
The magic system is basically themed around the control of elements like water, fire, wind, etc. but these skills are divided by nations and race, much like Avatar: the Last Airbender/Legend of Korra. If I am to pitch this book in an elevator, I’d call it “Avatar meets The Poppy War“, but personally I think The Sword of Kaigen is a much, much better story than The Poppy War if I am being honest and I wish it can get even a fraction of the attention Poppy War received.
The book follows two main characters: 14-year-old Mamoru and his mother Misaki, both from the prestigious and mythic Matsuda clan of warriors, known for their bloodline technique of manifesting the Whispering Blade, a sword made of ice that is stronger than steel. The Matsudas and other famous bloodlines are considered the bulwark against invaders of the Kaigen empire, forming the metaphorical “Sword of Kaigen”. The topic of blind nationalism is something this book discusses, and part of Mamoru’s coming of age journey is realising that the world is not as simple as he imagines it to be.
I am very infrequently surprised by where a book takes me, and The Sword of Kaigen absolutely did when something thoroughly unexpected happened at the halfway mark. I have heard from other readers who was so taken back that they simply refuse to continue reading, but I had the opposite reaction: I became even more invested because it put me in a narrative limbo where I no longer knew where the story would go—and that is exciting to me. It is an incredibly bold storytelling choice, and I feel that had this book been traditionally published, an editor might not have let it happen, or not let it happen without some significant changes to the entire book. I feel sorry for those who gave up at that point because I feel that the second half of The Sword of Kaigen is without question to me, the superior half.
A life of dangerous adventures might seem worth it now, when you are young and seemingly invincible, but one day, you will have children, and you will not want that life for them.
While Mamoru’s arc of a young warrior trying to prove himself is competently depicted, I was more invested in the story of his mother. Misaki is trapped in an unhappy marriage. She is a woman who had tasted liberty and emancipation abroad, but for some reason still chose to fold herself into a patriarchal box of duty and traditions. It is a dilemma that some of my unmarried lady friends have expressed, especially since most marriageable prospects they encounter would require them to surrender some parts of themselves they consider to be essential to their own identity. I think what most western depictions of East Asians get wrong is how comically they prioritise the idea of honour, but in reality, what we often feel most acutely is our obligations to our families and heritage. Of course, a lot of these misconceptions came from The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946) by Ruth Benedict which popularised the racist idea of guilt-vs-shame cultures. She was commissioned by the American war propaganda machine to write it and she neither spoke Japanese nor ever set foot on Japanese soil… but I digress.
But speaking of racial prejudice, it was interesting to see how the world in this book flips the table on Europeans, intentionally mirroring racist language in our world,
In elementary school, Misaki had been told that Hadean’s light colored hair and eyes were signs that they were a more primitive variety of human, closely related to dogs and monkeys who shared their coloring. She was realizing that she had been told a lot of ridiculous things.
There are a few weaknesses that stopped The Sword of Kaigen from achieving true greatness. While I understand that this standalone adult fantasy work is set in an already established YA sci-fi book series, I wish it could have unmoored itself from it even more, especially in its ending. It interfered with what I consider to an amazing ending by setting up a tonally incongruent and narratively irrelevant new conflict (which presumably leads to events that happen in the other books, which were written before Sword of Kaigen, but are set after it chronologically). I wish it was subtle enough to ignore, but it was done about as gracefully as what they did with Converse in Will Smith’s I, Robot film.
Secondly, it employs an intimidatingly large number of made-up fantasy words. It is an amount that would put even Neal Stephenson to shame. I consider myself a veteran of fantasy fiction and even I struggled initially but luckily, Ms Wang shared a glossary of terms on her website so I can quickly search for the relevant words on my phone (my e-book has the glossary too but you try flipping to-and-fro on a Kindle). I can understand the use of some in service of world building but what is the point of renaming the units of time and distance with words like “waati”, “siira”, and “dinma”?!
Aside from my few misgivings, The Sword of Kaigen is still one of my best reads this year so far, and I like that it also put an end to whatever hesitance I used to harbour against self-published works and had encouraged me to read other self-published authors. I mean, this book is better than a lot of traditionally published award-winning books I’ve read! I can see this book being an even bigger hit if a publisher would pick it up, reduce the size of its glossary, and streamline the ending to make it feel less like a Marvel film post-credit scene.
P.S. Did I mention The Sword of Kaigen won the 2019 SFPBO Award?