I am loving this trend of fantasy based on different civilizations. When I think high fantasy, my mind goes to worlds inspired by medieval and renaissance Europe. Kings and Queens, knights and squires. That isn’t this book and that’s becoming a greater theme in modern fantasy literature that I really appreciate.
Sword of Kaigen is based on traditional Asian cultures, mixed with a bit of modern cultures. It’s a war story, focused on warriors holding to their roles as defenders of the Empire in the face of great danger. I’ve heard this book described as the future of fantasy and one of the best books of the past few years.
I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I did really enjoy this book.
The world may be one of my least favorite parts of this book. Although I liked it and it was good enough to do what the author, M.L. Wang, wanted to do with it, nothing about the world struck me as magnificent and breathtaking. The cultures were interesting enough, but felt derivative to a distracting extent. We very rarely left a tiny, snow-covered mountain where the bulk of the story took place. While that mountain had it’s own, interesting culture, it wasn’t expansive. It wasn’t massively deep.
At times, Wang info-dumped larger parts of the culture through extended periods of dialogue that felt forced. Dialogue is a decent way to get passed the info-dump problem, but it’s always clear why an author is doing it and it makes me cringe a little.
The deepest part of the world is, probably, the religion. Different cultures have slightly variant ideas about their religion, but hold to almost the same story. The religious experience of these cultures is one that is fascinating and I enjoyed the parts where it was shown to us.
I wasn’t super thrilled with this magic system. It is an elemental system – reminiscent of Avatar: the Last Airbender. Maybe I just don’t care for elemental magic systems. I enjoyed seeing a lot of the cool things some of the more powerful magic-wielders did with it. Some of those moments were truly awe-inspiring. But, on the whole, it left me a little underwhelmed.
Some people may find the pacing of this story not to their liking. It starts slow and allows the world and characters to build into the plot. I like and appreciate that, but it is definitely not the trend in Fantasy/modern literature. There needs to be immediate action and stakes, which we don’t get here. The first taste of action and intrigue comes after 100 pages have passed. To some, that is slow and they may get bored.
I didn’t. I love seeing a world fleshed out and I love seeing characters before the story truly begins. It helps me get a better understand of scope and what is going to happen.
The main plot of the story kind of sneaks up on you. There is something wrong, and you know that, but you don’t actually know what is really going to happen until it happens. I don’t necessarily hate that. However, after the main event of the plot is resolved, there is suddenly a new plot. What was in the background – a backstory plot – becomes the primary plot and I wasn’t prepared for that. This new plot isn’t resolved in this story, either. So that part of the end is a little strange. I get that it sets up a potential follow up book – and I am interested to see where that plot goes – but tagging it onto the end of this book seemed out of place.
This is where The Sword of Kaigen is unmatched in recent books I’ve read. Because of the slower pace, the unwinding and developing story, Wang is able to devote a lot of time to fleshing out her characters. These characters breathe, the think, feel, react, hurt. They are real people.
There is one character, a new kid, who seems somewhat one note. He exists as a means to info-dump. He is the kid that things must be explained to. In a way, he’s us, the reader. He is in this new world and must learn its customs and ways. In that regard, he’s a helpful character to have. But I didn’t see much out of him to warrant the screen time he got.
Other than that, I can’t think of a character I’d remove or change. All of them were unique and bursting with actual life. Each of them had an arc where they grew and learned things about themselves, their community, and their place in the larger world. The main protagonist’s personal journey through her own fears, desires, regrets and bitterness was moving in a way that I haven’t often seen in novels.
The real strength of this novel isn’t in the main plot lines. The fights, the battles, those don’t seem as important. The man vs self struggle that almost every character faces to an unreal extent looms larger than the main plot. I don’t see that as a detriment to what is a decent plot, I see it as a strength of Wang’s ability to create characters with emotional depth.
As readers of other reviews might know, I’m not a fan of the “kill everyone” trope that authors and fantasy readers are currently in love with. In almost every modern fantasy book I read, I brace for at least three main characters to die. Soon I’m going to write an entire post to detail my thoughts about this subject. Suffice it to say for now: I don’t like it. And this book definitely had it. I won’t get into more spoilers, but it’d be hard for me to knock a book for doing what the current trend is. I know I’m the minority opinion on this topic.
Despite all of that, I still greatly enjoyed this book. It is one of the better ones I’ve read recently and I’m super excited to delve more into this world. I don’t think I got a proper understanding of the full richness of the world, so I want to read more to understand better.
I’d give this book 3.75 stars out of 5, leaning more towards 4.