The Sword of Kaigen (book review)

bookshelves: challenging-literaturespfbogrimdarkwe-need-diverse-booksasianscience-fantasymartial-artsstandalonecoming-of-age
Recommended to Dustin by: Michael Sliter

Rating: 2/5 stars

M.L. Wang won Mark Lawrence SPFBO competition in 2019, and having finished her novel a while ago and after a lot of consideration, I cannot understand why. I literally cannot wrap my mind around why it won, how it accrued so many gushingly positive reviews, or how it garnered more points in SPFBO’s history. I believe that record still stands, more than two years later.

And look, I get it. Seriously, I do. You don’t need to tell me that literary opinions and tastes are entirely subjective. I fully realize that you’re not going to appreciate or even enjoy the same books that I do—and vise versa– and that’s fine. That’s beautiful. That’s the way it should be. I wouldn’t have it any other way. And as I write this, it isn’t intended to disrespect anyone. The truth is, I’m really happy for everyone who read and were blown away by Wang’s novel. I respect your reviews and I’m thankful for the time and effort every one of you put into them. So much so that if not for the nearly overwhelming praises of Michael Sliter and Petrik Leo (amongst many others,) I might not have given The Sword of Kaigen a chance. I probably wouldn’t have heard of it if not for Mark Lawrence’s coveted competition. Thank you ALL.

Despite my low rating, I genuinely don’t regret reading it. Wang’s prose was gorgeous and, oftentimes, utterly breathtaking. For that reason alone, I’m glad I read it. She took it deeper than that, though. The in-depth characterizations on display here are shining examples of how characters should be written and developed. They were, for the most part, incredibly believable and consistent. Saying I was impressed by said feat would be a colossal understatement. Misaki’s depth and complexity was particularly profound. She was easily my favorite character. Hands down my most beloved. Not just in this book, but one of my favorite fictional characters of all-time. I earnestly loved her to that degree. The author has also been recognized for her remarkable worldbuilding skills, and I couldn’t agree with that attribute more.

By the time they reached the school, the city boy was out of breath again. The stately pillars were the first part of the building that came into view through the mist, their black finish slick with condensation, followed by the curving clay-tiled roof. Kumono Academy was built into the rock face, its inner structures carved right out of the mountain. The intricate wood and lacquer front of the building was supported by a network of pillars and beams that creaked in high winds but had held the structure in place for a hundred years.

As evidenced by the passage above, Wang writes very visually, utilizing all sensory details and gradually erecting both the narrative and worldbuilding to a stunning reality. What’s not on display (but which the reader gets moderate amounts of later,) is her exceptional handling of battle scenes, which were made more pronounced with ample sparks of creativity, originality and cleverness. Those were equally on par with the awesome magical system and the horrifying catalyst of the “war” itself. There are air quotes around war for a reason, which I’ll address shortly.

Aside from the aforementioned positives, as well as the aesthetically pleasing, close-knit friendships between these core women, there’s no love lost between myself and The Sword of Kaigen. I’ll be discussing the issues I had with the rest of the book in spoilers below.

Hyori was rarely smart, but Misaki thought she might as well keep encouraging her. Popular wisdom said that a woman as pretty as Hyori didn’t need to be smart. ‘Pretty’ wasn’t even the right word to describe Hyori, in Misaki’s opinion. The woman was achingly, devastatingly beautiful, with an artless smile and eyes as soft as melting snow. Many Shirojima women were ‘pretty,’ but Hyori was the kind of legendary beauty men went to war for.

For one thing, contrary to how it’s been marketed (it’s even on the title page,) this is NOT a (view spoiler)

A black pine grew here, young like everything else in the grove, but wiry and strong. It was here that Misaki knelt and put her palms to the ground. Other people had their own special markers in the grove where they chose to pray. Obedient to the will of the Emperor, no one in Takayubi spoke about where they prayed and why, but there was an understanding among these people that ran deeper than spoken words.

The way she chose to end the novel didn’t just anger me, nor did it only disappoint. More than any other adjective, it infuriated and saddened me. It was a cop-out, a waste of time. I’m saddened because I feel she did a disserve to herself as well as to the readers that didn’t particularly care for it; to those that passionately hated the ending.

I’ve been burned by several books lately, and it’s possible that because this was yet another, my emotions and opinions may come across more harshly than need be, but out of every disappointing
book I’ve ever read (literally hundreds,) The Sword of Kaigen was, without a doubt, the biggest letdown of them all. I’m not exaggerating.

I wish I was writing a positive review. I wish I could love it like the countless others in the SF&F communities have. Truly, I do. But this is just me giving my honest thoughts and opinions.

Michael Sliter’s review:…

Petrik Leo’s:…

And Mark Lawrence’s:…

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