Title: Sword of Kaigen
Author: M.L. Wang
Series: Theonite #1
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
The Overview: A mother struggling to repress her violent past, a son struggling to grasp his violent future, a father blind to the danger that threatens them all. When the winds of war reach their peninsula, will the Matsuda family have the strength to defend their empire? Or will they tear each other apart before the true enemies even reach their shores? 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. -Goodreads
What started out as a potential DNF eventually evolved into one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.
The unconventional plot structure was easily one of my favorite things about Sword of Kaigen. Many books these days seem to follow a basic try/fail formula with the climax of the book taking place near the end of the story. It’s a framework that has proven to sell big, so it’s over taught and over produced. I have a few critical opinions of the self-publishing market in general, but found a surprising appreciation for it here, as it allowed this talented author the freedom of creativity without outside mandates, and the ability to take risks not conducive to generating a series and making more money. It was a complete and utter breath of fresh air.
You don’t have to be a mother to fully appreciate this story, but for me it added a heart-wrenching level of poignancy. I felt deeply connected to this character and her children. The author was brilliant at making several scenes in this book a sensory experience and I can still feel the hairs on my neck tingling just thinking about some of the moments within. I was so caught up at one point that I found myself crying with the character. That level of emotional investment in books doesn’t happen to me often, maybe once every couple of years. This is why, even though objectively the book landed at about a 4-star rating I bumped it up to a 4.5. Stupid book, making me feel things.
As amazing as so many elements of this self-published novel were, there were a few areas where the lack of an editor showed through. I mentioned I’d almost DNFed the books and this was around the 20% mark. If it hadn’t been for the half dozen members of FBR on Goodreads who jumped on to our buddy read thread to proclaim their love for the book, I’d have called it quits. The reason for this was the poor pacing and plethora of info dumps. As interesting as the story was, the author spent a ton of time upfront explaining stuff to the reader. For every couple of lines the characters spoke, the conversation was paused for a couple of pages, unpacking what was just said. It slowed the plot progression considerably and made me wonder what magic I was missing.
Then around the 25% mark, stuff started happening. A little less information, a little more action. I started to find a connection to the characters.
Then the shit hit the fan at 50%, and I was absolutely hooked.
Another issue was the underdeveloped world-building and character roles. Initially, this idea that a place for a ninja society to grow untainted by the modern, technologically advanced society surrounding it was a cool juxtaposition. It was giving me very Hogwarts for Ninjas vibe at the beginning, which I loved. However, it did not develop much more beyond that as the book went along. Quite the opposite: it got more confusing and less well-imagined. Several things about the world and the behavior of the peoples within it didn’t make sense. And the roles of a handful of characters still remains very unclear.
And one final note: I have a hard time when awful things happen to children in books. This ultimately didn’t count against my rating, but it is a trigger-warning in case it affects someone else similarly. Several parts were difficult to read.
People are championing this series as a stand-alone, which I admit I find perplexing. There are enough things happening at the end of the book to indicate the author was leaving her options open for a sequel. Just because a sequel hasn’t been written yet and the author is supposedly not working on it doesn’t mean the book is a stand-alone. And I’d argue that not enough external plot points resolved themselves for it to be a satisfying solo novel in any case. I’ll believe it’s a stand alone if 10 years go by and nothing else is written on it. I will say I’m at least content with what I read if that’s all we ever get.
Recommendations: this book’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses, but it takes a good 25-50% in to really start appreciating what it has to offer. After that, hang on to your seat! I’ve heard some negative feedback for the audiobook version but I personally liked the narrator (I pretty much forgot he was there as the story got going, which is an odd compliment lol). There’s a lot of hype surrounding the book for a reason and I consider it worth the read.
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