A review by JC Kang
The Poppy War’s darkness meets The Last Airbender’s elemental magic.
Being a second world conflict between China and Japan, M. L. Wang’s The Sword of Kaigen brought to my mind R. F. Kuang’s meteoric debut, The Poppy War. With all the hype surrounding it, The Poppy War was my most anticipated release of 2018, but one whose expectations were so high. It left me underwhelmed. Fair or not, I couldn’t help but to compare the two books, and those comparisons invariably found their way into this review.
As a reader and writer of Asian-themed fantasy, I wanted to read The Sword of Kaigen from the first time its striking blue cover image flashed across my Facebook feed. The kimono-wearing young man facing the ocean, katana bared, screamed either a historical fiction or a second world, Japanese-themed chanbara story. My mistake, and one which was rectified within the first few pages. (Unfair Comparison #1: One of my main complaints with The Poppy War, was that I was unsure of the technology level until halfway through.)
On the surface, Wang’s Theonite world of Duna does not look much different from modern-day Earth. Its continental landmasses are similar (turn the map upside-down!), so much so that I wondered if it was a post-apocalyptic story where the coastlines changed from polar ice melt or tectonic shifts. It also mixes Last Airbender-like elemental magic with contemporary technology. Airplanes, smartphones, and televisions co-exist with the Avatar equivalent of water, air, and fire benders. (Unfair Comparison #2: I loved the originality of The Poppy War’s drug-centered magic more than The Sword of Kaigen’s less uncommon elemental magic).
The story takes part in Shirojima Province, where the sheer power of magic has ensured that martial traditions endure. The history differs from Earth in that the equivalent of Japan’s Greater East Asian Co Prosperity Sphere originates in Kaigen (“Korea”). But this Kaigenese Empire has weakened so much that neighboring Ranga (“China”) plans to invade. In this flipping of the historical script, the rocky coasts of Shirojima are the first line of defense—the Sword of Kaigen (surprise! It’s not some awesome artifact).
One of the main narratives follows fourteen-year-old Mamoru Matsuda. Born to a clan of powerful Jijakalu (“water benders”), Mamoru is raised in a strict martial tradition, which demands absolute obedience to a faraway emperor. When a new student at his school challenges everything Mamoru knows about history and current affairs, his is forced to reevaluate what is worth fighting for.
His mother, Misaki, is the other main viewpoint character. Once well-travelled and adventurous, this capable swordswoman has known passionate love with a foreigner in her youth; but now, she plays the role of a demure, obedient wife to a cold, emotionless water-bending samurai. In order to come to terms with her lost past, she has to lose even more.
And in these losses lies the most Unfair Comparison: I appreciated the Poppy War’s graphic depiction of atrocities, because they actually happened in the Sino-Japanese War. However, inasmuch as Rin has been numbed to violence, it read like accounts of The Rape of Nanjing.
In contrast, in The Sword of Kaigen, I felt anger and sadness at the indiscriminate targeting of women, children, and other non-combatants by the invading Ranganese. This was because Wang does an incredible job of building up the relationships between the Mamoru’s and Misaki’s friends, family, and mentors. The atrocities are personal. The victims aren’t faceless thousands, but an admired master or a best friend’s young child. There were places where I emotionally couldn’t continue, but kept turning the pages because I had to find out more.
The overall writing is solid and unembellished. The dialog feels right for a second world Japanese warrior culture. (Unfair Comparison #4: The Poppy War’s use of modern American colloquialisms really threw me out of the story.) The rest of the worldbuilding was unique in that “Africans” appeared to be the most advanced in both technology and magic, so much so that they were the ones to colonize “North America” and bring slaves from “Europe.”
A minor complaint is the overwhelming use of unique terminology for magic, energy, units of measurement and time. While these terms give the world texture, making it feel real and lived in, they also make for a steep learning curve. While the physical book has an extensive glossary, I was often using my brand-new Kindle Paperwhite, making cross-checking impractical.
If there is a shortcoming with The Sword of Kaigen, it is the pace and narrative arc. The first quarter of the story, while important toward establishing the relationships that make the rest of the story so poignant, can be slow. (Unfair Comparison #5: I loved the start of The Poppy War, from the time Rin studies for the civil service exams to her time at the Sinegard military academy.) The story really gets going 25% of the way in, has a first climax at 50%, and a second at about 75%. I felt the denouement dragged on a little too long, though it did contribute to a satisfying resolution.
From 25% in to 80% finished, The Sword of Kaigen is everything I wanted The Poppy War to be and more. I haven’t been so emotionally moved by a book in a long while, and would rate it a 9.5 – 10. However, with the slow start and meandering end, combined with the onslaught of unique terminology, I give it a 9.
*This review was first published on Fantasy Faction and has been republished here with the reviewer’s permission.