SPFBO 5 Finalist Review: Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang

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Hey guys!!! For those just tuning in, I’m part of Superstardrifter’s judging team this year. Kristen and I are planning on reading and reviewing each of the finalists and then use our average score as the final score for the board. I’m off work and my newborn’s favorite activity is sleeping, so hopefully, I can keep reviews coming in fast and post every Monday. 

Partial Blurb:

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.

The review: 

I had strong feelings about this book from start to finish, and it’s been a very long time since my emotions have varied so wildly from the beginning to the end of a book.

I got off to a rough start, the first third of the book, (200 pages) was slow going for me and I wasn’t certain if I was going to warm up to this one. From the beginning, there’s intricate and heavy world-building, head-hopping, Japanese honorifics (which I was not familiar with) and lingo specific to magic use and in-world terms. It made my head swim a bit when I hit a scene that was a big info dump about the world’s history in the form of a teacher lecturing a student. I would find that scene much more interesting later on after I have a grip on how the world is at present before I get history lessons. I’m also someone who likes to get to know a character well enough to get invested in them before I can invest in the world or other POV’s. In Sword of Kaigen we’re introduced to a group of boys about 14 years old and before I could get to know them the POV’s switched at 2%, which was a bit too early for me. The world-building comes at you hard in this, and it comes at you early. There are many different types of magic, the ability to control air, water, fire, sound etc and there are different words for each type of magic … and there’s a different but similar word for someone who can use those magics … and there are pluralized versions of those words. Eg: Fonyoya is the ability to control air, but sometimes it’s shortened to fonya. A fonyojaka is someone who can control air, fonyaka being the shortened form, and fonyakalu being the pluralized version. That’s just one example of it.  This sort of nomenclature provides extremely detailed and convincing world-building, but my god it could prove to be frustrating at first. The glossary saved me a few times.

At around 15% I felt like I was starting to get to know the characters better, but my feelings were only lukewarm. Mamaru presents himself as a kid who’s mildly arrogant, comes from an esteemed family, and everything in his life has come to him easily thus far.  You’re told several times how great his family name is, his family history, and what they mean to the community etc. I was more interested in his mother, Misaki. She’s a mother of 5 boys which is considered to be a woman’s finest possible achievement since this particular culture values men more than women. Misogyny and the way she deals with it throughout her life is a constant theme in her arc. There have been many times where she’s had to choose between what makes her happy and what she considers her duty. The life she left behind was full of events and behavior that her present life would condemn her for, so she’s hidden it all away and tries to do her best in her current role. Although I liked Misaki as a character, her arc was melancholy and in many ways, tragic.  

You guys, I was 200 pages into the book and struggling hard. If this wasn’t a finalist I would have put it down. This may sound like I’m going to give it a piss poor score, but lo and behold, at around 30% I started to fly through the pages. I found myself up past 2am reading it because I absolutely fucking had to get to the end.  

The most important change for me was my connection to the characters. I went from feeling lukewarm, to having an admiration for their complexity, to being absolutely enraptured in their stories. I don’t think I’ve done a 180 like that in a long time, if ever. Mamoru and his mother have become some of the most memorable characters I’ve read in years, certainly some of my favorites from this year. ML Wang has a way of capturing a persona and making you care even if your experiences and viewpoints are completely different.

Once I became accustomed to the Japanese honorifics and I could keep track of the characters and their abilities things really started to move along. The pace picked up about 30% and was grueling until about 65% where there’s a major event that stopped me in my tracks. The last third of the book did slow back down a bit but it was nowhere near as slow-moving as the beginning and had a few very memorable scenes. 

One of the great things about this book is that it doesn’t pull punches. It’s odd to enjoy it when a book hurts you, and I don’t get to experience it all that often. It’s uncommon when I find myself truly upset about a book. I’ll have mild reactions to a lot of books “man that character is dumb” “that sucks” “aw that’s cute” – but I don’t often have to set a book down or feel like throwing it across the room. I genuinely didn’t know which characters were going to live and which ones were going to die which made for very high-intensity reading. It’s more difficult than it appears to pull off that sort of tension. Many times when I’m reading about a character in a dangerous situation I more or less know who makes it and who doesn’t. Things like that can lead to a battle scene that’s boring… a daring escape that feels like a slog… or a duel where you already know the outcome and have no investment in it. This is not that kind of book, it will keep you on your toes. I had many “holy shit” moments, and some unexpected turn of events (especially in character arcs) that makes me want to re-read this to see if I pick up clues I missed the first time. 

I’ve re-written this review several times because I don’t feel like I can accurately put into words the wild ride this book took me on. I highly recommend this to people who enjoy nonwestern stories, intricate world-building, complex characters, dual POVs, elemental magic, Japanese culture, and alternate “earths”. This will be a book I revisit and will pick up anything else that may come after it. 


  • Plot: 12.75/15
  • Characters: 14/15
  • World Building: 15/15
  • Writing: 13.5/15
  • Pacing: 9.25/15
  • Originality: 13/15
  • Personal Enjoyment: 9/10

Final Score: 86.5/100 or 8.7/10 for SPFBO