Why You Need to Read: “The Sword of Kaigen”

The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story

By: M.L. Wang

Published: February 19, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Asian Literature/Standalone/Self-Published

            When Misaki hid her sword, she nailed the floorboards down over it. It was a promise to herself. She might never be able to destroy the part of her that was aggressive and willful, but she could bury it. That was what she had thought at the time, (Chapter 7: The Sun). 

            Thanks to the Internet and e-readers, creativity has propelled to levels beyond the zenith. Many e-books of all genres have allowed indie authors to become bestselling authors and several more have been able to transcend from self-published to contracted authors (i.e. Amanda Hocking). M.L. Wang is the latest self-published author who proves that indie authors should not be ignored or overlooked. The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story demonstrates the evolution of the speculative fiction genre with an unlimited freedom for creativity. 

            There are two protagonists, and they are members of the same family, the Matsuda Clan. Mamoru is the eldest son of Takeru and Misaki, and possible heir to the household—his uncle is the Lord and his only child is a girl. Mamoru has lived his entire life in the Kusanagi Peninsula—in the isolated mountain town of Takayubi—in the Kaigenese Empire. He doesn’t want for anything more than to become a warrior and master the sword technique of his family and ancestors, “The Whispering Blade”; and, at 14 years-old, he has yet to master the skill. When a new transfer student, Kwang Chul-hee, slams the lifestyle of the denizens of the Peninsula, Mamoru wonders whether or not his doubts go further than his family’s expectations. Like any other adolescent, he challenges everything his family has taught him to his father’s horror and to his mother’s humor. After his father fails to discipline him and to keep him on the “traditional” path, it is his mother who confirms his suspicions and assists him with his training and swordsmanship, much to Mamoru’s surprise. Misaki is the wife of Takeru and she hates it. A former warrior from the city of Ishihama from the Tsusano Clan, Misaki’s marriage to Takeru has left her in a state of depression and anger. While she finds solace in her sister-in-law, Setsuko, and in their friend and fellow housewife, Hyori Yukino, part of her wishes she can return to her days as a warrior doing missions for the Theonite Daybreak Academy with her former classmates: Ellen, Koli and Robin. Unknown to her husband, Misaki is close to having a breakdown due to her husband’s abuse and mistreatment of her. Both mother and son are characters who reflect the on goings of the bigger world. Mamoru must learn to uphold his family’s expectations while learning how the rest of the Empire operates from his classmate and friend; at the same time, Misaki must find a way to remain calm before her emotions get the best of her. Both protagonists represent the reality and the complexity of the lifestyles they must live and suppress amongst the ignorance of their family and their community. 

            The plot of this story centers on family and family expectations. Misaki is reminded of her role and her place as the wife of the leading household in a place far away from, and different, from where she came from. She is suffering from the stifling expectations. Mamoru sees himself as a failure because he has not been able to live up to the expectations of his family and his community. All he wants is the chance to prove himself to everyone and himself. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the conflict of isolation from and involvement within one’s community. Mamoru is the son of a close-minded father and a secretive mother. When he is told how the Empire operates truly, it is his mother who allows him to seek the truth in his own way. Mamoru learns before his father that living in isolation could lead to death and stagnation. The second subplot is war: the cause of it, what happens because of it, the propaganda surrounding it, the cost of it, and the aftermath of it. War is coming to the Kaigenese Empire and denial from the government leaves everyone unprepared, and many people will die due to this neglect. 

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Misaki and Mamoru, with one or two moments where other characters’ P.O.V.s pop-up to enhance the story. The narrative is told in chronological order from the first-person P.O.V.s and streams-of-consciousness of the characters. In a story where a battle occurs, the perspectives, the actions, and the emotions are essential to how the events of the story are executed through the readers by the author. The way the narrative is written presents the P.O.V. characters as reliable narrators.

            The style M.L. Wang displays in The Sword of Kaigen will remind readers of both The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang and any anime series. Her combination of Asian storytelling and tradition with the allusion to pop culture references make this novel both informative and entertaining. The language and the word choice illustrate the culture and the influence of the author; and, the word choice presents the way the narrative is told and which character is perceiving it, an adolescent boy or his mother. The mood of this novel is tension. Tension within a family and the tension within a community before and after it’s been attacked. The tone is the steps each individual takes towards overcoming from the results of the tension. Even after the battle, the initial tension does not go away, but must be dealt with before any type of battle ensues. And, the way the author resolves both tensions in the narrative is bold and realistic. I should mention that the maps and the glossary are a huge help to reading this book as well. 

            The appeal surrounding this book have been extremely positive. Several bookbloggers, booktubers and I, have heard about how the author wrote a fantasy story about war and family including sword techniques and a magic system which will remind readers of any Asian influenced medium. I was lucky enough to learn of this book from other bloggers and to have the author sent me a print copy of the book (I still bought the e-book edition)! I should reiterate that this book was one of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019! This novel is one of the most recent works of the genre, which demonstrates the future of speculative fiction. Alongside N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth TrilogyThe Sword of Kaigen demonstrates the direction the genre is moving towards. And, while the author is taking a break from her Theonite series, the time will allow other fans of the genre to read this book and the other ones in her series and see why this book is one of the 10 Finalists for the 2019 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO), which is operated by Mark Lawrence and fantasy bloggers from the most revered fantasy reviewers and review websites in the community.

            The Sword of Kaigen is a powerful story that exploded in 2019 to the shock and the delight of the entire fantasy fandom. The themes of family, war, conspiracy, and consequences are not new to fantasy readers and fans. Yet, the way M.L. Wang writes her story make it standout and away from duplicates using a similar format. This book is the best example as to what the genre can evolve into and why self-published authors should be recognized and commended. I look forward to witnessing, experiencing and reading any and all books published by M.L. Wang in the years to come!

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!! 

Why You Need to Read: “War Girls”

War Girls #1: War Girls

By: Tochi Onyebuchi

Published: October 15, 2019

Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian Fiction/Historical Fiction/Young Adult

            Their resources. The blue minerals buried beneath Onyii’s feet and, farther out, beneath the ocean floor. This is what the Nigerians are killing Biafrans for. Not a morning passes that Onyii doesn’t think about setting charges to those things and blowing them into coral debris, (Chapter 1). 

            Everywhere in our world, there is conflict; and, unfortunately, some of these conflicts do not resolve but buildup until war breaks out. Once war begins, everyone and everything gets sucked into it, leaving no one and nothing unscathed. Some wars receive endless media coverage and propaganda gaining the attention of the world, while others are ignored until the war has ended and the warring sides are left to rebuild their homes with whoever and whatever survived. Tochi Onyebuchi retells the wars in Africa—particularly the Biafran War a.k.a. the Nigerian Civil War from 1967 to 1970—during the second half of the twentieth century. War Girls is a dystopian YA novel about family, identity and war. 

            The story follows two sisters, Onyii (16) and Ifeoma, or Ify, (10), who live in seclusion with other girls—both orphans and former soldiers—in the jungles in Southeast Nigeria in the year 2172. War has occurred for years between Biafra and Nigeria, and both sides are guilty of “recruiting” children for the war effort, so several surviving children and adolescents have banded together in camps in order to avoid the armies. They live off the land and off the grid. Onyii—who has darker skin—is a former soldier who stepped back from the war after she lost her arm in a battle. Ify—who has lighter skin—is a tech genius who dreams of attending university and traveling to one of the space colonies. She is the smartest student at the makeshift school at the War Girls’ camp and she is frustrated by the lack of resources they have, and she desires to have more for herself and her sister. At the same time, Onyii and the other former soldiers stay alert for any possible attacks. During an ambush, the sisters are captured and separated—Onyii by the Biafrans and its brigadier general, and Ify by the Nigerians and their soldiers, siblings Daren and Daurama—and for 4 years they live their lives believing the other one is dead. During the separation, the sisters develop into themselves as they battle their inner demons. Onyii struggles with how being a soldier has affected her and what that means for herself and her comrades: Chinelo, Kesandu, Adaeze, and Ngozi once the war is over. Ify witnesses the traumas and the propaganda surrounding war and its aftermath. She believes she is smarter than everyone else and wants to find a way to end the war for good. Onyii and Ify grow up as the war becomes an endless event, but it is their interactions with the other characters that push these young women into doing what they can to make sure their side wins. As the sisters develop, they become more devoted to their allies until unforeseen events leave them asking who they are fighting for and why. The war turns the sisters into propaganda for their “side” and they must find a reason for living beyond the war. 

            The plot of War Girls focuses on the war between two nations and how the war has lasted for so long that many people cannot remember a time when the war was taking place. As the story continues, so does the war and there are those who want a ceasefire and others who can only benefit if the war carries on. The subplot is the effect war has on soldiers and civilians, with the main focus on children: child soldiers, victims and survivors of raids, and those who’ve been subjected to experiments. Whether or not Onyii and Ify know it, they are both victims and perpetrators of the war. Children who know nothing but war unknowingly get involved in it and this is presented to readers over and over again. This subplot is essential to the plot because it enhances the plot as to how a region of the world ravaged by an incessant war affects the younger generation. These children grow up becoming familiar and numb by war and that is a dangerous and a disturbing factor expressed within the novel. 

            The narrative takes place over the course of five years from the points-of-view of both Onyii and Ify. Their stream-of-consciousness display their thoughts as they act and react to everything around them as the events of the war take place. Onyii’s point-of-view takes the readers into battles and missions she participates in and all of the victories and the losses she experiences—both physical and mental—and what being “the perfect soldier” does to her. Ify has the opportunity to live as a civilian in Abuja, but her new “status” gives her clearance to witness the long-term effects of war and the factors that keep it going. The mistakes and the changes in their desires present the sisters as reliable narrators, especially when both are given the choice either to end the war, or to be labeled as a traitor by their allies. Both narratives are written in ways that can be followed and understood by the readers. 

            The way Tochi Onyebuchi wrote War Girls was intended for a young adult audience and anime fans. Adult readers can read this book and explain the themes of war to the younger ones, while anime fans can compare this story to popular series and films such as Gundam Wing and Grave of the Fireflies. Writing about war with children and adolescents as the characters allow the target audience to relate to the characters and any refugees they may or may not meet one day in the future. The adults, who had to read similar narratives during their school days, gain an understanding of a war that received little attention by the news media because some conflicts had neither “benefits” nor “interests” to the rest of the world. The mood is the how Earth has been destroyed by climate change and nuclear warfare, which is then abandoned by the world powers for space colonies and leaving others behind struggling to survive on a planet that is unlivable with hostile inhabitants. The tone is how war turns everyone into participants, both willing and unwilling. War leaves no innocent victims. War consumes everything. 

            War Girls will appeal to science fiction and dystopian fiction fans of all ages. In addition, anime and manga fans will recognize the influences found within the battle sequences. Similar to Lord of the Flies and Battle Royale: The NovelWar Girls explores how war and internal hostilities influence and affect the younger generations. The novel provides an interesting look into the recent history of African countries such as Nigeria, Somalia, etc. and how the rest of the world either ignored or profited from those conflicts. While it is too soon to determine whether or not War Girls will be read in schools, it is already part of the YA dystopian canon alongside The Giver and The Hunger Games. There are rumors of a follow up book to War Girls, but there haven’t been any announcements (as of when this review was posted). 

            War Girls is a moving novel about sisterly love and how war denies people simple needs such as family and purpose. Tochi Onyebuchi composed a story based on actual events and witness testimony with mech technology and space colonies into a book for both adolescent and adult readers. The battles will put you in the center of the action and the characters become part of your literary family, which makes this a very poignant story of love, loss, family and war. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

Why Persona 5 is more than an Excellent JRPG

         Phantom Thieves

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 5 won “Best RPG” at 2017’s Video Game Awards in Los Angeles. The win was no surprise to anyone who was familiar with the series, or with the game company, ATLUS. ATLUS has gained more momentum in the past 15 years thanks to the popularity of Persona 4 (2008) and Demon’s Souls (2009). This company has become known for their inclusion of fantasy and folklore within the gaming narrative and taking risks in developing and releasing video games that may or may not be a game-changer.

The success and the enjoyment of Persona 4 immediately had players and fans anticipating Persona 5. After teasers and delays, gamers received insight into the games’ narrative, presentation, and combat. Not only does Persona 5 returned to its earlier combat and theme, but also it evolved in order to match other video games and desires of their fans and players. The game went back to its darker theme surrounding human nature, and improved on their gameplay mechanics.

The dungeons and the grinding were a huge improvement, and it’s about time! The stealth and the combat make dungeon crawling more entertaining. The art style, the design and the menu illustrate the tone of the game, but it still manages to lure you in. The soundtrack is one of the best of the year, too! The songs, sung by Lyn and, the music, composed by Shoji Meguro, are catchy and make you want to challenge society.

The location matches the overall concept of the Persona series. Persona 5 takes place in Shibuya, Japan, a real place with buildings and subways to match. This is because the story is about the existence of a parallel world based on the occult and human emotion. While, Square Enix’s The World Ends with You (2007) also takes place in Shibuya, Persona 5 has the characters travelling in-and-out of the parallel world, or the Metaverse. Thus, the game feels more realistic due to the “parallel world” and “double life” storyline. The fact that Japanese towns and culture piques our interests!

Yes, it is an amazing JRPG and it deserved the win. However, the game was a contender for “Game of the Year.” It was well deserved, but Persona fans are not oblivious! We knew The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild was going to win that prize (and with good reason)! And yet, fans were pleased with the nomination because not only was it well-deserved, but also it brought the game series to the attention of mainstream gamers, especially those who neither heard of, nor played the series until now—I’m looking at you, Jirard “Dragonrider” Khalil a.k.a. “The Completionist”!!!

So, what makes Persona 5 stand out from other JRPGs and RPGs? First, it takes the concept from American comic super heroes and Japanese manga: you’re a student who is working to save the world! You play as a student who, along with his friends and classmates forms “The Phantom Thieves,” is protecting and saving the world from dark forces that inhabit both the real world and the paranormal world. Next, “the story” takes place over the course of a year. I believe the pacing in the game takes on an aspect of realism in that the objective cannot be met or completed in a short time. Last, children and adolescences are the main characters in this series. Not only does this fulfill the notion that “the younger generation” can make necessary changes within their society, but also the idea and the circumstances of social issues remain a constant throughout the series. Identity and the real world loom over adolescents because they are close to adulthood, and “how” the world views them affects and influences their personality. This is why the characters struggle with “who they are” throughout the game. However, in the narrative, we see the main characters dealing with their identities better than the “criminals.” It is fascinating to grasp on what motivates people to remove themselves from their negative identities.

The gameplay is a combination of turn-based strategy with some stealth. Grinding consists of completing side quests and building up bonds with confidants and personal social stats. Even what items you buy are part of your strategy throughout the game. Every confidant plays a role towards the ultimate goal of the game. The dungeons are artistic and narrative driven. Speaking of narrative, it seems more relevant with recent events. Children and adolescences are still people, and people can only take so much injustice and mistreatment.

Persona 5 is worth the 100+ hours of devoted gameplay, and the replay of “New Game Plus” for the “True Ending” reminds fans, and displays to newcomers how distinct the games in the Shin Megami Tensei series are within the video game industry. Granted, it takes true devotion in order to complete the Persona Compendium (Good Luck Jirard!), but seeing the numerous references to fantasy, folklore, the supernatural, the occult, the paranormal, and religion by ATLUS developers leaves us awestricken.

The numerous delays and the long hours of playing makes Persona 5 a worthwhile experience. I believe I can say—and many will agree—Persona 5 is a video game that ALL gamers need to play! The game radiates perfection in everything from style and music, to characters and story. While fans wait for an announcement for Persona 6, we will continue to play, and to enjoy, the games—and the spinoffs—of the Persona series!

Factions in Popular Culture that Made a Difference: Anime: Sailor Moon

            I remember the first imported Japanese cartoon, or anime, I saw and which forever became one of my favorite genres of television. I had just started middle school and there were times I woke up before my alarm clock went off. With an extra half hour to kill, I turned on the T.V. and flipped through the channels. One of the basic channels, yes not on a cable network, had a new “cartoon” on before the morning news. Sailor Moon had arrived in the United States.

            With nothing to lose—I had already finished my homework the night before—I watched not the ‘first episode’ (it never aired in the U.S.)—but the “introductory” episode. Serena (as she is called in the English dub) is in middle school and is trying to survive early adolescence, when her friend is attacked at her family’s jewelry store. Luna, a cat she met earlier that day, tells Serena of the danger and that she must ‘reawaken’ as ‘Sailor Moon.’ It was when Serena transforms that I realized that this show was about a girl superhero. I was hooked.

            I enjoyed the show because not since Spiderman had there been a good series about young heroes who must balance saving the world with school life. Also, more “Sailor Scouts” appeared and they were all girls. There was also a male hero called ‘Tuxedo Mask,’ but instead of leading the Sailor Scouts, he assisted them. And, at several occasions had to be saved by them. That was also a first I saw in my cartoons.

            Like most anime, there were more adult themes and more real life realities such as characters getting killed off and failing exams. The girls had to balance being heroes, being students, and being members of society. This cartoon was more realistic than anything else I had ever seen. I was able to take Sailor Moon more seriously over Disney and Nickelodeon cartoons. Maybe it was because I was ready for ‘big kid’ shows.

            I know I keep saying ‘cartoon,’ but try to understand that this was before Pokémon and Gundam Wing premiered in the United States, so the word “anime” was not in my vocabulary at the time. It was not until Cartoon Network and the Internet, which both imported and aired more anime that I fully grasped what I was observing. The anime movement of the 1990s made it okay to watch animation beyond elementary school, and The Simpsons. Also, they provided different expectations from what was expected before. For instance, Sailor Moon focuses on other worldly beings who would corrupt humans in order to get what they wanted, mostly powered energy. Plus, unlike in comic book cartoons, the villains would eventually get killed and never return for any reason. This method of storytelling was more realistic, thus more believable.

            As for the main reason I kept watching as a kid I enjoyed watching girls kicking ass. Before Sailor Moon I only knew of Batgirl, Storm, Wonder Woman—you see where this is going. These were a group of girls who were a team, and had to work together to protect the planet and to rescue the male counterpart more than once. I saw what female characters could be like and I saw how an ongoing series could evolve.

            By the time I graduated middle school, both “anime” and “dubbing” were now part of my vocabulary and I was getting into other anime shows. And yes, I knew they were all from Japan. My brother, my cousins, my friends, and I were watching Gundam Wing, Dragonball Z, and Pokémon. And, we wanted more, which we all got eventually. For me, it all started with Sailor Moon” and with the rebooted series airing to help mark the 20th anniversary, I’m as excited now as when I was a preteen. And, I am looking forward to see if the new series actually follows the manga (yes, I do own them) closely or not (I’m referring to both Fullmetal Alchemist and Inuyasha).

            Sailor Moon, like Harry Potter and video games, are part of my childhood and I will always recall how this series helped to broaden my horizons. When you discuss T.V. shows for older girls, Sailor Moon should be in the Top 5. Anime such as this one is more than just a simple cartoon, it is a well-developed story.