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: “Daughter from the Dark”

Daughter from the Dark

By: Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

Published: 2006 in Russian; February 11, 2020 in English

Translated by: Julia Meitov Hersey

Genre: Metaphysical/Speculative Fiction/Psychological

            Aspirin had to admit—he was his own worst enemy. He’d brought it on himself: the first time when he did not leave the girl alone where she was, and the second time when he refused to give her back to his camo-clad guest,(Tuesday).

            As you know, Vita Nostra is one of my favorite books of all-time. This translated book—from Russian and translated to English by Julia Meitov Hersey—introduced some readers and I to the metaphysical fiction genre—that is NOT a graphic novel—and to the creative minds of the authors: Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. Daughter from the Dark is NOT the next book in the Metamorphosis series, but a standalone story about a girl from another dimension, and the man who is assigned to be her guardian. 

            The main protagonist is Alexey Igorevich Grimalsky, who goes by his radio sobriquet—Aspirin, is a radio DJ host and a nightclub DJ who lives his life carefree with small comforts that keep him satisfied. One Sunday evening, he finds a young girl shivering in an alley holding a teddy bear. He asks the girl where her parents are before they are attacked by a group of hoodlums and their Pitbull; but, before anything can happen, a large shadow appears on the wall (the teddy bear?) looms over everyone and attacks the dog in self-defense. Shaken up and confused, Aspirin brings the girl into his apartment as a gesture of goodwill. However, the next morning (Monday), the girl refuses to leave or to say anything about herself or where she came from. Then, a stranger appears at his door with intention to take the girl back with him. When Aspirin refuses to let the girl—Alyona—leave with the man, Aspirin finds himself holding a birth certificate stating that he’s the father, which he is not. In a blink of an eye, Aspirin goes from carefree man to father, and it seems everyone else around him believes Alyona is his daughter from Pervomaysk. At the same time, Alyona has no intention in playing the role of “daughter.” Instead of attending school, she cleans the house and listens to CDs (remember those?). Alyona left her home so that she can find her brother, who is a musician. Alyona not only brought her teddy bear, “Mishutka,” but also “special” music strings. Her plan is to learn how to play the violin so that she can play a song, which will call out to him. That means Aspirin has to register Alyona for music lessons, to buy her a violin, and to put up with her aloofness and her eccentricities: feeding Mishutka, ignoring her pain and illness, making “claims” about other people, etc. Meanwhile, Aspirin sees Alyona as an annoying houseguest who keeps interfering with his life and daily lifestyle: going to work, attending parties, hooking up with women, etc. And, Alyona views Aspirin as a coward who is nice but afraid of commitment and wastes his musical gifts. The two characters become more like college roommates than father and daughter, but that living arrangement seems to work for them. Neither Aspirin nor Alyona develop much as characters, but they do demonstrate growth with help from Whiskas—Aspirin’s friend and colleague—and, Irina—Aspirin’s neighbor. Then again, complex characters (and people) don’t change their behaviors overnight, it takes several months. 

            The plot of Daughter from the Dark is straightforward. Aspirin becomes the guardian for 11-year-old Alyona and must learn how to put her needs before his own. It sounds like something from a movie or a T.V. sitcom, but that’s where the similarities end. This leads to the two subplots. The first one involves Alyona’s music. She learns how to play the violin at a rate in which she’s called a music prodigy, but she quits music school so she can focus on learning to play the song which will call her brother and send him home. The second subplot is Aspirin’s slow maturity during the duration of Alyona’s stay. Aspirin considers his music gifts more and more. He even starts a long-term relationship with Irina instead of hooking up with random women. Yes, Aspirin tries to get Alyona to leave more than once, but he learns how to deal with her and everyone who gets involved with her: their neighbors, her music teacher, etc. These subplots are essential for the plot because they explain the reasons and the reactions to Alyona’s unexpected arrival. It is obvious Aspirin doesn’t have a daughter, so allowing the subplots to become part of the plot is necessary and it allows for it to go at an appropriate rate so that the story seems believable. 

            The narrative is told from Aspirin’s point-of-view and his stream-of-consciousness. So not only do readers experience everything from Aspirin’s perspective, but also his thoughts as everything happens around him in real-time. Given the strange occurrences involving Mishutka, Alyona’s music and birth certificate, and the changes involving Alyona’s identity, Aspirin—for all of his flaws—is a reliable narrator. This is because several moments throughout the narrative leave us asking the same questions Aspirin asks himself: What’s happening? Is this real? Where did Alyona come from? Is Mishutka really a teddy bear? Readers are able to follow the narrative because they understand how confused Aspirin is because they feel the same way. The book is in 3 parts, which presents the length of time both Aspirin and Alyona live together. Part I is in days and Parts II and III are in months. These breakdowns are marked by what happens to both characters during those days and months. This sequence is significant because it illustrates ALL of the changes that occur around Aspirin and Alyona. 

            The style the authors—Marina and Sergey Dyachenko—use follows the rules of metaphysical fiction, but it’s written and presented differently. In Vita Nostra, a handful of individuals possessed talents which could bend reality and defy physical laws. In Daughter from the Dark, there are several moments where the extraordinary occurs, and there are several witnesses who experience those moments, but they react with discomfort and questioning whether or not that event actually happened. At the same time, the longer Alyona remains in Aspirin’s world (our world), her identity alters to match the “cover story” she and Aspirin came up with. So not only does Alyona have a time limit to learning the song and finding her brother, but also there is a time limit concerning Alyona’s connection to her world and when or if she’ll be able to go back there. This type of metaphysical fiction trope is similar to the theory about parallel worlds and alternate dimensions. The novel, and the authors, demonstrate what could happen if one or two “other worldly” beings find their way into another world. The mood in this novel is imperfection. Alyona points out constantly how imperfect our world is, which it is, and how it is inspiration for the creative mind. The tone is how a gifted individual can use creativity to seek perfection in an imperfect world. Aspirin, Alyona, Alyona’s brother and all creative artists seek their art in our imperfect world. Music is the central theme in Daughter from the Dark and the authors do an amazing job incorporating music and its techniques and truths within the story.

            The appeal surrounding Daughter from the Dark will continue to present English readers and fans of speculative fiction what they’ve been missing out on. I will reiterate that this novel is NOT the next book in the Metamorphosis series! This novel is a separate story about characters and metaphysical tropes. In other words, don’t read Daughter from the Dark expecting Vita Nostra! Readers of speculative fiction should know better than to expect identical stories form the same author! Daughter from the Dark is its own example of metaphysical fiction and translated work of speculative fiction. This novel is another great addition for the canon, and we have Julia Meitov Hersey to thank again for taking the time to translate the book. And, she is already translating another book by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, and I can’t wait to read it! Readers and fans of Vita Nostra and Middlegame by Seanan McGuire will not be disappointed with this novel!       

            Daughter from the Dark is the latest translated work by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, and the focus is on music instead of a hidden school. The narrative and the plot are more relatable and more action-paced than Vita Nostra, but fans of metaphysical fiction will enjoy this book the most. This novel is the most down-to-Earth mind-bending work by the husband and wife duo so far, and the books keep coming! Anyone who is interested in reading anything by them should start with this book. For everyone else, it’s not at the same level in terms of genre, but the experience is worth reading. Now, all I have to do is wait for the next book to be translated into English!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5).