A Love Affair with Tradition and Freedom in M. L. Wang’s Epic The Sword of Kaigen + Author Guest Post!

Did you know I at first felt intimidated at how seemingly long Kaigen was? I was having lunch at work when I started reading, and after the first chapter, I told myself to maybe take it slow. I didn’t go back to the book until three months later, after facing a death of a loved one and the near-death of my mom, and I had nowhere to go to but into Kaigen where I allowed myself to cry and grieve.

All praise for M.L. Wang’s The Sword of Kaigen! From the childlike acceptance of one’s role in life to a woman’s conflict to be her own self in the face of tradition, the epic fantasy tackles toxic Asian traditions.

Boy, did it make me feel good. So I’d like to thank M.L. Wang who wrote this Theonite War Story, for giving me an avenue to mourn and heal with people who have gone through family problems and deaths. My problems are nothing like theirs, but in the story of the Matsuda family, I felt like I was given room to process everything.

Thanks, M. You’re the badass. 😉

So here’s my review of The Sword of Kaigen, which I found beautiful in its chaos of conflicts, yet meditative in its moments of loving peace. Anyone who picks this book up will enjoy the Asian world-building, which features certain Japanese traditions, a la Hayao Miyazaki. It honestly felt like Princess Mononoke meets Avatar: The Legend of Aang. But I’m getting ahead of myself… ready for my review?

I would like to thank Karina from A Fire Pages and M.L. Wang for this opportunity to read and enjoy The Sword of Kaigen e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Unlike other reviews, this one does not contain any spoilers.

Quick Synopsis

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?

The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang

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

About the Author

M. L. Wang was born in Wisconsin in 1992, decided she wanted to be an author at the age of nine, and never grew up. She currently splits her time between writing fantasy books and working at a martial arts school in her home city of Madison.

When she isn’t building worlds on the page, she builds them in her aquarium full of small, smart fish that love to explore castles and don’t make noise during writing time.

Website | Twitter | Tumblr | Instagram

Review

“If you are water, you can shift to fit any mold and freeze yourself strong. You can be strong in any shape. You can be anything.” – M.L. Wang, The Sword of Kaigen

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Set in a fictional world that borrows East Asian traditions as well as pan-Asian political problems, The Sword of Kaigen tells the tale of a community slightly disconnected with the world, with their pride displaced by history retold to their benefit. Only a few have the means to learn about the outside world, and when a foreigner enters their world, things just go upside down. Things actually go downhill when strong military forces step foot and start to ravage their little, perfect world. Sound familiar?

Some Asian communities may have experienced or are experiencing this displacement of realities. What they thought was an idyllic life is, in truth, a pretty technicolor life. Their leader will protect them, they hear. They have a strong army, they believe. But when war knocks on their door, butterflies and green meadows just disappear in crimson red pools of blood and a bleak starless night sky.

The Matsuda family had gone through just that… and more. Each page past fifty percent nearly broke my heart because of all the trials the family had to go through to rebuild their lives. For those who live for stories about hope in the face of political strife, this is definitely for you. The imaginative fight scenes just blew will blow you away as they did me. The tears will just flow for… oh well, I’ll leave you to read it. 😉

What I especially enjoyed was the theme of toxic patriarchy experienced by almost every member of the clan. There is an obvious tension of tradition and freedom, evident in Misaki’s story line. She was given a certain amount of freedom when she was much younger, but she felt she lost it all when she married into the Matsuda family. Throughout the novel she grows with this tension, and throughout the novel I, too, grew, for I am in a similar situation in society at large. I am constantly reminded of my rules because of my biological gender, my economic status, my place in my family, and my duties to my husband. I try to make a balance of it all, but it can be training. I saw myself in Misaki so much that I wanted to enter the book and just give her a hug. She is such a strong person. She is a queen, and more of a Matsuda than any of her relatives.

Also, look out for the epic duel towards the end of the novel. By far my favorite chapter in the book.

It is also easy to get annoyed with her husband, Takeru, but in the end, he too is caught up in the web of this toxic masculine tradition. He pushes hes eldest son, Mamoru, to be a man but without giving him the room to discover what a man he can really be.

The Sword Of Kaigen makes us question what we know about the truth and what is our personal truth, and how we can strike a balance between the two. In the midst of all the problems we face in the world on an almost daily basis, from something so simple as saving face to your family to a traumatic experience as picking up the pieces of your life after a long war, we must learn to turn into ourselves and ask: Who is this person I am becoming, and how can I help everyone heal as I heal with them?

A perfectly executed epic fantasy with a timeless lesson, The Sword of Kaigen is about to be your instant favorite.

Consider buying The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang on Amazon!


But waiiiit…

M.L. Wang has a quick guest post that she’d like to share to you all. Please read!

Kafonu: The Castles of Kaigen

First off, thank you so much to Myta for being part of The Sword of Kaigen Blog Tour and having me on for this very long guest post!

The title of my latest book, The Sword of Kaigen, refers to a peninsula at the westernmost edge of the country of Kaigen, which serves as its first defense—it’s sword—against Kaigen’s enemies to the west. The expansive Kaigenese Empire includes, in the north, a peninsula, which parallels Earth’s Koreas, in the south, islands that parallel Earth’s Philippines, Indonesia, and most of Australia and, in the middle, where our protagonists live, an island chain called Shirojima, which parallels Earth’s Japan.

While Kaigen is inspired by East Asia, the dominant people on Planet Duna are the Yammankalu, inspired by the West African Mande (if you saw my previous guest post with the map of Duna, this is why the map is ‘upside down,’ with Africa on top). Even powerful countries, like Kaigen, that have never been colonized by the Yammankalu have absorbed and integrated many of their influences in much the way people across our own world have integrated facets of Western culture.

One of the Yammanka influences that has made its way into the otherwise Asian world of Kaigen is the kafo system, a set of social castes that dictate citizens’ occupation and role in their community. These kafonu are inspired by the vocational castes of the Mande of West Africa. Like a lot of people who study Mande culture, I don’t love calling these social groups castes, since the term implies an oppressive hierarchy and discounts the collaborative, mutually supportive relationship these groups often share, but it’s the best English translation we have. Just understand that when I use the word ‘caste’ here, I’m not implying an inherent power imbalance. That said, the Mande-inspired ‘castes’ of Planet Duna are:

Jaseli, Kafo of Voices

Fina, Kafo of Gods

Numu, Kafo of Metal

Senkuli, Kafo of Glass

Koro, Kafo of Spears

Manga Koro, Kafo of Kings

The following is a review of each kafo, the Mande social construct that inspired it, and the way it has been integrated (or not) into the Kaigenese society of The Sword of Kaigen. Basically, we’re going to look at each kafo’s journey from real-world West Africa to fictional East Asia.

Jaseli – Kafo of Voices

Jaseli – Kafo of Voices

Real-world Origins

Arguably the oldest caste in Mande is that of the jeliwu (singular: jeli), called ‘griots’ in most Western scholarship and in other parts of Africa. Early European and North African visitors to Mande country called jeliwu bards. While they do play music and keep historical epics, this is a limited assessment of their role. The Mande jeli who mentored me during college, Mamadou Ben Chérif Diabaté, listed the social responsibilities of the jeli as follows: maintaining the history of the community, teaching the sons of kings the value of history, managing the relationships between families, guarding the peace, speaking for the community, serving as checks on power, chiefs of protocol, and advisors to the king.

Yammanka Jaseliwu

I haven’t taken many creative liberties with the oral traditionalists of Duna. My made-up Yammanka word jaseli (plural: jaseliwu) is a combination of the Mande word jeli (also often spelled djeli) and the similar Soninke term gesere. Aside from the spelling change, I’ve stuck to Diabate’s guidelines as far as the oral traditionalist’s role in Yammanka society.

Kaigenese Jaseliwu

While many jaseliwu serve as powerful advisors and repositories of knowledge in Yamma, only a few jaseliwu bear this distinction in Kaigen—those being the jaseliwu that serve the Emperor and his family. This is largely due to the fact that power in Kaigen is less dispersed than it is in Yamma (more on this in the manga koro section).

Common Kaigenese jaseliwu like the history teacher, Hibiki Sensei, who appears in the first chapter of The Sword of Kaigen, are required to report for certification every year to review the version of history they are allowed to repeat. Those who do not report for certification have their teaching and performance licenses revoked, rendering them unemployable. This strict standardization obviously limits their capacity to serve their individual communities, making them significantly less powerful actors than their Yammanka counterparts.

Fina – Kafo of Gods

Fina – Kafo of Gods

Real-world Origins

In traditional Mande culture, finawu are Muslim oral traditionalists. Like jaseliwu, they often sing, play music, and offer counsel, but with their focus being on the Quran and its teachings.

Yammanka Finawu

On Duna, monotheistic religion didn’t survive the middle ages, so traditional Yammanka finawu are experts on the polytheistic Yammanka religion of Falleya.

Fina missionaries were among the first Yammankalu to travel to Kaigen, peddling the religion of Falleya and the accompanying kafo-oriented social structure. These finawu never got Falleya itself to stick in Kaigen, instead prompting the creation of the fusion religions of Nagino Falleya, practiced in most of the Kaigenese Empire, and Ryuhon Falleya, practiced only in the Kaigenese province of Shirojima, where The Sword of Kaigen takes place, but they did succeed in introducing kafonu.

Kaigenese Finawu

In Kaigen, the fina kafo was naturally conflated with Kaigen’s existing monastic order (similar to Buddhism) the only stumbling block being the strict Kaigenese tradition of celibacy for monks and nuns. Nagino Falleya began permitting marriage between monks and nuns and made religious leadership the hereditary right of a few families, selected by the Emperor.

In the Ryuhon Falleya practiced in Shirojima, monks and nuns remain celibate, in accordance with earlier tradition. On occasion, a peasant family that can’t afford to feed one of their children will volunteer them to the local monastery, supplying temples with new members. Ryuhonya monasteries are a less relevant part of community life than temples in other Dunian religions, since Shirojima tradition maintains that religious enlightenment passes through the blood of powerful warriors and blacksmiths, who are descended from the gods. The main role of a Ryuhonya monk or nun is to educate warriors, blacksmiths, and fishermen on their connection to the gods.

Numu – Kafo of Metal

Numu – Kafo of Metal

Real-world Origins

Mande numuw (singular: numu) are craftsmen, with the men typically forging weapons and farm tools and the women creating pottery.

Yammanka Numuwu

I pulled the word numu directly from the Mande, frankly because I couldn’t find a more satisfying one. In modern Yamma, numuwu not only create traditional crafts but are also responsible for the manufacture of modern creations like cars, electronics, and spacecraft. Modern Yamma has also dispensed with the gender divide, with men and women working in metal, clay, wood, or engineering as they choose.

Kaigenese Numuwu

Kaigen, being a more gendered society than Yamma, has stuck closer to the ancient gender-divided version of the kafo. Only men work in metal to create weapons and tools, while women work in wood, clay, and cloth to create jewelry, pottery, and other small household items.

In most parts of Kaigen, numuwu only train their own and guard their secrets carefully, with fathers passing trade secrets exclusively to their sons and mothers exclusively to their daughters. The province of Shirojima is one of the few places in the world where numuwu will take apprentices of a different kafo. This outlandish practice is part of the special relationship the numuwu of the Kotetsu family share with the koronu of the Matsuda family, which predates the arrival of kafonu on Kaigenese shores. Matsuda boys train with Kotetsu smiths in sword forging as a critical part of mastering their family’s ice-based fighting techniques.

Senkuli – Kafo of Glass

Senkuli – Kafo of Glass

Real-world Origins

The senkuliwu are the only kafo I fabricated entirely for the purposes of the Theonite universe. They take the place of the real-life Mande garankewu, caste of leather-workers. Leather-working could sustain a whole caste in old Mande due to the importance of horses in transportation and battle. Garankewu lived by specializing in the creation of quality bridles and saddles. Duna’s superpowered Yammankalu, who can outpace antelopes on foot, have never used horses, camels, elephants, or any mount animals the way Earth’s Africans have, meaning that leather-work alone was less likely to sustain a whole caste. A village can only buy so many belts and purses.

Yammanka Senkuliwu

While the Yammankalu don’t have horses, they do have power over fire and dominion over all the sand of the Sahara. So, on Duna, in place of leather-workers, I created a caste of glass-workers and called it senkuli, a spelling-bent version of senxulle, the Soninke word for ‘sand.’ The founding senkuli family, the Zilazen, hold the secrets to making virtually indestructible obsidian.

Being the youngest and most specialized of the Yammanka kafonu, the senkuliwu are confined to just a handful of bloodlines, all of which operate out of Yamma. Though there are no senkuliwu in Kaigen, they have an undeniable presence in The Sword of Kaigen in the form of their Zilazen glass. As is the case with great craftsmen, you will know them by their works.

Kele Koro – Kafo of Spears

Real-world Origins

The koronu are inspired by the Mande horonw (singular: horon), the majority group, sometimes referred to as free men or nobles. Instead of the specialized occupations of the other castes, horonw were originally farmers, hunters, or… farmers (these groups have their origins in the middle ages, okay? Like 99% of people were farmers).

Yammanka Koronu

Due to the absence of monotheism in Duna, I try (and usually fail) to filter Islamic influence out of the language. Since the word horon is thought to be borrowed from the Arabic hurr, I swapped it for the similar-sounding koro, which means ‘sibling’ in the Mande language of Maninka. It also seemed natural because in Mande country, ‘h’ sounds tend to get swapped for uvular fricatives, which get swapped for ‘k’ sounds across different dialects. Kele means ‘war’ in Maninka.

This is called the kafo of spears because, like their Mande counterparts, the horonw, koronu can be drafted into military service in times of war. A distinguished military career is considered the highest achievement for a Yammanka koro. In ancient Yamma, a young koro—male or female—was unlikely to land a spouse without returning from a few campaigns with kills to their name. This is how Yamma forged its middle class into the most ruthless fighting force in the world, but that nightmare of eugenics is a subject for a different post… or book, as the case may be. Also, don’t worry; our own Mande never did this.

The other relevant difference between Yammanka koronu and real-world horonw is in status. In traditional Mande society, chiefs and kings come out of this caste. As the name ‘noble’ suggests, Mande horonw all were—and are—thought to be descended from a few key rulers in the ethnic group’s history. This means that they were considered fit to rule if they had the means.

While this farmer/warrior/ruler caste worked fine for ancient Yamma, it didn’t work for Yamma in the long term—specifically when the entire kafo system became one of their major exports to the wider world. Were Yamma to colonize Earth, you and I, being non-casted laypeople would be horonw by default, except that we aren’t descended from Mande kings and don’t really have the right to rule.

For this reason, Yamma, during its earliest forays into colonialism, created a distinction between koronu and manga koronu (described in the next section). Anyone, from peasants, to colonized peoples, to immigrants, to freed slaves, could be a koro. These koronu had the right to own land, livestock, and slaves (when that was a thing), and even to hold leadership positions in small towns. To have the right to kingship, however, a person had to trace their line back to the rulers of the First or Second Yammanka Empires.

Kaigenese Koronu

Like Yammanka koronu, Kaigenese koronu prize military service, and feel a responsibility to protect the jaseliwu, finawu, and numuwu of their communities.

The only major difference between Yammanka koronu and their Kaigenese counterparts is that all not-otherwise-casted Kaigenese people are kele koronu, rather than some of them being manga koronu. This brings us to the last kafo…

Manga Koro – Kafo of Kingship

Manga Koro – Kafo of Kingship

Real-world Origins

As I said above, the Mande of Earth do not distinguish between common horonw and the lines of kings except by family name (i.e. the Keita family is a bigger deal than the Traore family, which is, in turn, a bigger deal than some other families). This is because, somewhere in history, almost all horonw can trace their line back to a chief or king of the old epics. I made up the manga koro kafo because it was the logical thing for Yamma to do when expanding its caste model to the rest of the world. Have to keep the right to rule somewhat exclusive, right?

The manga is a combination of the Maninka title for a king, ‘Mansa,’ and the title of the earlier pre-Muslim Soninke rulers ‘Gana.’

Yammanka Manga Koronu

In traditional Yammanka society, manga koronu have a divine right to rule and are thought to be the only people qualified to hold positions of military or political leadership. Yamma’s manga koronu are characterized by overwhelming power—in their men, surpassing strength; in their women, fire so hot it burns blue. Most manga koronu serve in some leadership position, be that CEO of a company, police chief, mayor of a small town, or manager at a more modest job. Any person from this ruling kafo could, in theory, ascend the political ranks to the royal court through marriage, alliances, or promotion and become the ruler of Yamma.

There are eight traditional Yammanka manga koro houses (including Biraye, Wagadu, Biida, and Kende), a dozen honorary manga koro houses (including Kiita and Zankare), and several dozen non-Yammanka families that Yamma recognizes as foreign rulers (like the Kaigenese emperor).

Kaigenese Kele Koronu & Manga Koronu

The Matsuda family of The Sword of Kaigen meets all the traditional Yammanka criteria for manga koro status: direct descent from the community’s founding ancestor, the loyalty of the region’s lesser houses, participation in political and military leadership, and legendary prowess in battle. In Yamma, the Matsudas would be a manga koro house, as would the Yukino, Tsusano, Ameno, and Ginkawa houses, who have all taken turns ruling different parts of the peninsula. In Kaigen, however, kafonu are designed to work differently.

The Kaigenese Emperor does not allow for recognition of any ruling line other than his own. This was a deliberate change from the Yammanka model, and the motivation is clear: if the right to rule existed in not just one bloodline but several, as is the case in Yamma, the Kaigenese Emperor’s right to rule could be challenged by another powerful family with a claim to descent from gods (like, say, the Matsudas). So, for obvious reasons, this Kaigenese dynasty conveniently left out this part of Yammanka culture at some point in the import process.

At an earlier stop on this blog tour, The Book Bratz hosted a quiz where you can find out which Dunian kafo you would belong to, so be sure to check that out.

Other Relevant Links:

All Theonite Books on Amazon

My Mande Source Bibliography

Get The Sword of Kaigen on Amazon:

USA | UK | Australia | Brazil | Canada | France | Germany | India | Italy | Japan | Mexico | Netherlands | Spain

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Published by oroplatamyta

Content strategist by day; book blogger, avid reader, and fantasy writer by night.

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