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Publisher's Summary

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, f14-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.

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?

©2019 Miracle Wang (P)2020 Miracle Wang

Critic Reviews

"The Poppy War's darkness meets The Last Airbender's Elemental Magic...I haven't been so emotionally moved by a book in a long while." (JC Kang, USA Today best-selling author of The Dragon Songs Saga)

What listeners say about The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

OH. MY. GODS! Holy emotional epicness!

Well, well, well.
I have to admit that this book has been on my agenda for quite a long while. It first came on my radar almost a year and a half ago when another author I admire posted a review about it.
Sadly, I have to be very choosy which books I physically read (as opposed to listening to audio) due to time constraints.

So of course, when I heard there was going to be an audio edition I was one of the first to get in touch with the author about an early review copy of the audio!

After all the hype (especially winning the fifth SPFBO contest!), I was expecting something big. Something powerful. Something intense and emotional and amazing.
And let me just say that this book did not disappoint!

Before I go any further, let's talk about the narrator for a moment.
Andrew Tell is a new name for me. I had never even heard of him before this book, much less heard his voice. What becomes immediately clear is he has a powerful, nuanced voice. I was a bit concerned about his ability to present the female voices, and while I can't say he does so with believable accuracy, what I can say is that he found a natural way to differentiate gender voices that comes off exceptionally well. Apart from that, his voices in general are brilliantly crafted and distinct. He has particular skill in creating nuanced vocal inflections that match the emotional resonance either described or implied from the text. And his shifts in tempo throughout the novel are nigh on a perfect match to the tone and tension of each scene.

Now, as is my wont, I will largely dispense with a discussion of the plot of the book. There are plenty of other reviews that summarize the story.

So, what is the Sword of Kaigen?
Well, here we have a large, sprawling creation that spans multiple nations yet still manages to keep things impressively personal. It is full of action, yet is emotionally resonant to a surprising degree. It is definitely what I would call a slow-burn, yet once we pass a certain point fairly early on, it becomes so engrossing, so fascinating, so viscerally real that I just couldn't put it down.

One thing I have to admit is in the earliest chapters, I found my attention waning. At first I found it difficult to connect with Mimoru, on account of his youth, his arrogance, and his utter faith in a system he has never seen any proof of.

Misaki I found little better in those early chapters, though for wholly different reasons. She's a woman who does not, in any way, belong in the life she's in, and it wasn't until much later in the story that I finally understood why she found herself living that life.

But I digress.

In short, this is the epitome of a slow-burn story in which you really don't understand who people are or why they are the way they are until much later. It requires a fair leap on faith in the author's ability to bring it all together and craft something beautiful.

And make no mistake, M.L. Wang accomplishes that with finesse and style.

I've seen other reviewers criticize the writing style as indulgent, needlessly complex, and overly wordy.
Well, I have to disagree on 2-and-a-half of those points.

Yes, you read that right. 2.5 of the three points.
Allow me to explain.

Although the writing is complex, with a good number of new words, ideas, and customs, I find that complexity fits this novel with near perfection.

Similarly, while the writing absolutely is wordy, this is a case of characterization more than anything. You'll find many novels written in the third person that are written with considerable distance from the characters, as though the narrator is "God" or a similarly omniscient figure, thereby giving descriptions and background in a clinical way.

Not so here. Every word of this novel is written in the voice of a character, and the wordiness is 100% in keeping with the way these characters see the world.

Now, on indulgence I give a half-point.
Allow me to explain.

The author goes to considerable length to explain some things that I found obvious, and does go to great lengths to clarify cultural aspects that I suspect are well known among those more familiar with eastern cultures.

However, I didn't find any of it to be excessive.
I give it a half point largely because I can see it being tedious to those who might be more familiar with such things.

If I had to name a single thing this novel does extremely well, it would be characters. Every major character has an incredible arc and it was far beyond a joy to witness the growth of these characters.

The author also manages what I consider the "holy grail" of storytelling, which is the combination of plot and character. The characters are the plot, and the plot is the characters. You truly cannot separate the two in this novel. Every aspect of each character's arc is a major plot point, and every major plot point creates progression along those character arcs.

Needless to say, I can't give you specifics about exactly what in those arcs I loved so much without giving spoilers for the story. So what I will say here is that if you read this book (and you should), go into it with the commitment to finish it. Even if you find the opening dull, trust the author to lead you on a wonderful adventure that has one of the most fantastic endings I've seen in a standalone novel.

Another aspect of this story that I found absolutely incredible is the mixture of magic system and world building. I place the two together (against my usual method) because they really are inseparable. The magic system is as much a living, breathing part of the world as the culture of the Kaiganese or their enemies. And I find it fascinating. It does have something of an Avatar-meets-X-men vibe to it, in that certain characters or families have their own things that they can do, while pretty much everyone who can manipulate it has access to some variant of the natural elements. But it's so much more than than. There are so many specialized uses for the abilities they possess, and so many ways they turn those abilities into so much more than a normal individual would expect.

It was phenomenal, and in the large battle where we get to see almost everything at work, the complexity and the setup that went into it blew my mind.

It's a rare thing for me to laugh hysterically, stand up and cheer, and bawl my eyes out all within a single book. Much less a single chapter.

This novel accomplished all three extremes in a single SCENE!
Take a moment to absorb that and think about what that would take.

Now, this is the part where I would normally talk about things that I found problematic in the novel. I'll admit that earlier in the book I had a couple things, but later on it proved to be merely that I didn't have a full understanding yet of the characters or the way this world works. I was under some mistaken impressions.

I think the closest thing I have to a critique is the slow progress at the start of the book. I think I was probably 5 hours into the audiobook before I got so engrossed in it that I only put it down when I absolutely had to.

I spent so much of the book in complete awe, which was only exacerbated by the fact that for much of it I just couldn't fathom how the story was going to keep going long enough to take up the rest of the runtime!

So, let's discuss the ending for a moment.
As I alluded to above, there are some major emotional extremes to be found in the climaxes (there are several). Every time you think you've reached the emotional high and it's going to start to wind down, you find an even higher emotional extreme that you have to find a way to come down from. Only at the very end, when you feel so wrung out that you wouldn't survive another emotional dropkick, does it finally end and bring everything around full circle for one of the most incredible endings of any book I've ever read.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is absolutely my #1 novel of 2020.
Really, if you read only one fantasy this year, it should be this one. Even if fantasy isn't normally your thing, read it. If superhero-eske books aren't your thing, read it. If semi-historical isn't your thing, still read it. And even if eastern cultures don't normally do it for you, read this book!

You'll be glad you did.

44 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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Not for adults

I am an adult, and every time I look for my next read, I make sure that it’s not written for young adults. This book definitely is, even though that’s not what’s advertised. In the language that it’s written, it is so clearly for very young people. Every two pages somebody exclaims “what????? “ in a very teenage way. I am an hour from finishing the audiobook and I simply can’t continue.
I don’t want to spoil it for the potential reader, It might be a wonderful young adults story, but if you are a grown-up, look elsewhere

15 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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Performance okay, except for the japanese

Story is great, narrator does a good job with characters and tone, but clearly wasn't given much help with the non-english words. Jarring at times if you're familiar with the pronunciation.

15 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Avatar Last Airbender +Paladin of Souls +Poppy War

The heart of the novel is a coming-of-age story of two characters: a mother and her son. The son's journey reminds me of a Japanese shonen arc. The mother's journey is more special because it does something rarely found in fantasy; it focuses on the character development of a middle-aged housewife. Similar to Lois McMaster Bujold's Paladin of Souls, The Sword of Kaigen describes a noblewoman's coming-of-age story after years of being oppressed by a patriarchal culture.

The backdrop to these two journeys is warrior village at the brink of war. Of course the government's propaganda and news suppression makes problems only worse for the village. This setting provides fertile ground for character growth and trauma. Similar to R.F. Kuang in The Poppy War, M. L. Wang does not shy away from depicting all the horrors of war (content warning). Moreover, M. L. Wang takes ample time to explore how these horrors emotionally impacted the characters.

Yes, there is elemental magic, combat, and all the trappings of an Asian-inspired fantasy story (a la Avatar: The Last Airbender). What makes the novel memorable though is how the author gives us such a raw view of the characters' emotions including depression, suicidal thoughts, unhealthy coping mechanisms, regret, unbearable grief, and affects from abuse. Narrator Andrew Tell has a range of voices that allow the reader melt into the story.

If I were to nitpick, I would say that the beginning of the novel is guilty of info-dumping. The use of certain made-up words (e.g., words measuring time or distance) were unnecessarily disruptive to the reading experience. I also thought certain rapid character transformations at the end were a bit unrealistic. None of these flaws diminish the story. If you enjoy fantasy, The Sword of Kaigen is definitely worth your time.

4 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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good story ruined with excessive Japanese

i have been living in Japan for the last 20 years and absolutely love the culture. This story would have been epic if they would have toned it down like 60%

not sure if it was the narrator screwing pronouncement of words like Otōsan. making father sound like too when it should sound like toe. i noticed that O was dropped from nearly all of the titles like brother, sister, father, mother etc and it annoyed the hell out of me because they often added sama to the end of the title which is only used in formal settings.

and all the units of time should have been dropped completely.

3 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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A book with true feeling, and visceral action

It's slow to start, but TOTALLY worth it! The author writes with true empathy for the characters.

Excellent world and culture building. Believable characters in a fictional world.

I look forward to other works from this author!

3 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

A heart breaking story of war and love

We'll start this review proper with a little comparison. The Sword of Kaigen is Avatar the Last Airbender meets Robin Hobb. Sounds a bit strange on the surface, but it really does fit. The world ML Wang has created is a place where there are nations around the world each with their own affinity for an element, and their own powers to control those elements. Delving a bit deeper, certain families within each nation have specific and powerful bloodline powers. As an example, the Matsuda family are water theonites and their bloodline ability is the power to create a whispering blade; a blade of ice that can cut through anything. For those of you who like a bit of anime, you can likely already see a few similarities to a certain ninja story.

Talking about the world... it's large and well-realised. This is a dense book, full of lore and world building, but it never sticks out even when you're being bombarded by words you don't know. Some of it is Japanese (I think...) and some of it is made up terms for the world. It never feels out of place or left me wandering what was going on. You get a real sense that the story we're following is only a small part of the world, and fairly minor in the grand schemes of things. There's a lot happening, a lot of important world changing events, but the story is character focused.

As for the characters. They are varied and so well presented. For the most part we follow Misaki. She's a middle aged woman with an exciting past, who has forced herself into a very traditional housewife role. And if your heart doesn't break for her, it may just be made of whispering blade ice (sorry, had to be done). We also follow Mamoru, Misaki's son, and a powerful theonite who is thrust into understanding of the wider world, and struggles to come to terms with it. The supporting cast are just as strong and there's not a one that doesn't feel like a fully realised character with their own story to tell.

ML Wang manages to inject so much emotion into the pages and the character's plights. Just like with Robin Hobb's works, I found my heart strings thoroughly pulled, and I was really rooting for the characters. I felt their highs, their lows, and their turmoil.

So that's a lot of gushing. I should probably think of something negative to say, right? ... ... I got nothing. Honestly, I loved reading this book cover to cover.

5 stars and it painstakingly earned every single one of them.

2 people found this helpful

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Outstanding Book

This story is outstanding.

The start is a little slow as the world is being set up and the characters are introduced, but that exposition is necessary for the complexity of the story and characters.

This is one of the best explorations of relationships I've ever seen--husband/wife, in-laws, parent/child, siblings, old flames, friends, master/student, internal politics, external politics, and internal battles. I can think of one or more profound examples of each of those in this book.

The flashbacks for one of the characters to her youth seems a bit jarring at first, but make sense in the greater scope of the author's work. And are necessary to explain the character's motivations and abilities. Those other stories are YA superhero crime-fighting, while this is a mature fantasy in a setting based on traditional Japanese culture. The settings seem to be at odds, but make more sense as the book progresses.

2 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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An ex-warrior accepting her new role as a mother

This story is about a warrior who got married and bore children, and has regretted the decision ever since. THIS IS NOT AN ACTION BOOK. I thought it would be but it is not. More about the MC's emotional and overall character development.

1 person found this helpful

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  • KB
  • 04-01-21

Deserves Every Bit of the Hype

Wow! This book was absolutely incredible. Truthfully, I haven't been this invested in a fantasy world in a couple years (and I read a lot of fantasy), and I haven't been this moved by any book, period, in quite some time.

ML Wang powerfully shows how one village, and even one family, can contain the world. The characters are so well-realized that by the time the war sets in, it is impossible to put down. Wang does not hold back in showing the brutal impact of war. And the aftermath shapes the characters in surprising and powerful ways.

Sword of Kaigen deserves every bit of hype it has received and then some. I can't recommend it enough. It is THAT good!

1 person found this helpful

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  • Anonymous User
  • 08-27-20

prep.

small issues with how the narrator pronounces words and honorifics. Example, when he is reading about a brother addressing his sister nee san and he reads nii san. a brother calling his older sister big brother is weird. You can see where I'm going with this when it comes to different situations and words. I wish he had prepared a little bit better before reading stories like this.

3 people found this helpful

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  • J Smith
  • 01-06-21

“Listening never made any man dumber”

A great listen. Fantastic magic system and epic fight scenes! I don’t feel that some of the Emperor’s political decisions make complete sense, but it certainly doesn’t detract from being by a great story!
I’ve listened to a few books narrated by Andrew and have found him to be great in all of them. Fantastic character voices, great pacing and he really pulls out the intensity of situations!
Hope there’s more to come from both!
This is my honest opinion on a free review copy.

1 person found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Amazon Customer
  • 09-19-20

Fantasy at its best

Absolutely loved this! I'd describe this as Avatar the Last Airbender solely for adults (because AtLA is for everyone including adults). A fairly simple story but with wonderfully layered and interesting characters.

M. L. Wang does a brilliant job in bringing this world to life. Beyond the fantastical use of water manipulation there's the delightfully detailed mundaneity of work, life, and family that felt so real to me.

Don't waste any more time reading this review and get started on this story.

1 person found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Michael Ennis
  • 04-01-22

Would be 4.5 rating if I could. Good, not Perfect.

Please Note: I try to keep my reviews spoiler free, so I'm going to analyse while trying to remain intentionally vague and objectional. If you would like to read more about pacing or intricacies like trope development, this won't help.

Firstly I'm going to clearly state that the narration of this story was an easy 5 stars. At both regular and faster speeds the pronunciation was clear and concise. I would be comfortable playing this at any speed I needed to, and the voices were impressively diverse. I would highly recommend the audiobook for this alone, but it IS awkwardly split. The main reason I would give this a 4.5 if I could is because it was just teetering between the two ratings. There are chapters that are over 90 minutes long with multiple perspectives, so it felt a little messy to not have clear stopping points in place. However, I finished this story with very little breaks so I didn't find that it impacted my enjoyment.

Additionally, there are several references to terminology that was never explained (It's easy to infer, but that's not the point), so sometimes it was frustrating since this is the first of M.L. Wang's work I have experienced. For the most part it was a true standalone, but I was always curious if I were missing those definitions from earlier novels. Otherwise, the content and plot integrity itself was flawless.

Finally, there are several scenes that some people could find distressing. I couldn't honestly say that there were parts of this story that I disliked, or that felt unnecessary for the story to unfold. Without spoilers that's all I can say. Please read other reviews if you feel like this is cause for concern, as I'm sure they will give better content warnings than I am able to.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Ross Murphy
  • 01-25-22

More than I expected

I'd heard great things about this book. The first few chapters I wasn't so sure what all the hype was about. That changed, oh boy did that change. This book was an absolute roller coaster of emotions. Truly fantastic and Andrew tell did an incredible job narrating

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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Anonymous User
  • 10-17-21

great listen but not the right narrator choice

This story is such a good listen and I highly recommend but as someone who speaks Japanese, the narrator is just wrong for this book. A lot of the pronunciation was off and a bit painful to listen to at times. Other than some pronunciation issues, he is a good narrator and I did thoroughly enjoy the book. As long as you don't mind the badly pronounced Japanese words and names then this is a very enjoyable listen.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 07-29-21

Deep and refreshing!

One of my favourite books! Amazing characters and themes, it definitely deserves its hype (maybe even more).
I highly enjoyed Andrew's performance, he's very good at managing multiple voices and conveying the characters' emotions.
This is my new go-to recommendation for novice and advanced readers.

Beware! The book is about war, so it will be hard to digest at some points.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Connor
  • 07-08-21

Top tier fantasy!

Incredible story, excellent narrator.

Could not recommended this book more.

S tier fantasy for me (up there with Sanderson, GOT, Robert Jordan, Jade War, the name of the wind)

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • David
  • 07-08-21

An amazing piece of storytelling

It's an amazing and moving story. While the cultures are clearly inspired by certain historical events, Wang has built her own rich world with them and has brought these wonderfully detailed characters to life within it. If you like oriental themed fantasy, with a heavy splash of elemental magic, you have to check this out.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • patrick sheppard
  • 06-23-21

fantastic

I enjoyed the story and Performance very much. add this to my favourite straight after finishing it and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy. can't wait for M.L Wang next book

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  • Willian Rodriguez
  • 02-20-22

A thrilling story about family and ear (?)

A great unusual story that surprised me many times, made me very curious about the world and what else could happen on a future story. it has very interesting and complex characters and felt like wanting to see more about them. my only issues with the story comes from a few things felt slightly out of place, forced or a not very well managed pace but maybe that was me not being as perceptive as I should.

I only have a few issues with the pronunciation of certain words that were a minor bother in am otherwise great Trll's performance.

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    2 out of 5 stars
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  • Anonymous User
  • 05-31-21

DNF

I'm annoyed this book was suggested to the fantasy community. If you are a fan of an interesting and exciting read I suggest giving this one a miss.