Hello Dear Readers! M. L. Wang here. With The Sword of Kaigen coming out in two weeks, I wanted to ramble a bit about the setting, characters, magic system, and the general experience of writing a 600-page fantasy.
While I went to extreme, conscious lengths to research to the West African cultures that inspired the Yammankalu of the main Theonite Series (2016), that was not the case with this project. The knowledge of Japanese culture that I used to enrich The Sword of Kaigen is something that just happened to me.
My high school didn’t offer Mandarin, so I took Japanese. There was no martial arts club after school, so I took Okinawan drumming. There was no traditional Chinese martial arts school in my city, so I took karate (and taekwondo, which is Korean, but you get the idea). The kids in my high school Japanese class introduced me to anime, my Japanese teacher convinced me to study abroad in Japan, and my drumming group later had my family host several Japanese students. My college had limited African history and literature courses, so I took lots of East Asian-focused courses (again, lots of Japan). You get the idea.
It was satisfying and cathartic to pour all that knowledge into creating a vivid little corner of my universe. However, the act of replicating cultural markers on the page is more of a ‘hey, look at what I know!’ ego-stroke than interesting world-building. By far the most interesting element of the setting was the way in which the Japanese-inspired culture of our main characters interacted with an African-dominated world.
The Sword of Kaigen focuses on a mother and son. As we watch each of them grow individually, we also watch them grow closer to each other, and subsequently, to their other family members.
At thirty-four, Misaki is the oldest protagonist I’ve ever written. I won’t go into all the twisted complexities of her character here, but suffice it to say that writing adult angst was a hugely rewarding change from the preteen-to-early-twenties angst that has dominated my work until now.
Mamoru has the restless energy of a typical Western fantasy protagonist, but it was interesting to explore how that would manifest in a confining culture steeped in misguided nationalism. The thing I’ll miss most about writing Mamoru is his enthusiastic engagement with his powers. Our young swordsman boasts as much inherited power as any of the Theonite protagonists but he is more talented (sorry, Daniel), better trained, and brought up in an environment that has pushed his abilities forward instead of holding them back. This gave me the freedom to have him go big, fall hard, and learn fast – a delightful experience I never had with any protagonist before him. Which leads me nicely to our next subheading…
This is where SoK got really exciting. As much as I love the main Theonite Series, its heroes are comparatively inept with their powers. If Joan of Theonite gives us the first bumbling first steps into our magic system, the protagonists of The Sword of Kaigen are masters of it. In them, we get to see one particular type of theonite power (that being jiya, the ability to control water and ice) taken to its most intimate and spectacular extremes.
The protagonists of SoK have had decades to fall down, pick themselves up, hone their senses, expand their scope, and work out complex techniques. Where Theonite: Planet Adyn and Orbit are about discovery, The Sword of Kaigen is about the pushing the limits of theonite capability, literally straining the delineation between humanity and godhood. Anything I could dream in water, blood, or ice ended up on the battlefield in this novel (well… with the exception of one or two things I’m saving for later. I decided to wait on the ice shuriken).
I could not have had more fun in this cold and deadly playground.
Despite the fun of so much magic and martial arts, I have to confess that The Sword of Kaigen was an emotionally taxing story to write. More often than not, working on it left my stomach in knots and my heart in ruins. Of course, there is an extent to which a work reflects its creator’s mental state, but I’m certain that working on SoK made what was already a difficult year for me that much colder.
The Sword of Kaigen is not a feel-good story with clear antagonists, pure heroes, and easy answers. Instead, it explores the complexities of war – how the individual has to reconcile the flaws in their own culture with still being a part of it, how loss affects communities, families, and individuals. On a personal level, The Sword of Kaigen is about taking responsibility for your own life, facing regret, and surmounting tragedy.
Goodness isn’t embodied here by a nation, a culture, or a political ideology. We forget sometimes that there is powerful good in doing right by the people in your life, and that heroism starts with being good to the people who need you.
For all their godlike powers, no individual in SoK leads a revolution, saves the world, or topples an empire. Their biggest failures and triumphs are not ion the battlefield but in the stillness between each other – in words unspoken, in short touches and glances, and all the small, human things that make them real.