Anthony's Reading Corner

By: Anthony Pan

Published: 02/10/2020

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I've read some very good books recently. Here's what I think of them:

The Sword of Kaigen (2019) by M. L. Wang

This book is seriously so good!!

We follow two main protagonists: Misaki Matsuda, a wife and mother who feels oppressed and disillusioned in the traditional patriarchal village that she has married into, and her firstborn son Mamoru, who must balance the pressure to live up to the high expectations of his Matsuda bloodline and the faltering narrative of history that he has been taught.

The adult military fantasy novel is set in a country called Kaigen, and Wang does a great job seamlessly introducing Japanese-inspired cultural concepts and an elemental magic system to create a beautiful, character-driven story with two (!) climaxes and many beautiful fight scenes.

Misaki is such a strong character, and her story arc was immensely compelling and satisfying to read. At the beginning of the story, she is a housewife who has been forced into a subservient role, and we learn about her intriguing past as she struggles to come to terms with her role as a mother, a wife, and a warrior.

The Sword of Kaigen only took me a couple of days to read because I just could not put it down. Definitely one of my favorite fantasy books of all time!

P.S. - I loved this book so much that I also read M. L. Wang's two other books, which are set in the same world. My recommendation is not to bother with these. They are young adult books (as opposed to adult fantasy), and although they give some interesting insight into the world Wang has created, the characters and story are only a fraction as compelling in my opinion.

The Poppy War (2018) and The Dragon Republic (2019) by R. F. Kuang

The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic are the first two books of a fantasy trilogy, with the third book set to come out in late 2020.

I first heard about this book through an interview with the author on YouTube. During the interview, she describes the fundamental question that she wanted to explore in this series: How does someone born into a peasant family in rural China rise to power and become a megalomaniac, mass murderer like Mao Zedong?

I think that's a profoundly interesting question, and it's why I picked up The Poppy War. The book draws inspiration for its setting from the Song Dynasty and its events from 19th and 20th century China.

The Poppy War tells the story of a young girl named Rin who is incredibly driven. She goes to college, learns some secrets about the world, and is thrust into the middle of a war as her country is invaded. There is magic in this world, but it's not the typical western-style Harry Potter/LOTR magic system that we normally see - it's a spiritual connection with one of the many gods of the world that can be accessed by doing lots of drugs.

The Dragon Republic continues Rin's story, and it's even better than the first. There's even more fighting, betrayal, heartbreak, death, blood, and gore. Both of these novels don't shy away from the atrocities committed during war and take their time dwelling on the haunting consequences of those atrocities. It gets very dark, not necessarily in an dramatic and emotional way, but in a precise, calculating, morbid way.

The prose is not the most beautiful that I've read, and there are so many characters that many come off as one-dimensional, but both of these issues are improved upon in the second book. I definitely don't think this series is for everyone — there is a lot of tragedy and death, and our main girl Rin is an easily manipulated, morally questionable, and a pretty bad decision maker.

That being said, I really enjoyed reading these two books, and I'm looking forward to the conclusion of the trilogy later this year. The historical perspective is fascinating, and Kuang really does do a great job creating tense situations, high stakes, and a war story that is worth following.