“Wholeness, she had learned, was not the absence of pain but the ability to hold it.”
Its always a indescribable pleasure to find a book so well written that you want to curl up into a ball with this book in hands and never let go. Not going to lie, when I read the deceptively simple synopsis, I had my misgivings about the book. It seemed well, unimpressive and somehow still faultless. But the one thing that made me pick it up, other that the constant nagging of my dear friend, Patch, was the fact that one of the characters was a nearly forty year old woman. And let me tell you, this book did not disappoint. This book was perfect. As if it was written just for me, it managed to tick every box that I could ever want in a book and then some more.
“We are the Sword of Kaigen. If we’ve let it rust, then we deserve to die on it, along with our enemies.”
This book is told from two very different point of views- Fourteen year old, Matsuda Mamoru, who is trying to live up to his family’s name as the fiercest warriors of the Kaigenese Empire and his mother, Misaki, who is trying to outrun her past as a warrior and vigilante in a foreign country.
“You learn over time that the world isn’t broken. It’s just… got more pieces to it than you thought. They all fit together, just maybe not the way you pictured when you were young.”
This book is a giant book, not just in its size, but in the way, that everything is told with the intricacy and potency of a well experienced author. From a widely intricate honeycomb world to amazingly well written action scenes (That I neither skipped not skimmed over, which is quite a feat for me), it succeeded in creating a world, like a spider’s web, touching upon every thing from religion, sexuality, faith, language to just fitting in and standing out. As I was reading, I thought of other fantasy writers who wrote worlds in the pages of their multiple series, something that M. L Wang manages to do in a single book. And she does so without it so effortlessly, never overflowing, never being too much. (Well, our tears were, but who’s counting that?)
Mamoru, who is a cinnamon ball come to life. He is naive and just so wholesomely good. His entire world sums up to mastering his family’s renowned martial arts move, The Whispering Blade, and living up to his family name. It seems so heavy to put this mantle on the shoulder’s of someone so young, but Mamoru carries it with such an grace and humility, you sometimes forgets that he is a mere child. In a word, Mamoru is bright. Not just by the fact that he is smart but as a human being, he shines with the goodness of his heart. He is humble, sweet and is so aware of what it means to be a Matsuda and to have power and never abuse it.
“Was the headmaster serious about challenging people to single combat? You guys really still do that?”
“How else would we settle our differences?”
“I don’t know. Talking?”
From the get go, it appears that his village is a backward, overlooked area of the country that still practices martial arts the rest of the country has now forgotten and moved on from. Mamoru’s world is turned upside down when a new classmate, Kwang Chul-hee, transfers from the big city. He is forced to confront uncomfortable truths about his country and its Government, one perhaps is very familiar to us all. From false propaganda to corruption, Mamoru finds himself spinning at the revelations that Kwang Chul- hee shares. Questions fill his mind. Questions that make him doubt everything he has ever been taught and ones that feel like betrayal to his patriotic duty to even think about.
“She had thought she was water that could adjust to fill any container, be as strong in the shape of a mother as a warrior, but in the end, maybe Koli had been right about her. She was a knife, a sharp edge, that killed or cut anything it touched.”
Misaki, had a life before she became the dutiful daughter-in-law to the Matsuda family. A life she had shed, like a snake sheds its old skin, and buried it deep underneath the floorboards of her new bedroom and in the four walls of her heart. In order to protect herself, she married a man so flippant and cold that she couldn’t even bear to look at him, let alone love him. She was so drawn from her current life like an animal trapped in its gilded cage, she didn’t fight, she didn’t even move, flinching away from life. She barely even saw her four children in any other way, than detached bemusement.
“Misaki tied the obsidian sword at her hip and realized how much she had ached for its weight there. A baby just wasn’t the same.”
Perhaps, its because I am, too, am a woman, I could relate so much to her. Her plight from her loveless marriage to having children who didn’t belong to her any more than her past now did. But what affected me the most was her the way she changed after her marriage, from a red hot smoldering coal, she transformed into a dull hard rock. She receded from herself, running away from herself, as one would from a burning building. She saw everything through a disassociated outlook. As if it was happening to someone else, somewhere far away. My heart ached for her and the way no one, including her husband saw her crumble.
“What sort of a man closed his eyes to the world and called it clarity?“
When I say I want to see character development, I mean this book and this book specifically. Misaki’s transformation from the shell of a woman to one so bright and unapologetic-ally heroic, is one to behold. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, she comes reeling back to protect her family. But more than that, surprisingly, is the redemption arc of Takeru. Now, is it really enemies to loves if they are married for nearly two decades?
“I like a bit of fighting. It’s silence I can’t stand.”
I wish I possessed Wang’s vocabulary and the ability to string words together to create a world so beautiful, that even today, nearly six months after reading the book, I can still see it with clarity. Wang handles the intricacies required in writing such a multifaceted novel, with an ease that most writers could only wish to possess. Her characters were relatable, incredibly well written and sublimely human, than too often they seem to be leaping off the pages of the book. The exploration of motherhood is done so candidly. The malleable balance between Misaki as a woman and Misaki as a mother is struck so jarringly that anyone would feel the sting of it all. Touching upon subjects like feminism racism, false propaganda with the flourish and still keeping it raw and honest, is an art.
In short, I loved this book. Reading it was one of the best uses of my time this year and I don’t regret it one bit.