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review 2019-07-14 01:14
The Poppy War
The Poppy War - R. F Kuang

This book... This book disappointed me. Part of it was high expectations. I know several people, whose opinions I trust, who loved this book. I was also looking forward to reading a fantasy inspired by Chinese history. I was excited about this one. So yeah, disappointment is certainly a factor here.

 

What I expected was something really fresh and new. So imagine my surprise when this book is trope after trope. You could play trope bingo with this one pretty successfully. It's also got some serious Harry Potter vibes early on. And some pretty significant anime vibes too. (The whole school yard to war thing. The gang of superpowered misfits in a rogue branch of the army. Summoning Suzaku...err...I mean the Phoenix.) It doesn't feel original in the slightest, and when so much of the book is also directly lifted from history there's not much left to stand out as creatively unique. That's not in and of itself damning, but it did take me by surprise.

 

However, what surprised me most are the undercurrents of strong anti-Japanese sentiment. You could make an argument that this is authorial voice. And honestly I'd be open to hearing compelling evidence supporting that stance. Unfortunately, I'm trained to read closely (blame my degree), and even if I could overlook the way this book ends (which I can't), or the way the Japanese are portrayed (again, hard to do), even word choices raised red flags. I get it: this is based off a point in time that is a very dark and ugly stain on Japanese history. Not disputing that in the least. It's abhorrent. But the way this is written is very uncomfortable in ways I'm not sure are intended. (And if they are intended, oh lordy is that even worse.) And then there is the entire issue of the way the Speerly people are written, which is a whole other can of worms (really problematic as well). It makes me deeply suspicious of the book and breaks all my trust in the author.

 

I might *maybe* have been able to overlook the tropes, and the uncomfortable undercurrents. Maybe. Possibly. But I had so many other little issues along the way as well. I couldn't stand the main character, Rin. I found her lack of growth frustrating and continued blunders repetitive. I thought the book was overwritten and far too long. Or perhaps, more compellingly, three books shoehorned awkwardly into one as the tone shifts were so jarring. And then there's the fact that the book seems totally onboard with abusive relationships. (Example: the glorification of an emotionally & physically abusive character, complete with the main character saying, "Who would I be without (them)?" Fucking gross.) And there's also the atrocity fatigue where it gets to the point where the author seems more intent on giving you a full litany of grotesqueries than crafting a scene that actually makes you feel something. I could probably go on. But really this book died a death of a thousand cuts for me. The longer I read it the less I liked it, and when I reached the end I was genuinely pissed off I had stuck it out. Especially given the way the book ended.

 

Look, here's the thing, these things aren't going to bother everyone. Some people are just going to be excited to be reading a more diverse book. And that's fine. We need more books written about other cultures by non-white authors. Lots more. Many many more. It makes it difficult to judge a book harshly when it represents an underserved minority of voices. I get that. That said, I don't think this is a good book. It needed more editing, and the author needs more time to hone their craft. Maybe I'll try Kuang again sometime down the road, but not for this trilogy.

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review 2019-04-12 03:58
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang - My Thoughts
The Poppy War - R. F Kuang

Well.  This book was touted as one of the best of 2018 and it is nominated for a 2018 Nebula award for best novel.  I didn't like it as much as the majority of people seem to have.  I have read 5 of the 6 nominees and this was my least favourite of them. (Spinning Silver is the one I've not read.)

First off, let me say that the book is well-written read for all that.

My problem lies with expecting to see something new and different, but all I really saw were the same fantasy tropes that have been around forever.  The orphan child with the mysterious background.  The Chosen One.  Hidden magical powers. Gods run amok.  I think the only thing that was was even remotely new was that the book is set in an alternate historical China, or that's what I felt it was.  I was disappointed, and even though, like I said, the writing was good, I found that disappointment colouring my read.

My other problem was with the protagonist, Rin, the orphaned peasant girl with the dark skin. This is her story, but I felt that things were just happening to her.  I don't know that I felt her grow from her somewhat naive 16 years of age at the beginning of the book to her beaten, tortured, suffering (according to her words near the end of the book), 19 year old self.  I was told that she did, but I never FELT it.  At one point, she's yelling at one of her close friends, crying out that she's suffered fro so long, been beaten and tortured and betrayed and near killed etc... so she deserved getting her revenge, and I thought... but were you really?  I was told she did, but....  I dunno, she never really came alive for me. 

And you know, this book is rather grim-darkish.  It's not promoted as such, but I think it really is. In the last third of the book, things get very violent and dark and at times just downright horrific.

So, anyway, I really didn't get what all the big excitement was about.  Will I read the second book that's due out this summer?  Probably, but I'm not in any rush

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review 2019-01-26 02:32
Liked it but not as much as other readers.
The Poppy War - R. F Kuang

I thought the book was pretty good. I loved the world building and the History of the past wars. But I didn't really care about any of the characters. Rin drove me nuts, I felt like she rushed into a lot of things, without thinking things through first. I know people would say its because she's young. But I don't think that was the case, at least for things she does later in the book. 

I really didn't like Altan either, and I wonder why Rin acted the way she did around him. There are a lot of trigger Warnings in this book, rape, torture, self harm, to name a few. 

I did like it enough that I do want to read the next one, that comes out in August. Especially after how the book ended. 

I would recommend this book, but look into all the other trigger warnings, that I didn't mention above, because there's definitely a lot more than what I did list.

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review 2019-01-22 12:36
Complex
The Poppy War - R. F Kuang

Opium is an undercurrent of the Nikara empire.  The war with the Federation of Mugen brought it to these shores and only the powers of the Trifecta, the Vipress; The Dragon Emperor and the Gatekeeper who went to the gods and begged for power, have kept the Mugen Federation at bay.

 

The Dragon Emperor is dead, decades later, the Gatekeeper is missing and the Vipress sits on the throne and the Mugen Federation is still a threat.

 

In this world war orphan Fang Runin finds herself having to make a choice.  She can marry or she can fight for her right to be in the Military Academy in Sinegard.  There she finds a lot of obstacles and powers she didn't realise existed.  Powers that are officially forbidden.

 

There's a lot in here and a lot of things that you can see will have implications later in the series.  It led to another bad decision book club moment where I kept "just reading to the end of a chapter" until I finished the book.  There were a few moments where the bad decisions felt more plot driven than character driven but I'm sure this will be worked out in later books.  It's going to be an interesting ride.  There were interesting philosophical moments where the author was looking at belief and how magic and belief could be linked and how it could have implications when you didn't believe.

 

I hope there's a more human side of the Mugen Federation in later books because so far they're very single-minded and not very nice.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-12-09 12:00
The Poppy War - R.F. Kuang
The Poppy War - R. F Kuang

As soon as I saw the blurb for The Poppy War, I was sure I was going to want to read it - it's a great time to be a fantasy reader, as there's so much out there now which is not just farmboy-is-secretly-a-prince set in a faux-medieval European setting. Read plenty of those in my time!

 

Anyway, The Poppy War starts off feeling quite familiar as we're introduced to the character of Rin and the situation she finds herself in at the start of the book - a war orphan taken in by opium traders, Rin is about to be sold off into marriage unless she can find a way out. In this case, her way out is to pass the country-wide examination and get herself a coveted place in one of the empire's military schools. If she manages this (which, of course, she does otherwise it'd be a very different book!) then Rin can decide her own fate in the longer term. 

 

So far, so good. The next third or so of the book follows a pretty well-worn track, especially where moving into a fantasy academic setting is concerned: the outsider maybe makes one or two friends, but also at least one enemy whose vindictiveness will come back to bite her later on. Where The Poppy War diverges from this pattern is with the introduction of a strong theme of shamanism alongside the military training, even if it's heavily frowned upon by the majority of the people Rin comes across. This ability allows someone to channel the power of a deity, at the risk of their own sanity, and if there's one thing Rin wants, it's power. 

 

The whole setting of The Poppy War is more faux-China than faux-medieval Europe and this is made clear when the neighbouring islands (Mugen) mount an invasion. Rin finds herself shipped off to join the other misfits and hone her abilities in defence of a port city, only to discover that their involvement there has not prevented a terrible slaughter taking place in the capital. It's around this time that my willingness to give The Poppy War 5 stars and my accompanying desire to re-read it in the future took a bit of a knock. Things get a bit grisly and, to my mind at least, unnecessarily so - it's too easy to go for graphic rather than thinking about how to use your writing to imply things that are even more horrific, since your reader's minds will make all sorts of connections. 

 

Since this is the first book of a trilogy, it will come as no surprise that Rin finishes the book by making a choice and taking a terrible revenge on the people of Mugen, who are responsible not just for the recent slaughter but apparently also for the genocide of Rin's people. She may be starting to realise just what she's let herself in for, but maybe not, so I guess the next volume will tell us which way she's going to go? The Dragon Republic is due out next year. 

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