Guest Post (The Vine Witch): A History of Witches in France | Feat. Giveaway (US)

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I’m so excited to bring you this (belated) guest post today about the history of witches in France, written by author Luanne G. Smith whose debut was released recently on October 1st–a story about witches, revenge, French vineyards, and vine magic (which sounds like the coolest thing). The book is giving me seductive looks from my TBR pile right now, so I’m hoping to get to it soon.

Hope you enjoy this little piece! (I definitely did)

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It’s always an interesting question to consider the witch trials of the past. One thing that’s always struck me as a rather obvious notion is that none of the people executed for sorcery, in France or elsewhere, were actually witches. They were invariably mortal men and women (and France was less gender-biased in the persecution of “witches” than other nations) who perhaps dabbled in herbs and fortunetelling on the side, but that was fairly common stuff in certain circles. France, in particular, has had a reputation for being obsessed with the occult for centuries, going back to the days of Louis XIV and the Affair of the Poisons. If you’ve never heard about Catherine Deshayes Monvoison, aka La Voisin, and the things she was up to, you’re in for a ghastly read. But in general, the accusations of witchcraft against citizens often served more than merely appeasing moral righteousness and saving the world from the Devil’s influence. They were often acts of retaliation or outright villainy by aggrieved neighbors who used the law to disguise their motives. I mean, if you think about it, a real witch ought to have had the cunning and skill to escape a hapless group of pitchfork-wielding mortals.

From what I was able to discern, the last person to be burned for the crime of witchcraft in France occurred in 1745. That’s why, in The Vine Witch, the laws for witches are referred to as the 1745 Covenants. I was playing off the premise that mortals and witches were forced to come together as a matter of necessity in that year. Too many mortals had been executed as witches, and too many witches had been getting away with harming mortals. So, the two sides drew up the Covenant Law agreements and each, from then on out, left the other alone. Mostly. Which is my interpretation for why there’s no more mention of witches being executed in the public record after that date. Doesn’t mean witches went away. Or mortals stopped being afraid of witches and their powers. Or that everyone obeyed the laws. After all, stories aren’t written about the law-abiders.

 

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About the Book

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The Vine Witch (Vine Witch #1)

Author: Luanne G. Smith
Publisher: 47North
Release Date: October 1, 2019
Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Historical Fiction

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About the Author

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Luanne G. Smith is the author of THE VINE WITCH, a fantasy novel about witches, wine, and revenge set in early 20th century France, and the forthcoming second book in the series, THE GLAMOURIST. She’s lucky enough to live in Colorado at the base of the beautiful Rocky Mountains, where she enjoys reading, gardening, hiking, a glass of wine at the end of the day, and finding the magic in everyday life.

 

 

Giveaway (US Only)

One finished copy of The Vine Witch is up for grabs! ENTER HERE

 

Tour Schedule

You can go check out the other stops on the tour HERE!

 

Blog Tour Review: Rotherweird – Plenty of Weird, Not a Lot of Enjoyment

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Title: Rotherweird
Author: Andrew Caldecott
Publisher: Quercus (US)
Release Date: June 9th, 2019
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Alternate History
Page Count: 456 (hardback)

Rating: DNF @ ~50%

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1558: Twelve children, gifted far beyond their years, are banished by their Tudor queen to the town of Rotherweird. Some say they are the golden generation; some say the devil’s spawn. But everyone knows they are something to be revered – and feared. Four and a half centuries on, cast adrift from the rest of England by Elizabeth I and still bound by its ancient laws, Rotherweird’s independence is subject to one disturbing condition: nobody, but nobody, studies the town or its history. Then an Outsider arrives, a man of unparallelled wealth and power, enough to buy the whole of Rotherweird – deeply buried secrets and all . . . Welcome to Rotherweird.

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Oh boy. I tried really hard with this because I’d never DNFed a blog tour book before and the idea made me feel incredibly guilty. So I pushed myself to the halfway mark before throwing in the towel. Here’s the way I’m trying to look at it. The book clearly isn’t for me, and an extra 200+ pages probably isn’t going to change that. And if I keep reading, it’ll forever be embedded in my brain as not only “that book I disliked,” but also, “that book I disliked and was forced to finish.” And that’s a badge of resentment I don’t think the book deserves.

Well, enough assuaging my conscience. Let’s get to why Rotherweird didn’t work.

I think you’ll have to enjoy a particular writing style to get into the book–scholarly, with dense descriptions that are far too dry for my tastes. There are definitely sections where the story benefits from the prose, adding to the richness of Rotherweird and its inhabitants, but for the most part they pile up into a thick wall of Too Much, and I found myself glazing over a lot of it.

As for the characters, they’re varied and quirky but in a very distant, sterile kind of way. There are also far too many of them, and none are distinct enough for me to become invested in their story.

The plot has to be my biggest gripe, though. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m just an idiot. But when it comes to books that have complex, criss-crossing plotlines, I prefer the ones that are more…accessible. The ones that cordially invite you to partake in their mystery. Because that’s what stories are–a conversation between the reader and the writer. But when a plot becomes too convoluted, too inaccessible, and you lose the readers in the process, the story starts morphing into a monologue, and no one wants that. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens here.

Overall, the premise of the book is fantastic and it’s got individual elements here and there that I liked, but none of that gelled together into a story that I could enjoy.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Mini Review: The Wolf and the Watchman – The Literary Equivalent of Repeatedly Punching a Wall (AKA Not fun)

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Title: The Wolf and the Watchman
Author: Niklas Natt och Dag
Publisher: Atria Books
Release Date: March 5th, 2019
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Mystery, Thriller
Subjects and Themes: Crime
Page Count: 384 (paperback)

Rating: 5.0/10

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It is 1793. Four years after the storming of the Bastille in France and more than a year after the death of King Gustav III of Sweden, paranoia and whispered conspiracies are Stockholm’s daily bread. A promise of violence crackles in the air as ordinary citizens feel increasingly vulnerable to the whims of those in power.

When Mickel Cardell, a crippled ex-solider and former night watchman, finds a mutilated body floating in the city’s malodorous lake, he feels compelled to give the unidentifiable man a proper burial. For Cecil Winge, a brilliant lawyer turned consulting detective to the Stockholm police, a body with no arms, legs, or eyes is a formidable puzzle and one last chance to set things right before he loses his battle to consumption. Together, Winge and Cardell scour Stockholm to discover the body’s identity, encountering the sordid underbelly of the city’s elite.

Meanwhile, Kristofer Blix—the handsome son of a farmer—leaves rural life for the alluring charms of the capital and ambitions of becoming a doctor. His letters to his sister chronicle his wild good times and terrible misfortunes, which lead him down a treacherous path.

In another corner of the city, a young woman—Anna-Stina—is consigned to the workhouse after she upsets her parish priest. Her unlikely escape plan takes on new urgency when a sadistic guard marks her as his next victim.

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This was definitely a case of “it’s not you, it’s me,” because if you break down the book’s individual elements–setting, character, plot–what you get isn’t anything bad. Far from it, really. Eighteenth century Stockholm was fascinating to read about, the characters were peripherally interesting, and while the mystery took some time to get going (part two especially makes things confusing) it kept my interest for the most part.

My problem lies with just how utterly grey, dour, and joyless the whole experience was. The two main characters are a well-written but unlikable bunch: Winge is the genius not-quite-detective who suffers from a case of consumption and a cold, manipulative personality, and Cardell is the embittered war-vet-turned-watchman who suffers from anger management issues. It’s reminiscent of True Detective S1–all the dour grimness and a slew of underlying thematic messages, but minus the chemistry between the lead characters which would have made the story more bearable.

If you’re craving a gritty and gruesome historical murder mystery and can stomach stark depictions of human depravity, then I’d recommend it. Not to be for me, sadly.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Review: The Wolf in the Whale – An Inuk, Three Wolves, and a Viking Walk into an Igloo (And Go On a Soul-Searching Journey)

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Title: The Wolf in the Whale
Author: Jordanna Max Brodsky
Publisher: Redhook
Release Date: January 29th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Subjects and Themes: Inuit Mythology, Norse Mythology
Page Count: 560 (paperback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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Born with the soul of a hunter and the spirit of the Wolf, Omat is destined to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps-invoking the spirits of the land, sea, and sky to protect her people.

But the gods have stopped listening and Omat’s family is starving. Alone at the edge of the world, hope is all they have left.

Desperate to save them, Omat journeys across the icy wastes, fighting for survival with every step. When she meets a Viking warrior and his strange new gods, they set in motion a conflict that could shatter her world…or save it.

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Note
: the main character Omat was born female and identifies as both a man and a woman, but the author uses she/her pronouns in her endnotes, so that’s what I’m going to use as well.

Trigger Warning: Scenes of rape and discussions of them.

The Wolf in the Whale is a languid, immersive tapestry consisting primarily of Inuit culture and mythology but one that has threads of Norse mythos weaving through it. And the result has a little bit of everything–fantastic character work, slow-burn romance, meddling gods, wolves that are whales that are wolves, battles ranging from small-scale to continent-spanning, and themes of gender roles and identity.

Above all that, though, it’s about changing narratives that others have set up for you. And I think that’s what I loved most about it.

I found the story to be a very spiritual and empowering one as it follows the “Heroine’s Journey” template in a way that’s very reminiscent of Juliet Marillier’s work (I talked a bit about the ins-and-outs of the Heroine’s Journey in this post and why I love it so much).

The TL;DR of Heroine’s Journey and what differentiates it from the Hero’s Journey is that while the latter is very external (big baddie to defeat, world to save, etc), the former is very internal. So the plot follows this trajectory:

Omat starts out with nearly everything she could hope for. She’s an Inuit shaman-in-training who will one day lead her camp, and though born female, she thinks of herself a boy and no one really challenges her on that. So she’s allowed to hunt with the men and do other “male” activities (which she’s very good at). All in all, she’s content with her current role and her future.

And then all of that comes crashing down around her.

What follows is a brutal and lonely journey across the ice that culminates in a quest to rescue her brother. But running parallel to that, and what is ultimately the heart of the story, is a personal quest to find herself in a world where people and gods alike are determined to put her in a labelled box, saying “This is where you belong.”

So the Heroine’s Journey doesn’t really work if the main character doesn’t work. Luckily that’s not a problem here because Omat is utterly fantastic–hard-headed, empathetic, vulnerable. Brodsky takes her sweet time to set her up and people might complain that it makes the beginning too slow and ponderous, but I think a comprehensive foundation for the protagonist is essential with these types of stories.

The main plot you see in the synopsis doesn’t actually appear until about 40% of the way in. Everything before that is dedicated to exploring Omat and her relationship with her family and immersing in Inuit culture and mythos (all very well-researched). And I read it in one sitting which doesn’t happen often these days, so that should tell you how engaging this slow first half is.

My second favourite part about the book? The relationship between Omat and Brandr, a battle-weary Norseman who starts out as her enemy but soon becomes her companion.

This isn’t a one-sided “hotshot hero comes in to rescue the heroine and teach her about love” relationship. These are two fractured people–both nursing pain and loneliness–who are learning to understand each other’s language (literally and metaphorically) and helping each other heal and become stronger.

And Brodansky shows exactly what I want to see in a story about two “enemy” characters from different cultures working together–a sharing of beliefs and faiths and the acknowledgement that yes, the other might be strange and foreign, but the world as a whole is strange and foreign. And there’s always more they could learn from it.

There’s this gorgeously drawn-out scene where they talk about the dead and the possibility of afterlives, and Omat consoles Brandr by saying that the souls of your loved ones are reborn within you when they die. His response is skeptical so she counters with this:

“You don’t seem to believe in a world you cannot see. And yet, if I were you, I wouldn’t believe your stories of deserts and volcanoes and tall buildings of stones. I would say you made them up, since I’ve never seen them. But instead, I trust that there are many things beyond my understanding.”

It’s a quiet, introspective scene that does nothing to further the plot and everything to further the characters, and I love it so damn much. There are many like it and they show that, beyond the meshing of mythologies, this is the area Brodsky truly excels at.

Speaking of which…to cap all this praise off, you also get Norse gods clashing with Inuit spirits and the result is exactly what I’d hoped for–exhilarating, educational and, again, highlighting parallels between the two cultures.

That being said, I did have issues with the pacing in the latter third of the book. I think the events leading up to the ending could have been a lot shorter, or if not shorter, then had more of an in-depth exploration into Freydis, the woman who’s leading the Norsemen. She’s a fascinating character and I wish I could have gotten a bit more from her.

I also have a niggling issue with the fact that Omat only becomes comfortable with her female body the moment she starts getting sexually involved with Brandr. It obviously wasn’t the author’s intent to be like, “Hey, kids, you only need to meet the right man to make you feel comfortable in your own skin!” But that’s kind of what it comes across as.

Overall, this is a wonderful standalone mashup of history and fantasy, and one that celebrates a culture that isn’t often explored in mainstream fiction.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Review: Once Upon A River – A Non-Magical Magical Delight

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Title: Once Upon a River
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria Books
Release Date: December 4th, 2018
Genre(s): Mystery, Historical
Subjects and Themes: Stories about stories
Page Count: 421 (hardback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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On a dark, misty night in the small English village of Radcot, locals gather at the Swan Inn to cap their day with drinks and lore. The 600-year-old pub is a famed hub for storytellers, but the patrons cannot know that their evening will be stranger than any tale they could weave. Into the inn bursts a mysterious man, sopping and bloodied and carrying an unconscious four-year-old girl. But before he can explain who he and the child are, and how they came to be injured, he collapses.

Upriver, two families are searching desperately for their missing daughters. Alice Armstrong has been missing for twenty-four hours, ever since her mother’s suicide. And Amelia Vaughan vanished without a trace two years prior. When the families learn of the lost little girl at the Swan Inn, each wonders if their child has at last been found. But identifying the child may not be as easy as it seems.

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So, I’d staunchly avoided Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale when it first came out. The NYT bestseller stamp and the heaps of praise it was getting made me think it was one of those bland mainstream hits.

In other news, I’m a shallow idiot. Because if Once Upon A River is any indication of Setterfield’s talents, I have been missing out on some incredible storytelling.

Once Upon a River is an absolutely delightful, charming, whimsical tale. Take every word in every language that describes the experience of sitting around an open fire swaddled in blankets and listening to a veteran storyteller work their magic, dump them into a pot, stir for a minute or two, and you’ll have Once Upon a River.

And it’s a book I recommend to everyone whether you’re a fan of historical mystery or not, and for several reasons.

1) It’s one of those stories that straddle multiple genres and flirts with the possibility of speculative. So there’s kind of something for everyone.

2) For all you fantasy readers, this is a fantasy that’s not actually a fantasy.

No no no, hear me out. While there are no actual fantastical happenings, the fantasy is in the atmosphere it creates, in its exploration of the unknown and the unexplained. The way that the river seems to be its own character with its own whims. The utter embrace of the magic and the power of stories. It’s got the heart and the soul of what makes a good fantasy a good fantasy.

3) This book is an absolutely unabashed love letter to stories and I don’t know how anyone can say “no” to that.

As we flit through the lives of the colourful characters that inhabit this book, we explore the beauty of the human mind to be able create different stories out of the same event. And how those stories can be controlled but only to a certain extent, after which they take a life of their own and speed off in wild directions.

The book also does a wonderful job exploring the kinds of stories that we tell ourselves for darker purposes. Stories that we create to mask our guilt and pain and sorrow. Lies, if you will. But not really. More like…picking worlds that we can bear living in.

Basically, if you like books, you should read this. And if you don’t like books, then let this be my attempt to convert you to the dark side, because Once Upon a River is a perfect winter read that will make you fall in love with stories–for the first time or for the billionth.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Review: The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy – Brilliantly Feminist and a Shipload of Fun

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Title: The Lady’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Release Date: October 2nd, 2018
Genre(s): YA Historical, Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Feminism, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 464 (hardback)

Rating: 9.0/10

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I’m probably one of the few people who thought Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue was just a fun, cute story. Good but not great–one that I felt lacked substance in a few places. I came into Lady’s Guide expecting more of the same.

Well colour me surprised, because I didn’t quite expect this. I didn’t expect to be up at 3 AM eyes glued to my tablet screen, grinning and furiously highlighting passages. Because Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy blows the first book out of the water and then some.

Felicity was undoubtedly my favourite character of Book 1 (sorry, Monty). She stole many scenes with her practical, no-nonsense attitude. But here? Here Lee makes sure that she burns wild and piercing like the star that she is. And this is clearly Mackenzi Lee in her element–exploring feminist values within a historical setting through the eyes of a stubborn, brilliant, beautiful young woman who refuses to take “No” for an answer.

Since the events of Book 1, Felicity has been sequestered in Edinburgh where she’s been working at a bakery and petitioning various medical schools to allow her entry (it hasn’t been very successful). When she hears that the renowned surgeon Alexander Platt, her idol, will soon be marrying her childhood friend, Felicity teams up with a mysterious sailor girl named Sim to travel to Stuttgart and meet the good doctor.

Felicity’s narrative voice is a glorious thing. It’s full of dry wit, intelligence, passion, and a whole lot of vulnerability that we didn’t really get a chance to see in Gentleman’s Guide. Even in scenes where there’s not a whole lot going on, Felicity kept me engaged; I didn’t even care about the lack of piracy in the first half because Felicity oozes enough charisma to make up for a whole fleet of pirates. She swings from being relatably, adorably awkward to fire-in-the-eyes confident and sharp-tongued and I don’t know which I loved more.

And my god, her passion. You know when you’re watching someone talk about something they truly, truly love and you swear you can see them light up from the inside out? Like the force of their love is creating thousands of billions of little nuclear fusion reactions all at once in their body?

That’s what it’s like when Felicity talks about medicine. Her passion burns molten hot and you can’t help but be pulled into it. And as Felicity shines, the prose shines with her. I mean, the writing wasn’t shabby in Book 1, but Lee takes it up a few notches with this one:

“I want to know all of it. I want to look at my own hands and know everything about the way they move beneath the skin, the fine strings that tie them to the rest of me and all the other intricate components that fuse together to make a complete person. The mysteries of how a system as delicate and precise as the human body not only exists, but exists in infinite variables. I want to know how things go wrong. How we break each other and the best way to put ourselves back together…I want to know everything about my own self, and never to have to rely on someone else to tell me the way I work.”

The other thing I absolutely loved is the estranged relationship between Felicity and her old friend, Johanna, which I found both wonderful and heartbreaking–wonderful, because their dynamic is so charming and fun and witty and you imagine them riding off into the sunset together; and heartbreaking because there are so many unaddressed hurts standing between them and neither seem to know quite how to navigate through that. Monty and Percy I found cute and sweet. But these two? These two I would die for. They are a beautiful, complimentary pair, with Johanna softening out Felicity’s blunt edges. Add Sim, our mysterious Muslim pirate girl, and we have a group that will satisfy all you readers who are dying to see more female friendships in books (though I did find myself wanting a bit more exploration into Sim’s character).

The book also addresses the way that women look down on other women–the “not like the other girls” mindset–because regardless of how fantastic she is, Felicity isn’t without faults; her intelligence and practicality doesn’t change the fact that she’s still a teenage girl who’s trying to figure things out. And while she likes to believe she’s an advocate of female independence, she’s still, in some ways, parroting the rules that men set for women. Because “Frilly dresses are ridiculous and you won’t be taken seriously in it” isn’t a enlightened statement nor a feminist one. It’s playing right into the belief that there’s something inherently wrong with femininity and objects associated with femininity. And part of her character development is coming to understand that there are so many ways a girl can be a girl. And that being a girl has nothing to do with rebelling against male expectations or conforming to them, but about carving out a place in the world that you’re happy with–whether that involves frilly dresses or science textbooks or both. Seeing her go through that journey is such a rewarding experience.

Everyone has heard stories of women like us–cautionary tales, morality plays, warnings of what will befall you if you are a girl too wild for the world, a girl who asks too many questions or wants too much. If you set off into the world alone.

Everyone has heard stories of women like us, and we intend to make more of them.

The pacing is much improved from Book 1 which had the plot halting and starting in fits. It’s smoother sailing this time around, with tension and mystery building in the middle and more action in the second half.

The only big complaint I have is the fantasy aspect which, like the first book, kind of drops out of nowhere. I’d have much preferred it if the story were a straightforward historical adventure, or if the fantasy elements were woven more evenly. And the fact that none of the characters bat their eyes at the existence of these fantastical things just makes them feel all the more removed from the rest of the worldbuilding.

So to all you librarians, teachers, and parents: this is a book you should be shoving into the hands of every teenage girl in your life. Or everyone, really. Because this is a book for every one of us who have been told, for one reason or another, that we can’t.

You’re Asian, you don’t have the height, you can’t last in competitive tennis.

You’re fat, you don’t have the right body, you can’t dance on stage.

You’re a woman, you’re too emotional, you can’t lead a country.

Well, Felicity Montague says otherwise.

They tell you your dreams are too big, too lofty? Then lift it higher, she says.

All those sneers and laughter thrown at your back make you want to curl up, scream, cry?

Then scream. Cry. And then get back up. And show them how you’re made of steel.

You are not a fool, you are a fighter, and you deserve to be here. You deserve to take up space in this world.

The ending of Lady’s Guide isn’t the end of a journey, but a beginning. And I hope the journey Lee has planned for these characters is a long, winding one that’ll last for years to come.

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Copy provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review

Review: The Poppy War – Beautiful and Terrible in Equal Measure

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Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: May 1st, 2018
Genre(s): Historical, Fantasy
Page Count: 544 (hardback)
Goodreads

Rating: 8.5/10

 

 

 

Was she now a goddess or a monster?
Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.

Before we get into the review, I would like to put out a Massive Trigger Warning: Much of this story is directly pulled from Chinese culture and history–specifically, the brutality and the mindset of the Sino-Japanese war. Chapter 21 (Part 3) features stark accounts of mass mutilation (of men, women, children, and infants), rape (one of the hardest I’ve ever had to read through), forced prostitution, and animal violence. If you’re sensitive to such subjects, for the sake of your mental health, please, please skip or skim this chapter. Beyond that, there’s genocide, human experimentation, drug use and addiction, and other senseless violence associated with war.

Also, a note to the misguided reviewers calling this book anti-Japanese propaganda: I’ve seen and experienced anti-Japanese propaganda when I was living in Korea, and this is far from it. So kindly go sell that elsewhere.
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The Poppy War is obviously a very different story for Chinese readers (my reading buddy can attest to that). Though I’m acquainted with some of the culture through osmosis from my friends, and due to my own culture’s closeness with China, most of the references slipped by me. That isn’t to say you can’t understand or enjoy the book if you’re not of Chinese heritage; it just means that there are a few deeper layers to the story that you probably won’t be able to access.

The comparisons made to Name of the Wind are fully justified in the first half of the book. Throughout her years at Sinegard Academy Rin meets new friends, makes an enemy with powerful social connections, butts heads with a teacher who hates her, and steals books from the restricted section of the library (which always seems to a staple for fantasy school fiction). Plus, she’s taken under the wing of a teacher who reminds me a lot of Elodin from The Kingkiller Chronicle–mercurial, eccentric, and prone to assign unorthodox tasks as lessons (at least he never tells her to jump off a roof). It’s fun, lighthearted stuff, but there’s always an undercurrent of violence and unease running through it, which eventually erupts in the second half.

Rin is a fantastic protagonist–even at her worst, you can’t not fall in love with her. She’s the ultimate underdog and she scrabbles hard–so fucking hard–to get what she wants. Her determination to succeed at the academy leads to hilarious, intense, and disturbing sequences of events. Moreover, she actually sounds and acts like a teenager, which you don’t often find in adult fantasy–she sasses, she’s brash, and she makes a ton of mistakes. Her struggles will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever had to work twice as hard, twice as much, to obtain the same things that some people are just granted from birth.

The side characters are also interesting and varied in personality–Altan especially. The development of his relationship with Rin is probably my favourite part of the book. It starts off as an adoration, at least on Rin’s part, and companionship. Then it becomes this toxic echo chamber of anger and hatred and vengeance. It’s fascinating, terrible, and heartbreaking stuff, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

What I also love about this book is that it presents two enemies. One is obvious from the start: Mugen Federation, the small island nation to the east of Nikara. They’ve been imbibed with the drug that is nationalism and the belief that it’s their destiny to expand their borders and subsume Nikara.

I know many people didn’t like the second half part of the book, and for obvious reasons–it’s gruesome stuff. And I didn’t think I’d particularly like it either, but while I got little enjoyment out of it, I did find it to be the best part of the book. Because this is where our characters face hard truths and harder choices. This is the where Rebecca Kuang stares you in the eye and tells you that this story isn’t military fantasy–it’s real-life culture and history and the brutality of warfare infused with magic. It’s also where the second enemy rears its head: hatred and vengeance. I don’t want to go into detail because it’s something you need to experience for yourself, but the way Kuang slowly reveals how Mugen isn’t the enemy you should most be afraid of is rather quite masterful.

There are a few issues with the book that nagged at me. Uneven pacing is evident at the latter end of Part 1 and start of Part 2. As with many school-based stories, the lesson scenes tend to drag on, and there’s a lull in the transition from Rin-the-schoolgirl to Rin-the-soldier. My biggest pet peeve is Kuang’s tendency to hold the readers’ hand. She would describe a particular scene or a situation and then have Rin explain what it means. You can clearly tell from the dead bodies littering the ground that war is hell, so it’s unnecessary for Rin to literally spell it out in the next paragraph.

Despite its flaws, however, this is a fantastic debut. The Poppy War not only paints a stark portrait of imperialism, war, and destiny versus choice, it asks the question of what you do in the face of senseless evil. Do you meet atrocities with atrocities? And at what cost? What happens when one day you look in the mirror and see that you’ve become the very thing you’re fighting against?

Kuang leaves you with no easy answers and I don’t expect any in the near future.

~
Thank you to Edelweiss and Harper Voyager for providing a review copy.

And thank you to Alice for the buddy read! Go check out her review here.