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

the poppy war

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.

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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.

Diversity Spotlight Thursday: Historical Fantasy

Diversity-Spotlight-Thursday-Banner

Diversity Spotlight Thursday is a weekly meme hosted by Aimal from Bookshelves & Paperbacks. Each week you come up with three book for three different categories: a diverse book you’ve read and enjoyed; a diverse book that’s already been released and is in your TBR; and a diverse book that hasn’t been released yet.

This week’s topic is: Historical Fantasy (aka my two favourite genres mashed together)

Diversity-Spotlight---Historical-Fantasy

A-book-I-have-read2The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

I came into this book expecting nothing and left it in a state of euphoria. The Bedlam Stacks is not only one of my top 5 books of last year, it’s one of my favourites of all time. I will definitely do a mini review on it sometime in the future, but here’s what I have to say for now.

This is a story of a 19th-century expedition to the heart of Peru starring Merrick, an ex-smuggler from the British East India Company, and Raphael, a Peruvian priest who guides Merrick to the mysterious village of Bedlam. It’s a quiet, magical, beautiful journey that ruminates on the nature of time and human connection. Natasha Pulley captures the heart of loneliness and love in a way that few writers can, and her characters wind through your very being and leave an indelible mark.

Goodreads | Amazon (US) | Book Depository

A-book-on-my-tbrLovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

H.P Lovecraft is one of those talented, now-deceased authors who paved the way for so many subsequent writers (and other artists) and whose work is admired by many, but who were also human trash fires when it came to morality.

Lovecraft and racism and go together like Russia and political interference of foreign countries. So what better way to tackle Lovecraftian horror than through the eyes of a black family in 50’s America? This book probably has dear old Howard writhing in his grave, and just for that it deserves a read.

Goodreads | Amazon (US) | Book Depository

a-book-releasing-soonWitchmark by C.L. Polk

In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.

Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.

When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.

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Does that sound good to you? Because it sounds pretty damn good to me. I love World War stories and while historical fiction is currently oversaturated with it, we don’t see enough of it explored in speculative fiction. This sounds like just the thing to satisfy my cravings and I can’t wait.

Releases June 19th
Goodreads | Amazon (US) | Book Depository

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Let me know if you’ve read any of these books and/or if any of them catches your eye! And recommend me more historical fantasy books to read!

[Review] Lamb – Jesus Christ and His Best Friend Walk into a Bar…

Lamb


Title:
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal
Author: Christopher Moore
Publisher: Harper Collins
Release Date: March 1st, 2002
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Humour, Fantasy
Page Count: 464 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

I’m not going to make a frequent habit of reviewing books that are more than 10 years old, but occasionally one will come along that makes me sit up and sing its praises. This is one of them.

Lamb is a coming-of-age story like no other. It’s Jesus Christ: The Origin told through the eyes of Levi bar Alphaeus, who is called Biff, who just happens to be Jesus Christ’s best friend.

“Whoa–whoa, wait a minute,” you might say. “I may be an unapologetic heathen who’s never come within ten feet of a Bible, but even I know there’s no mention of anyone called BIFF.”

Well, my friend, that’s where you’re wrong. Because Biff has been unfairly redacted out of the Bible and Christopher Moore has kindly inserted him back and given him a chance to fill in the crucial missing years of Jesus (who is called “Joshua”) between the age of six and thirty. It’s not a biography. It’s not a fantasy (well, it’s mostly not fantasy–we do meet a singing yeti at one point). It’s a “what if.” What if Jesus had had a best friend named Biff? What dumb kid-things would they have done? What adventures would they have led? What pains would they have shared?

Joshua is, as you would imagine, a very sensitive, sweet-mannered kid. He also doesn’t have a deceitful bone in his body, which makes life just a tad difficult for Biff because he’s the one who has to cover up Josh’s various miracles and treasonous talk. Moore strips down all the reverence that surrounds Jesus Christ and shows him as a young boy. A very special boy, but a boy nonetheless. One dogged with all the uncertainties that come with the knowledge that he is to be the saviour of humanity. It didn’t take me long to completely fall in love with him.

But Biff is really the star of the show. He’s funny and irreverent and also the glue that holds the duo together. His early conflicting feelings toward Josh are wholly familiar and easy to empathize with; it’s the feeling of being overshadowed by the seeming perfection of your best friend, while also knowing that you would walk to hell and back for them–and Moore captures it perfectly. The friendship between these two is one of helpless, exasperated love and unquestionable loyalty. I loved every moment of it.

“What if I am not really the Messiah?”

“You mean you’re not sure? The angel didn’t give it away? You think that God might be playing a joke on you? I don’t think so. I don’t know the Torah as well as you, Joshua, but I don’t remember God having a sense of humor.”

Finally, a grin. “He gave me you as a best friend, didn’t he?”

I think the humour will be a hit or a miss for a lot of readers. For me, it’s the former. There are moments that sent me off into serious contemplation and then, a couple of lines later, had me breaking down into giggles. It’s absurd humour. It’s crude humour. It’s poignant humour. Sometimes it dips a little too far into the ridiculous, but I very much enjoyed it for the most part.

…Here’s the gist of almost every sermon I ever heard Joshua give.

You should be nice to people, even creeps.

And if you:
a) believed that Joshua was the Son of God (and)
b) he had come to save you from sin (and)
c) acknowledged the Holy Spirit within you (became as a little child, he would say) (and)
d) didn’t blaspheme the Holy Ghost (see c), then you would:
e) live forever
f) someplace nice
g) probably heaven

However, if you:
h) sinned (and/or)
i) were a hypocrite (and/or)
j) valued things over people (and)
k) didn’t do a, b, c, and d, then you were:
l) fucked

(If this kind of humour is your thing, then you’ll love Lamb)

But what I find most brilliant is that, in a story about the birth of Christianity, Moore decided to examine other religions as well. The idea that Christ had to explore and learn the teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism to become the person he needed to become, is downright plausible, if somewhat anachronistic (Buddhism didn’t spread into China until many centuries after Christ). It facilitates the notion that love, kindness, generosity, and living a life free of ego and greed should be universal to all humans, regardless of faith or origin, and I love that.

Though some prior knowledge of the New Testaments would enrich the experience, you don’t need to have read them to enjoy the story. Part coming-of-age, part super-charged adventure, and 100% unexpectedly heartwarming, Lamb is a book I recommend to anyone, Christian, Catholic, atheist or otherwise.

 

[Review] The Only Harmless Great Thing – Of Sentient Elephants and Radium Girls

The Only Harmless Great Thing
Title: The Only Harmless Great Thing
Author: Brooke Bolander
Publisher: Tor
Release Date: January 23rd, 2018
Genre(s): Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Alternate History
Page Count: 96 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 8.5/10

 

 

 

Books like this remind me just why I love Sci-fi/Fantasy. Not that I need reminders. Not really. I grew up teething on SFF stories, after all. But occasionally a story comes along that fills me with so much fierce pride and wonder and envy, it leaves me breathless, and they become testaments to the (limitless) heights one can reach in the genre.

In The Only Harmless Great Thing, Brooke Bolander takes two true, but disparate, stories–that of the women who worked in U.S. radium factories and an elephant named Topsy–and weaves them together into something wholly original and no less heartbreaking.

This is a story of sentient elephants and radium girls and injustice heaped upon humans and animals alike.

From the late 1910’s to the 1920’s, radium factories began appearing in the United States. Women were hired by these factories to paint watch dials with a special radium paint that would make the numbers glow in the dark. Except, it turns out, radium is highly poisonous and the factories have doomed these women to severe illnesses and painful deaths.

In Bolander’s version, the girls who work at the factories are soon to be replaced by captured elephants. The logic is that the girls are dying (and have stirred up legal disputes) and the elephants are larger and hardier than humans so they’ll last longer. The girls’ job is to teach the elephants to paint the dials. Or, more appropriately: “I’m supposed to teach you how to die.”

One such girl is Regan, and one such elephant is Topsy.

The beginning is a little confusing, but stick through it and you begin to get a clearer picture of the cast, the timelines, and the different narrations. The story jumps all across history, from the ice age to the present day to the 1920’s. It alternates from fable-like narrations riddled with abstraction and strange, gorgeous metaphors, to more modern, conventional ones.

And the prose? The prose is glorious. Glorious and clever and brutal.

No matter what you did, forty or fifty or a hundred years passed and everything became a narrative to be toyed with, masters of media alchemy splitting the truth’s nucleus into a ricocheting cascade reaction of diverging realities.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is a very short read, but it packs a punch with the force of a thousand stampeding elephants. I am in awe of how the author managed to combine such different elements into something fantastical yet so very real. My only complaint is that it ended a little sooner than I thought it would and I wish there was more of it. Which really isn’t much of a complaint.

Brooke Bolander has become one of my authors to watch and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.