The Poppy War

Back when I originally received the email from the folks at Harper Voyager inquiring if I'd be interested in a digital galley of R. F. Kuang's The Poppy War, I elected not to request a copy. The cover blurb did not really catch my fancy and there seemed to be little about this book which was special and made me want to give it a shot.

Later, the novel started to garner rave reviews from trusted sources that were heralding The Poppy War as the fantasy debut of the year. At that point, it was too late for me to get my hands on a review copy. But soon afterward, the ebook was put on sale and I immediately purchased a copy. Not long after that, I was reading it.

It's no secret that 2018 has not been a banner year for the genre, and R. F. Kuang's The Poppy War might well be the debut of the year. Having said that, although I found the story compelling, the book suffered from too many shortcomings for me to rave about it like several of my peers. It is a good novel, mind you. Just not the great and wonderful read that many people made it out to be.

Here's the blurb:

A "Best of May" Science Fiction and Fantasy pick by Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Audible, The Verge, SyFy Wire, and Kirkus.

A brilliantly imaginative talent makes her exciting debut with this epic historical military fantasy, inspired by the bloody history of China’s twentieth century and filled with treachery and magic, in the tradition of Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

The worldbuilding was inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War from mid-20th century. The plot makes reference to real life events such as the Nanjing massacre and the appalling human experiments which took place within Unit 731. Drawing from actual historical facts, Kuang pulled no punches in portraying the scope of the horrific atrocities committed by the Federation of Mugen's forces against the people of the Empire of Nikara. One of my biggest disappointments was that, though it features some decidedly bleak and disturbing scenes, The Poppy War was definitely YA in style and tone. Most of the plot was decidedly black and white, with very little in terms of shades of gray. A little less so once we reach the third and final part of the novel, but the first two read more or less like a YA title. I also expected a lot more from the Sinegard plotline. Sadly, it read like every other clichéd combat and magic training school storyline out there. I understand that Rin's education is an important component of the woman she'll become, but I just feel that this trope has been done ad nauseam. In addition, though this will undoubtedly continue to be an ongoing plotline that will be explored in the sequels, I wish we would have learned more about the shamanistic magical system that is at the heart of this tale.

The characterization was a bit uneven, with the badass main protagonist often hard to relate to and root for. Like many teenage girls, Rin is ruled by her emotions and this puts her in problematic situations at every turn. Extremely temperamental, she fails to learn from her mistakes and is often an accident waiting to happen. I mean, she makes Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad look like the absolute soul of wisdom and the voice of reason. There are times when you want Rin to get bitchslapped or spanked for her juvenile and inane behavior. Thankfully, it does get better toward the end. But the readers needs to sail through choppy waters in order to get there. Constantly railing against the world and the unfairness of everything throughout the novel, Rin is a difficult character to come to like. Unfortunately, the supporting cast is made up of unappealing or uninteresting characters, some of them, like Altan, as over-the-top as Rin herself. The only exception was Jiang, a mix of Yoda and Mr. Miyagi, but who also sometimes can be as dumb and silly as the bald old man always getting head-slapped on the Benny Hill TV show.

There are pacing issues that plague this book, especially at the beginning. The first part of The Poppy War moves at a slow crawl and can be a chore to go through at times. The second part takes a turn for the better, with the story progressing at a better clip, and with everything coming together in the final portion. I just wish the rhythm could have been better balanced between the three different parts of the tale.

R. F. Kuang came up with an unexpected ending, one that opens the door for plenty of things to come in the subsequent volumes. She had a few surprises up her sleeve, which made for good reading toward the end. Although it doesn't offer as much resolution as I would have liked, there is no denying that the ending is the culmination of a lot of plotlines that were finally brought together.

In the end, Kuang's The Poppy War simply may not be for everyone. Personally, I felt that the YA style and tone didn't quite work for the story the author was trying to tell. This debut can be dark and brutal, but the black and white juvenile outlook was often discordant with what Kuang was trying to convey to her readers. As a young teenager caught between childhood and adulthood, Rin must face sexism, racism, and discrimination due to her class. While training to become an elite warrior, she must deal with betrayal and death. The Poppy War is a manifestly angry novel featuring a main protagonist who seldom manage to control her emotions. That can get old real fast and it often gets in the way of the plot.

As I mentioned, it nevertheless turned out to be a compelling read. But it suffers from too many flaws, chief among them the lack of engaging characters, to be a truly captivating book.

Love it or hate it, I feel that Kuang's debut remains one of the fantasy novels to read in 2018. Perusing online reviews shows that the majority of readers enjoyed The Poppy War, so you should give it a go to discover what the noise is all about. I will definitely give the second installment a shot, if only to see if the author can up her game and make Rin a more endearing protagonist. I'm all for angst and anger, but this was a bit too much and it ended up being detrimental to the storytelling.

The final verdict: 7.25/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

1 commentaires:

erinalter said...

agreed on all counts. i read this after reading a lot of rave reviews. what i ended up appreciating most was that that it prompted me to learn more about the nanjing massacre and japan's actions in china during WW2. not fun, but... edifying. the story itself is very much YA and same old same old.

i'll consider reading the second book, but since you had the same take as i did, i will be waiting to hear your thoughts before i spend the time myself...