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Werthead

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

The Second Poppy War between the vast Nikara Empire and the island-bound Federation of Mugen ended in victory for Nikara...just. The cost of victory was high, so the Empire has established an elite military academy at Sinegard. Open to everyone, nobles and commoners alike, the academy is training the next generation of warriors who will defend the Empire. For Rin, a war orphan from the provinces, the academy is her only hope of avoiding her arranged marriage. But the path she sets out on will take her to far stranger places, and in the maelstrom of an unwinnable war involving forces she does not comprehend.

The Poppy War is the debut novel by R.F. Kuang and is an Asian-themed epic fantasy. War, magic and dark forces beyond mortal ken are all present and correct, as are angst, training montages and moral mazes the characters find impossible to travel through without getting blood on their hands and their consciences.

The novel doesn't do anything particularly new, but it does have an interesting arc for the central character of Rin. Normally these kind of stories feature a plucky young hero who is tempted by dark forces but nobly avoids them and wins a great victory for the forces of the light anyway. The Poppy War doesn't do that. It's message is consistently one of choice and consequence: the easy option is always the more costly one, and Rin, being a teenage orphan with no real experience of how the world works, makes pretty much the worst decision at every turn. It's a human and realistic response that moves The Poppy War away from its opening chapters - where it veers a bit too close to every fantasy school drama you've ever read - more towards psychological horror and a bloody-minded war story. Imagine Joe Abercrombie taking over Harry Potter halfway through the series before handing off to R. Scott Bakker for the finale and you may have an idea of the dramatic tonal darkening the novel undergoes on its way to one of the more memorable fantasy finales of recent years.

There's an interesting magic system, based around the summoning of god-spirits into the world, although this is not developed perhaps as fully as it could have been. The worldbuilding is fine on a macro level but on the level of fine detail it is lacking. The best fantasy worlds draw you into them, making you eager to learn more about them, but Nikara and Mugen are drawn in very broad strokes. The modern language (including a fair bit of swearing) and nomenclature are reasonable language choices, but doesn't do much to bring you into the mindset and shoes of the characters. The map, for once, is a hindrance rather than a help as it is drawn with apparently no mind to scale (Nikara is supposedly enormous but the islands of Speer and Mugen - widely separated on the map - are within eyesight of one another) and ends up being more confusing than enlightening.

These elements are negligible compared to the fine character work that's employed, especially as Kuang has very little truck with telling yet another version of the hero's journey. There's also a relentless pace to the novel. In 500 pages it covers more ground than some 2,000-page trilogies, with dramatic shifts in setting, cast and tone as the book proceeds. Compared to fantasy sagas that take a thousand pages to clear their throat, there's something to be said for how quickly and determinedly The Poppy War gets down to business.

The Poppy War (****) is an accomplished fantasy novel, especially for a debut, with an unusually bleak and cynical tone to it that becomes much more pronounced as it continues (to the point where I'm glad the next book I'm reading is the much more positive Space Opera). The characters are interesting and well-developed, but the worldbuilding and magic could be a bit more developed. Hopefully we'll see this in the sequels, as The Poppy War is (as you may have guessed), the opening volume of a trilogy.

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1 hour ago, Werthead said:

 

There's an interesting magic system, based around the summoning of god-spirits into the world,


Does this bear any resemblance to the system in Long Price Quartet, or is it entirely different/a more traditional kind of summoning?


Anyway, this sounds interesting so I'll have to give it a go at some point.

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2 hours ago, polishgenius said:


Does this bear any resemblance to the system in Long Price Quartet, or is it entirely different/a more traditional kind of summoning?


Anyway, this sounds interesting so I'll have to give it a go at some point.

Entirely different. The god-spirits are summoned to possess the caster, and they channel the god-spirit's energy through themselves.

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Wert, I just wanted to let you know that I love reading your blog and your posts and so far have enjoyed that vast majority of books that you have rated 4 stars or more on your reviews. 

If you like it from my experience I usually like it as well so I'm eager to check this out after I catch up on my backlog (which happen to be books I just bought last week from your completed fantasy book list you posted a few weeks ago on your blog)

 

Thanks for all of your amazing reviews 

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5 hours ago, Werthead said:

Entirely different. The god-spirits are summoned to possess the caster, and they channel the god-spirit's energy through themselves.

There are hints that gods are not gods at all, but rather an innate character trait that you can choose to push to the extreme, and thus have some control over reality with magic, while you have less control of yourself. It's in a way a metaphor for drug use: you don't control the craving, in exchange you feel good, but it destroys you.

 

I read it recently, and while I know it's a debut, I felt that some elements were still making it less enjoyable than it could have been:

First, it's not surprising. Sure, asian inspired stories change from the Olde England setting, but if you compare this and the Black Tides of Heaven, the Poppy War will prove to have lifted most of its setting from history, with a few renaming. Mugen is basically a Japan/Taiwan mix, for example, and not to spoil, but the rape of Nanking was obviously an inspiration at one point.

Secondly, the story structure is uneven. There is a Training Montage in the first part where two years can go by in one sentence, and you feel the story prepare for something epic and then... the scope shrinks. It becomes more a psychological Sub-Hunger Games study than anything. I felt like this book could have been flashbacks to explain where the characters were at the start of the story more than a part of the story itself, at one point.

Thirdly, and the worst problem for me: a lot of events in the second part are contrived. You know it has to happen to offer a choice to the main character, but it feels more like a RPG where the only people you meet in Hamlet X are old friends then you click on the "travel to Mnt Doom" button and you're there in the next chapter.

 

All this being said, it is a debut, and the saving grace is the direction chosen for the protagonist, well away from the usual good guy behaviour, though of course Abercrombie among others has been using this idea before. Still, I think I will check the sequel to see if we enter the epic story hinted at.

Spoiler

I mean, what can happen now that the heroine is Darth Vader with poorer impulse control, and the power to basically nuke a country from orbit?

 

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On 5/21/2018 at 9:32 PM, Errant Bard said:

There are hints that gods are not gods at all, but rather an innate character trait that you can choose to push to the extreme, and thus have some control over reality with magic, while you have less control of yourself. It's in a way a metaphor for drug use: you don't control the craving, in exchange you feel good, but it destroys you.

 

I read it recently, and while I know it's a debut, I felt that some elements were still making it less enjoyable than it could have been:

First, it's not surprising. Sure, asian inspired stories change from the Olde England setting, but if you compare this and the Black Tides of Heaven, the Poppy War will prove to have lifted most of its setting from history, with a few renaming. Mugen is basically a Japan/Taiwan mix, for example, and not to spoil, but the rape of Nanking was obviously an inspiration at one point.

Secondly, the story structure is uneven. There is a Training Montage in the first part where two years can go by in one sentence, and you feel the story prepare for something epic and then... the scope shrinks. It becomes more a psychological Sub-Hunger Games study than anything. I felt like this book could have been flashbacks to explain where the characters were at the start of the story more than a part of the story itself, at one point.

Thirdly, and the worst problem for me: a lot of events in the second part are contrived. You know it has to happen to offer a choice to the main character, but it feels more like a RPG where the only people you meet in Hamlet X are old friends then you click on the "travel to Mnt Doom" button and you're there in the next chapter.

 

All this being said, it is a debut, and the saving grace is the direction chosen for the protagonist, well away from the usual good guy behaviour, though of course Abercrombie among others has been using this idea before. Still, I think I will check the sequel to see if we enter the epic story hinted at.

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I mean, what can happen now that the heroine is Darth Vader with poorer impulse control, and the power to basically nuke a country from orbit?

 

Agreed with you on this one. It felt like she took the skeleton of Rothfuss and Lawrence and mixed in WW2 in an Asian setting. A lot of the book felt rushed and some parts were drawn out. Not sure if I will tune in for the second book.

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Posted (edited)
17 hours ago, Garlan the Gallant said:

Agreed with you on this one. It felt like she took the skeleton of Rothfuss and Lawrence and mixed in WW2 in an Asian setting. A lot of the book felt rushed and some parts were drawn out. Not sure if I will tune in for the second book.

I did not think of Rothfuss or Lawrence but I think she compares favorably when it comes to the pure Hogwarts parts, probably because she is still a student  herself, it's the rest of the world breath/story/structure/pace that is... less good.

Edited by Errant Bard
spelling

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