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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.

  Reveal hidden contents

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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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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Just read The Poppy War and I'm honestly not sure how I feel about it. I thought the setting was great and I really liked the novel's tone overall, but the pacing was so all over the place. It rarely dragged (though some of the lingering descriptions of Mugen brutality didn't need to go on quite as long as they did), but sometimes it sped up too far much; breezing past major events that really should've gotten more time devoted to them. The last third of the book in particular, it was getting almost silly how much was happening. 

Also, I think the novel was hurt by how often the cast of characters surrounding Rin was changing. There was never enough time to get to know them or give them any depth beyond one or two defining traits; which lessened the impact whenever they died. On the other hand, I thought Rin herself was a really interesting character.

I am curious about the next book, which I guess is due out this summer. Considering how this one ended, I wonder if it will stick with the epic, history-inspired war style or if it will be more of a high fantasy, magical story? I could see it go either way.

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I don't think this novel had a hero arc with Rin, I think it's more likely that it's the origin story of a villain. If that's true I think the novel is perhaps more interesting.

And I think we should be horrified by the rape of Nanjing scenes, but that was all very reality based in terms of what the Japanese actually did.

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I agree with the notion that in places it was far too fast paced- just as one big example

the idea of the school bully growing up, realising his issues, and forging a friendship with the heroine is interesting, but it happened so fast that he'd barely been introduced as a friend before he died, and I just didn't buy her grief over it

, and most of the elements, even the twist at the end, have been done before (Daniel Abraham and Anna Smith-Spark have both done similar arcs recently), but overall I enjoyed it a lot. It's engagingly written and horrifying when it needs to be and generally an interesting start and I'm looking forward to see where this goes.

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Having thought about it a bit, there is a difference between this and the other two books - though the end result is similar, this is about the dangers of radicalisation much more than those two where those in question were assholes from the start.


 

8 hours ago, C.T. Phipps said:

The ending is very controversial in the book groups I belong to.



In what way?

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Generally, a lot of readers were so invested in the protagonist that they were genuinely caught off guard by such a bleak and nihilistic ending. One reader described it as, "the way Anakin Skywalker should have been written." Ironically, the protagonist still had a lot of defenders for her action as extreme as it was--particularly from ex-military.

 

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I was fine with what Rin did at the end.

Spoiler

 

The way the Mugen were described, with the erasure of self, total devotion to the Emperor, and full commitment to the war, it didn't sound like there were any innocents there. They were all enemy combatants and therefore all legitimate targets. If it were just characters' descriptions of the Mugen, that would be one thing, but the omnipresent narrator voice that sometimes popped up also did so.

If future books cover the price Rin must pay for unleashing that power, that's cool, I'd like that story. But if they cover her feeling guilty about the Mugen or being attacked over it, that's completely at odds with how they are described throughout the book.

 

 

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I think that anytime we describe a human group as totally evil and worth genociding, we're going to run into the idea the protagonist is very very wrong.

Or the writer.

 

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Spoiler

 

Well, I think it depends on how you define "human group" because what Mugen is described as is not like any large-scale human society that has existed on Earth. They are more like a fantasy race like Tolkien Orcs/Jordan Trollocs/40K Daemons/etc. that are definitionally evil.

You could argue that's unrealistic and I agree, and maybe some of it is also Kaung still finding her feet as an author, but that's how the Mugen are written. They 100% universally are genocidal monsters. And, more than that, the way they are described as marching and fighting in unison makes them seem more like a hive race than individual people at all. Of course, the general at Sinegard, the envoy at Khurdalian, and the scientist at the coastal base are all individual characters, so I don't think that's literally the case. But all three of them are truly awful as well.

 

 

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I think you've badly misread the intent of the book to be honest Fez.

Firstly, the Mugen you see moving as you describe are soldiers (and tbh I think you're reading too much into it, I didn't get any kind of hive mind vibe? Just extremely drilled and desensitized soldiers). We see nothing of their home island, and even Rin acknowledges that she certainly killed innocents- something that wouldn't be the case if the Mugen were known as a mindless non-human automaton race. But the reputation you see of them is basically boogeymanning by those terrified of them.
And then she does justify it via what you're saying, oh well if that's their army they must all be inhuman monsters- and someone else responds that that's how they thought of the Speerly. Which I think is the entire point here; they were terrified of Speer and did what they did and that led to Rin becoming radicalised and doing what she did. Atrocity begets atrocity.

There's also the fact that the Mugen are very obviously based on the Japanese with their atrocities based on Japan's Sino-Japanese/WW2 atrocities and yet though the Japanese did those things I'm assuming you're not actually arguing that the Japanese are or ever were entirely composed of genocidal maniacs who all deserve to die.

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Spoiler

 

No, of course I wouldn't argue that about the Japanese in WWII. I agree that the Mugen are obviously based on them, but I think they are turned up to 11, not just in how others see them but how they actually are. And I agree that they aren't actually a hive mind, but I do think the descriptions of them sometimes veer closer than just a description of a well-trained army.

But I think the entirety of the nation is described as being complicit and supportive of the war. The main passage I think of from page 228 of the hardcover, which is not written from Rin's POV (it's part of a bit over a page that isn't):

On the seventh day, the Federation of Mugen declared war on the Empire of Nikan. Across the longbow island, women wept tears of joy and purchased likenesses of Emperor Ryohai to hang in their homes, men enlisted to serve in the reserve forces, and children ran in the streets screaming with the celebratory bloodlust of a nation at war.

That passage stuck with me, since it is the only description of the Mugen home front I remember reading in the book. To me, that reads like a nation united in support of the war, and, considering how the war was conducted in all cases, leads me to the belief that the Mugen are objectively Always Chaotic Evil. And therefore, to me, the big philosophical question at the end of the book is not "How do we end a cycle of atrocities and violence?" instead it is "What price are we willing to pay to defeat evil? Can the price be too high? If so, what then?"

The main debate between Rin and Jiang wasn't about whether Mugen were evil, it was about whether unleashing the gods would be an even worse fate.

 

 

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