Welcome to Just Another Struggling Writer’s very first book review! I have no idea what I’m doing, so lets just get right into it.
First of all…
So, I’m just gonna get it out of the way first: a book this dark isn’t to my taste.
I probably should have done my research before cracking this puppy open. If I had, then I would have learned that The Poppy War is a fantasy retelling of real world events, particularly those of the Second Sino-Japanese War. If I had more than a passing knowledge of that horrific period of Chinese history, I might never have read this novel. But I didn’t, on both accounts, and so I turned each page, particularly after the start of Part II, with increasing horror. By the end, I was glad it was over.
Don’t get me wrong, though. The Poppy War is really, really good. Despite my discomfort with the naked depictions of war time atrocities, it is to R. F. Kuang’s credit that she did not soften history for her readers. The fact that I was ignorant to what I was getting into is proof enough that a novel like this is critical for Western audiences.
There were moments when the grit was fascinating rather than stomach-churning. A moment that particularly stuck with me was when our young heroine, Rin, gets her period for the first time and immediately decides to have her uterus chemically destroyed because it is getting in the way of her military training. Her choice wasn’t shocking to me, it felt absolutely appropriate. That Kuang didn’t shy away from answering this question was both impressive and memorable.
Also, though I don’t have particular interest in these types of stories myself, I thought Rin’s journey from abused shop girl, escaping a forced marriage, to a hardened anti-hero who willfully commits genocide not only believable, but inevitable.
Putting my writer’s hat on, I was left a little disappointed in a few areas. Some of the relationships between the characters didn’t feel earned. I never found myself particularly compelled by Altan and that left so much of the second half feeling like a slog, especially when the war took a turn for the worse. The role of the Gatekeeper, both as part of the pantheon, and his place in the physical realm, I don’t feel was clearly defined and left a gap in my understanding of the narrative. Nezha’s apparent death was also a blow, not just because I was becoming attached to him as a character, but because I thought we were about to get an interesting arc about him having shamanistic abilities with fast healing. I also wish more attention had been paid to the political side of it: why the flying fuck would the Empress betray her people?
Perhaps these threads are picked up in the sequel, The Dragon Republic, rendering my complaints moot, but it might be some time before I feel emotionally equipped to embark on that journey. I finished The Poppy War shortly after midnight last night, and despite the late hour, I immediately had to get up and go hug my kids in their beds. It’s not something I’ll forget soon, and though that is to the book’s credit, I just don’t have the stomach for it.
The Poppy War is good, absolutely, but it was not for me.
Phew. That took a lot out of me. Three hours into drafting this blog post I realized I haven’t the faintest idea how to review things. Which meant that I just word vomited a bit.
In any case, I’ve got to get back to my own writing woes (I’ve decided to write the second half of draft two as if I’ve already made the revisions to the first half because I realllllly don’t want to start all over). I’ll tell you all about it next week. Until then, my your writing be plenty and your struggles be few!
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