A Confusing Time
Title: The Poppy War
Author: R. F. Kuang
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Setting: Nikara Empire
Difficulty: Medium Pages: 527
Series: Yes. This is the first book of the Poppy War Series (3 books).
Always spoiler free. Trigger warning for violence, sexual violence and war/death.
Look, I had thoughts about this book. I’m still not sure about the best way to put my thoughts down in writing, but I’m giving it a go!
The thing about Grimdark novels is that they are, well dark. It goes beyond the normal level of violence in a fantasy book that involves some battles. Think more like Game of Thrones level of violence, for a more relevant pop culture reference. The second thing is that there aren’t heroes in these novels. They feature people and protagonists almost exclusively making grey decisions, or frankly evil choices, but there’s not really a right or wrong framework in the novels (or there is, based on the readers own moral compass, but the characters don’t give a damn about that). It makes reading these books maybe more realistic but certainly more difficult.
This leads on nicely to my next point, which was the amount of times I got mad at Rin for making frankly poor or wrong choices throughout the book. I was, at all times, hoping for her to make the right choice. The better moral choice. She, of course, doesn’t. It’s Grimdark, of course she doesn’t.
The actual level of violence in the book wasn’t shocking to me. I didn’t find it over the top or upsetting, although plenty of others may. However, there is a part in the book where Rin comes across a decimated city. In short, almost all occupants have been horrifically killed. Within it this section (I think) a survivor tells Rin about her experiences about being held as a sex slave by her captors. The details are visceral. Much more, I think, then the actual violence described in the book. It is possibly the hardest section in the book to get through. I’m all for realism, but sometimes you do question if something absolutely needs to be included in a book.
The book lead me to a moral quandary. The book establishes that the invaders, the Federation of Mugen, are soulless enemies – the descriptions are very clear on this – and they proceed to do a series of horrific things during their invasion. Kuang is clear that she drew inspiration for the book from aspects of Chinese history, including the Sino-Japanese War (also others like the Opium Wars). In doing so, within the book, it feels like she’s very much equating the Federation of Mugen to Japan.
I found having that knowledge difficult. History is difficult; the history between China and Japan is difficult, and I only know a tiny, tiny amount about this period in history. Would I have had this same issue (an enemy being described only badly), if this a completely fictional enemy? The answer is clearly no, which gives me personally a lot to think about (history is written by the victors and all that). Obviously, being neither Japanese nor Chinese my thoughts on this specific aspect of the book doesn’t really have a place in any discourse. But I feel like I had to include it in this blog post, because it’s the overwhelming thought that I had to contend with after reading the book. You may have similar or completely different feelings about it.
The most moral character in the book is Chen Kitay, who at least calls Rin out for her poor choices. For me, he was the only character to give a true counterbalance to the extreme opinions of those around him. I wish there was more counterbalance through the book. Rin can have a very narrow viewpoint, and another character could have widened the readers understanding of the complexities and impact of her decisions in a more nuanced way.
The magic element, the fantasy element, is interesting. Challenging (as everything in this book is!) but interesting. I’ve not read anything similar, although parts of how Shamanism and Rin’s power worked did confuse me. But that might have been because I was reading it in one sitting, late into the night. This element did get a bit of backseat to the personal challenges that Rin faced throughout the book. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.
It’s not an easy book to read. It’s not an easy read, because it’s a Grimdark novel. It’s had heaps of praise, but I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone. I can’t decide what scoring to give this book. It was well written. It was detailed, and the world-building and characterisation of main characters, well, wow. But it was difficult, uncomfortable and confusing and I’m…just not sure? I don’t know if I will finish the series. I can’t even work out how to finish up this review, so I’ll just leave it on a confused note, as that’s pretty much how I feel…three months after reading the damn thing.
Well Red Reviews
Would I recommend this book? Probably not. Only to those who were interested in similar genres.