Rebecca F. Kuang, The Poppy War (2018)

The Poppy War

Author: Rebecca F. Kuang

Title: The Poppy War

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 544

Series: The Poppy War #1

This turned out to be one of the more difficult reviews to write for me. Everybody and their uncle seems awed by Kuang’s debut novel, which reimagined the history of 20th century China into a vengeful fantasy of violence. The Poppy War was one of the rare books bound to become a bestseller, with publishers outbidding each other for the rights to the book. The enthusiasm was not without merit: for the reader from Western sphere of influence, Kuang’s novel presents an undeniably attractive image of China, fueled in equal measures by the elements of Chinese mythos already popularized in Western pop-culture and by the impression of mystery surrounding China as a fabled, distant land. The mythos, and stereotypes, are fairly easy to enumerate: martial arts’ prowess, Chinese zodiac and a large pantheon of demigods and demons, feng shui rooted in a belief of holistic spirituality, snippets of a heroic age long gone, when emperors ruled and Great Wall and Silk Road were built, and a vague concept of a collective social outlook, linked to Confucius. Add to it Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda series and Disney’s Mulan, and maybe some bits and pieces of more contemporary information regarding Chinese communism coupled with the evidence of the irrefutable economic success, and the vision of China in popular culture is more or less complete.

Of course, this image is volatile and nebulous – dependent on political currents as much as on cultural artifacts; to name only two important factors, recent U.S. trade war with China as well as the COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly affected China’s image in the world. But the most stable elements of the China’s image in popular culture create in the collective imagination a vision of a powerful Oriental entity, imbued with secret knowledge: a dangerous force to be reckoned with, a sometime partner, sometime rival of Western states. Corollary to this image is the air of mystic mystery shrouding China’s past and its cultural heritage, building upon the vision of the country as a place out of time, where ancient wisdom is upheld by chosen few. It is an image actively managed by the governing political forces, and why not? After all, all the political states engage in PR and dream of managing their social image. Historical policy is a powerful tool in the constant play of geopolitical interests.

But why am I writing about modern geopolitics in a review of an epic fantasy book? Isn’t it all just make-believe, books about strange fantasy lands that simply have nothing to do with our reality and remain laudable thought experiments at best? Well, the answer is two-fold. Firstly, no fantasy world created by humans is free of our own world’s influence – sometimes more, sometimes less acknowledged, but always present. In case of The Poppy War the debt to the real world is openly recognized, as the author claims she wanted to create a fantastical what-if version of China’s 20th century history, dealing with real events and the resulting social trauma as well as existing modes of remembrance within the boundaries of an imagined reality. A lofty and laudable goal, but one that poses several risks. How do you write about past events in a way that is not gratuitious? How do you structure your narrative around such focal points, so that it remains original and respectful at the same time? Secondly, it seems to me that The Poppy War – consciously or not – subscribes to that vast effort of the creation and maintenance of the aforementioned cultural image of China. A mythical land of make-believe, where the superhuman founders of the Empire still live and shape events, and where wonders and impossibilities coexist with the mundane, in The Poppy War becomes an arena of real events, altered slightly to fit the fantastical world, but not enough to become unrecognizable. On the contrary: the book makes a barely disguised real event its fulcrum. And there’s nothing wrong with that, per se. After all, there are hundreds of books and movies referencing the Celtic and Norse and Greek mythology, not to mention the fabled cultural American imperialism ;). And yet, very few of the cultural works showcasing aspects of Western culture and its roots resort to an outright praise of genocide and racially skewed ethnocentrism – which in my opinion is the case of The Poppy War.

There have been enough reviews indicating the special-snowflakeness of the main protagonist, Rin, who achieves unparalleled success in whatever endeavor she puts her mind to, surpassing with relative ease all her mentors, a half-mythical founding father of the empire among them. Other characters, with the exception of Altan, the story’s designated sacrifice, are predominantly two-dimensional and seem to serve as props in the violent fantasy of retribution. Literary-wise, the writing is average, the efficiency of action sequences shadowed by some very clunky and awkward sections, especially in the department of character development. The plot is your average run-of-the-mill coming of age story, complete with a special school, teenage rivalry, harsh military training, and a mysterious, exacting teacher. It is also rife with tropes, the orphaned Chosen One dominant among them.

As for the worldbuilding, it remains tethered to the history of the 20th century China for the most part, freely reimaging actual events and political actors, mixing modern times with some kind of late Middle Ages – up to the point of the Nanking Massacre. The perpetrators, the imperial Japan dressed up as the evil-to-the-core Mugen Federation, are depicted as a faceless, despicable, unrecognizable mass incapable of anything but betrayal and murder; Kuang, to reinforce this image, liberally employs all major real and imagined facets of evil, from the massacre of civilians, to uniformed anonymity of the foe, to a mad scientist – probably the only Mugen citizen known by name – who conducts forbidden racial experiments on humans in a hidden lab. The nationalistic overtones are clear, and the author goes a long way to emphasize the intentional equivalence of Mugen with the 20th century Japan, and Nikara with China. Consequently, the Mugen are not just The Poppy War’s equivalent of orcs – they are much worse than that, a parasitic creation transplanted on a real, existing nation and inviting the readers to hatred: because among all this carnage, experienced conveniently up close, our protagonist slowly spirals to madness and is consumed by vengeance and its personification, a demonic/demigod entity of Phoenix. And yet, the atrocities perpetrated by her, which culminate in the complete destruction of Mugen’s homeland, i.e. total genocide of its civilian population, are construed as an excusable reaction to the trauma earlier experienced by her. Nanking Massacre was a truly horrible event, an atrocity for which there can be no excuse. The world should learn more about it, so that it stops being a footnote in history books. But using it in a fantasy book as a plot device designed to further the main character’s evolution into a vessel for a demonic/demigod entity and as a rationale for her own acts of genocide seems beyond bad taste.

Yes, one could argue even this is nothing new and that a similar plot device – using the tragedy of genocide as a foundational experience for a superhuman – has been employed before in pop-culture, for example in the story of the Marvel mutant Magneto, who often plays the role of the villain: a ruthless, devout believer in an extreme form of social Darwinism. The difference, however, lies in the fictional world’s response to such leanings – with Magneto as a villain, however sympathetic, the heroes work together to actively oppose his plans, revealing the unending, destructive madness of the vicious cycle of violence and vengeance. In The Poppy War, the protagonist’s atrocities are explained away and seemingly absolved as a result of experienced trauma. Well, this line of reasoning had also been used in real life, as the history of Europe after WWI can teach us.

I don’t intend to turn this review into an academic discussion on the universality vs cultural relativism of human rights, nor am I mounting a defense of political correctness here, though both would be valid topics for a completely different discussion; but however we judge the current status of the generalized social worldview in the Western sphere of influence, one undeniably positive outcome of it is that there aren’t many mainstream contemporary works praising slavery, genocide or racism. And so it remains somewhat of a mystery to me that a book entertaining a vengeful realization of such ideas in the guise of an exotic epic fantasy is met with enthusiastic reception, even garnering a Hugo nomination. I realize The Poppy War is only the first installment in a trilogy, and that the subsequent books may paint an altogether different picture of the events. But after reading The Poppy War I’m no longer interested in the rest. I picked it up expecting a heartfelt, visceral account of trauma and remembrance, and what I got instead was a jumble of real and fictitious events designed to prop up a vengeful fantasy of mindlessly nationalistic violence.

Score: 1/10

60 thoughts on “Rebecca F. Kuang, The Poppy War (2018)

  1. Valid points! I loved this book – and full disclosure here, I’m Chinese and my parents are from Hong Kong. My grandparents fled there because of WWII and the atrocities of the Japanese, and were also severely impacted by the subsequent rise of the communist party, so this book/series was in a way quite personal to my own background. I do appreciate you prefacing your review with a note about perceptions from “a Western sphere of influence” because it helps let readers see where your impressions are coming from. I don’t know what Kuang’s background is exactly, but I suspect a lot of the sentiments and themes in the book reflect a lot of the anger and trauma of the older generations, based on their stories I’ve heard as well as from my own experiences living in Hong Kong and China as a child.

    The history of China in the last 100 years is very complicated though, and it’s important to separate its culture and myths and traditions from its people, and the people from the government. Many Chinese love their country, but they hate the CCP, for example. And sadly, many more aren’t even aware of the atrocities of their own government or in their own history, because they literally don’t know better without access to information and are fed only propaganda. FWIW, I didn’t get the feeling Kuang was out to praise nationalistic violence, but was instead trying to paint a picture the very complicated sentiments of a confused population in a time of enormous political upheaval and change – and the situation was very, very ugly at the time. In a way I think she was also simply trying to write, as you say, in the arena of real events but altered to fit a fantasy world, so not only would it have been impossible, but also inaccurate, if she hadn’t touched upon the rabid nationalism and justification for the bloodthirstiness.

    The next book gives way to the “cultural revolution” part of history, after all, and those were the conditions the movement grew out of. I believe Kuang has even said that Rin’s life is meant to parallel the trajectory of Mao Zedong, so she was definitely writing a villain, and in light of this I am not surprised how portrayal might rub some the wrong way. Needless to say, I had some mixed feeling for the second book, and I’m curious to see how book three will be like.

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    1. Thank you for your response, Mogsy, I’m really grateful to be able to get your perspective on it. I had hoped for discussion and your post is a wonderful counterpoint to my own thoughts on The Poppy War.
      Personal background affects our perception in many ways indeed, and to see how your personal story influenced your reading of the book is a great counterpoint to my own experience. I know that I’m always happy to see the elements of my own culture and folklore incorporated in a popular work of art, be it a book or a movie – to see the things I love and cherish and find important shared with a larger audience is always rewarding for me, even if the authors botch the job somewhat ;). I can see how this would work here, especially that Chinese history is not well known in the West and Kuang’s book is a chance to at least raise the awareness of it a bit.

      Needless to say, I have no detailed knowledge of Chinese history, and though I have studied it a bit, especially the time after WWII, by no means I pretend to be a specialist in the area. I know a few Chinese immigrants and/or New Zealanders with Chinese background, and while politics is not the usual topic of our conversations, I hope I can relate to your perspective here. When talking about one’s country ruled by an authoritarian regime bent on creating a uniform nation-state it’s difficult to sort out the allegiances and emotions, dissecting the entanglement of culture, politics, personal bonds and so on, especially considering the recent events in Hong Kong, for example. I’d love to hear more from you about it, if you’d be interested in sharing your thoughts!

      That said, my take on Kuang’s work is more influenced by my background as a sociologist. Maybe it’s my personal interest in war and war trauma that colors the way I read this book, but the plot structure and the modes of description left me with a deep impression that Kuang condones Rin’s genocidal vengeance as an act of natural inevitability; creating a flawed protagonist in a demanding, harsh environment and arming her with an equivalent of an atomic bomb Kuang then proceeds to absolve her of guilt and treats the destruction of Mugen as a natural consequence of prior events. This is something I cannot agree with. And I felt that the nationalism, deeply racially motivated (Kuang writes several times that Rin’s and Altan’s connection to their god is possible only through their blood and race), was not just an element of the worldbuilding, inspired by the real China’s history, but something unquestioningly accepted by the author as well.

      Rin as Mao Zedong makes a lot of sense, thanks for the tip 😉 A villain in my view, definitely, but still I’m quite certain that if I read such book about Stalin, for example, my reaction would be the same.

      I’ll be looking forward to reading your review of the third installment!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No problem, I love discussions and I can definitely provide some insights on the Hong Kong situation! It’s complicated indeed, and very sad what’s been happening to HK. As you say, it’s difficult to tease out the tangle of emotions, culture, and politics at play here.

        Using my family as an example, we definitely have no love for the communist party, but what I find interesting is the differing responses from each generation. I’m mostly angry, watching how the Chinese government has tried to silence the people’s voices and destroy the spirit of HK. I know my mother feels the same way, but there is a lot of sadness for her too, I think. I moved away from HK when I was very young and I doubt I would ever return, but my mom grew up there and in her heart it will always be her home. It was heartbreaking to watch her shake her head at the police brutality, corruption and violence at the protests on the news, saying things like, “This is not the police force I remember.”

        That said, the greatest irony is my grandmother, who should have every reason in the world to resent the Chinese government and the CCP because of what she went through, is probably the most ambivalent about the whole thing, claiming the protesters are just “causing trouble” and that the politicians (the Chinese government installed puppets) “know what they’re doing”. Part of it is the media, though. She’s part of the generation who still thinks you can believe 100% everything you see on TV, not realizing many of the local networks have been taken over by China and their propaganda arm. They definitely have own problems with “fake news” over there 😛

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        1. We’re following the HK situation closely here and we see all the things your mentioned. I also see people who seem afraid to speak their mind on the matter, either in fear of retribution toward their families which remained in China or because they don’t want to speak badly about what they still see as their homeland – or they just don’t want to talk about politics, period. I think many people, especially those who had not visited their old country for a while, want to believe that their homeland is a better place – they have memories of good times and they lost track of what is actually happening in their old country. This happened to a few people I know, but a visit to their homeland in most cases cured them of any lingering doubts 😉
          HK is a hot topic, especially now that many democratic politicians have been arrested in recent days under the cover of pandemic. But the democratic movement there seems to hold, though indeed, “fake news” seem to be a problem everywhere.

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          1. Oh definitely, my parents have a few friends here in the US that are in this “denial” mindset you mention, where I think they choose to remain ignorant about the situation, or like you said, they just refuse to speak of it. And yep, if I had any close relatives in mainland China, I think I would be a little more hesitant to speak out! More because I wouldn’t want to bring any trouble down on them. The Chinese government monitors the news and communications very closely. I even tell some of my family, who have taken part in the protests in HK and organized demonstrations here that they should be careful if they ever travel back to China, lol.

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          2. I see this sentiment here as well. I think it is valid, especially, as you say, when someone has family in mainland China, because of the trouble it may cause them. It’s like a near-perfect perfect censorship: you really have to have nothing to lose to be able to speak freely – otherwise, you act as your own censor. I really admire the people in HK who are willing to take the risk to speak openly, oppose the increasingly authoritarian regime and show their belief in democracy.

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  2. Great review, thanks. I think the cover kinda gives away the writing is mediocre, as does the title – yet another mass market product, they signal to me. But what sealed the deal to never pick this up – aside from your review itself – was this part: “as the author claims she wanted to create a fantastical what-if version of China’s 20th century history, dealing with real events and the resulting social trauma as well as existing modes of remembrance within the boundaries of an imagined reality”. I can’t stand such form of authorial hubris anymore these days, as if you could even do such a thing: a full century, a full continent, reduced to a few hundred pages in a fantasy world. A fantasy indeed.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you! 😀

      Hubris is such an apt word here, Bart! I think it’s natural, in a way – all of us are most self-assured and convinced of our own unparalleled wisdom when we’re in our twenties, especially if we’d just landed a big publishing contract for our first novel and we think we’ve learned the secrets of the world. Nothing could be further from reality, usually – while scientists in mathematics and physics tend to reach their intellectual peaks in their twenties, social scientists most often get there around their fifties, if I remember correctly – it’s a matter of amassing knowledge and learning to make use of it. But to most young adults Socrates seems like a doddering old fool. Wisdom and humility usually come with age, and only to those who are willing to learn 😉

      That said, it’s the first time I had seen an author rate her own book on Goodreads and give it five stars 😉

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      1. Do you have a source for that age claim? It kinda feels right intuitively, but it also seems amassing knowledge etc has benefits in maths etc too?

        On that last detail: maybe I used to think it’s okay to do that, having self-confidence and all, but nowadays I find it extremely off putting.

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        1. There was a famous study a few years back, the gist of it you can find here: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/when-does-intelligence-peak/
          “In one large series of studies, Joshua Hartshorne and Laura Germine presented evidence from 48, 537 people from standardized IQ and memory tests. The results revealed that processing speed and short-term memory for family pictures and stories peak and begin to decline around high school graduation; some visual-spatial and abstract reasoning abilities plateau in early adulthood, beginning to decline in the 30s; and still other cognitive functions such as vocabulary and general information do not peak until people reach their 40s or later.”
          It was also discussed earlier, I remember there was a study about scientists who had a breakthrough in various disciplines – and their respective ages differed according to the science type they were working on. It was the paper mentioned in the article, I believe – Simonton’s “Creative Productivity”.

          Same here.

          BTW, I read Anathem based on your recommendation, and loved it! So, thank you! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Thanks, interesting! Great that you loved Anathem! Do review it and spread the love! Maybe the first book I’ll reread after I finish the Dune series again… Not for this year I guess, but I look forward to it either way.

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          2. I will! 😀 I need to prepare for this review, though, let the book settle a bit in my mind, but expect the review sometime in the coming months 😀

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          1. It is something I expect from indie authors, and so I give them more slack in that regards, but if an author being published by a main stream publisher does it, that is an almost automatic “I’m not reading their stuff” from me.

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  3. You’ve set me thinking, Ola, on so many issues.

    I didn’t read your take on this as ‘political correctness’, which I’ve heard being used as an accusation, by someone attacking in order to defend their point-of-view against examination.
    Atrocities should be remembered, and understood, and to present them in fiction is a fine balancing act.
    Mogsy’s response provides an interesting counter review.
    I’m not usually keen on trilogies, but I’m intrigued now.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed my review, Cath, and the discussion 🙂
      It’s a very delicate topic, I think – we all have certain preconceptions, and our personal experiences color the way we read works of fiction. To some my point of view would be going too far, ascribing moral stance to what was supposed to be an entertainment, first and foremost – but I believe everything we do and don’t has a moral/ethical dimension, and this book made me examine my approach to themes such as understanding versus excusing immoral acts.
      If you ever read The Poppy War, I’d love to know your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve added it to my wish list – though it may be a while until I start tracking any of those down. I’m not sure fiction should be kept separate from moral and ethical. My theory is that fiction is so powerful we should always be willing to investigate it.

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        1. We fully agree, then – I think that as sentient beings we imbue everything around us with sense and we actually should look at things from the ethical perspective, which is an indelible part of social life and the concept of humanity as such.

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  4. I haven’t read this book yet, but I have it on my shelves, and sooner or later I would read it. But I enjoyed reading your review, it was an interesting analysis and it certainly gives food for thoughts, so thank you!

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    1. Your response cracked me up 😉
      There is an element in all this that could be ascribed to the current Chinese regime, possibly – at least in how it is affecting my own perspective – but mostly I think it’s a problem of a very young person approaching a difficult subject without enough knowledge or understanding, but with hubris in spades 😉

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      1. In other words, the perfect candidate to think that the communist regime is good. People with the mindset of Kuang will destroy America and any other democratic country they infect with their presence.

        I’m sorry. I’m just really angry. People continue to treat China and communism as some sort of low breeze while in reality it is a freaking Force 10 Hurricane. And you want to talk about nationalism? I get flack for being patriotic for my country, but my goodness, China is xenophobic! But do the warriors of Rightthink and Truthspeak go after them?

        And I’m pissed off that the notifications aren’t working….

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m sorry they’re not working for you! I seem to get some of them, but not all – very weird! I hope it’s not some remote censorship at work… 😛

          I’m quite alarmed by the current geopolitical situation globally, because I see that many of the key players become more xenophobic and mindlessly, racially nationalistic – in China it is especially evident with their horrible treatment of Uighurs, but by no means are they the only ones. What worries me is the lack of unity among democratic countries – I feel that if we don’t realize that we really live in the best of the imperfect worlds, and that democracy is a system that is not given, but must be actively upheld in order to work, we may wake up one day and find ourselves in a truly dire situation. Poland remained for a long time under control of a totally undemocratic system, and yet seems once again to be sliding toward something similar. It’s incomprehensible, and pretty scary.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I’ve been kicking up a crapstorm over on the wordpress forums and someone has finally acknowledged there is a problem. It is so intermittent though, it is weird.

            I share your concerns. Democracy is hard work and sadly, that just isn’t worth it to too many people…

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  5. Thank you for a very deep insight into this novel: as I often say, a differing opinion is the best lens through which we can look at any given story from another angle.
    While it’s true that Rin’s actions are ultimately no better than those of the villains in the story, I did not feel that the author condoned or justified those actions: I think that they stem from the accumulated resentment for the lack of agency plaguing Rin for most of her life, a seething rage lit like a fire by the massacre operated by the Mugen. The retribution is no better than the evil that set it in motion, and to me it only signifies that the character might be set on a path from which there is no redemption, confirming her own tragic destiny. Only the following books will be able to clarify this, I hope…

    Thanks for sharing!!! 🙂

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    1. I remember reading your review, Maddalena – and indeed, the perspectives couldn’t have been more different 🙂
      I totally understand your point of view and can see how Rin’s actions could be viewed this way. My take however is exactly opposite: I felt Kuang justified and condoned Rin’s actions as an inevitable consequence of her whole previous life; she even absolved her from guilt by taking the agency away from her in the moment of destruction and turning her into a mindless conduit for Phoenix. I don’t mind reading about villains; I do mind seeing villains’ actions justified or excused.

      I’ll be looking forward to reading your review of the second book!
      Thanks for reading!!! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Now I’m even more eager to get to that second book and see how the author will move forward with Rin’s journey. As for Phoenix taking over, I see it as a… continuation of Rin’s lack of agency from Day One: IMHO she’s always been at the mercy of events, or destiny or whatever we want to call it and her conviction of having any kind of choice merely a delusion. This is neither justification or excuse from my point of view, but rather a different way for Rin to be a victim while she believes she’s taken her destiny in her own hands. On the other hand, if she’s fated to be revealed as a willing villain, this might be the first, major step toward that future…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. But that’s exactly what infuriates me 🙂 I feel like she’s being absolved of whatever guilt or responsibility she could have because she’s just a tool. I know I’m bringing in the big guns, but I can’t help but notice that it reminds me of Eichmann’s line of defense. Also, the other characters behave toward her as if what she did was just a necessity, nothing more. If they seem anxious, or uneasy, it mostly seems to be the result of their changed perception of Rin as their old friend transformed into an entity capable of wholesale destruction. That was a great moment for the author to show her own attitude toward the depicted events, and I felt she just condoned Rin’s actions.
          I’m really curious of your reaction to the second installment! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

          1. And I hope that the second book will address these questions and make those optics clearer.
            Rin being the conduit for Phoenix’s destructive force does not absolve her of guilt: she allows that force to go through her for retaliation purposes, while in truth (if memory assists me – it’s been a while) she’s merely the tool of something she barely comprehends. IMHO we need some more information before the picture is complete… 🙂

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  6. Great review. It was a very interesting read. I have never picked up this series but I know how popular this book is everywhere. Your commentary on how the book uses the Nanking Massacre was particularly eye-opening for me, and I agree with you that, like Holocaust, it should never be side-lined as a background event to further the protagonist’s development.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Diana!
      I must admit this book infuriated as no other me for its treatment of the Nanking Massacre and how it depicted its protagonist as an excusable villain of necessity, justifying her actions through many various plot devices so that we as readers would still, in the end, agree with the logic of the novel and see her actions as inevitable. I felt the inclusion of Nanking Massacre, and its description, was completely gratuitious. Honestly, I don’t remember seeing anything even remotely similar regarding other war atrocities; I think the reaction of the Western world to the similar use of a better known massacre would be different.
      It’s a fascinating topic, the various convictions and preconceptions and assumptions we all have, and how it affects our interpretation of the world.

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  7. Your review and Mogsy’s comment makes me so curious about this book. I like discussions like this and wish I’d read the book to fully understand what’s being referred to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m always happy when reviews lead to discussions and reveal different perspectives and points of view – it’s what’s blogging is about, after all! 😀
      If you read it, I’d love to read your take on The Poppy War one day 🙂

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    1. It was the worst book I’ve read in the last year or more. The prose was middling, not terrible but not great either, but what ultimately ruined it for me was the way I felt the author condoned both mindless, viciously xenophobic nationalism pervading the book, and the correlating genocide which was supposed to be a climax of the whole plot. Ugh.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. And thanks to your reviews of those, I am not coming anywhere near them, even with a stick 😅
          It’s the only positive in all this, that my experience can serve as a good advice to others – and vice versa!

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  8. I had a lot of fun reading through your review, Ola. It gave off so much intellectual stimulation that I didn’t see coming. When I read it, I accepted the Chinese history and mythos painted by R.F. Kuang, sort of out of a desire to enjoy its culturally-epic nature that I have learned and indulged throughout my own childhood through countless other forms of entertainment (especially movies). I definitely didn’t look at it from a standpoint that would parallel the world the author tried to recreate and the one we’re currently living in, in hopes to see what the author’s ulterior motives could’ve been in trying to portray the character’s rise (literally from 0 to 100). The historical events on which the story is based on was also left in the background for me, without meaning to see if it was used in the purpose of moving the plot forward, to dwell on the trauma and have characters face these events, or if there was anything done originally and not gratuitously. I definitely appreciate how you explain how your reading experience was affected throughout this one. Goes to show what we naturally focus on as we read SFF. Again, fantastic review! Thanks for sharing it with us. 😀

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    1. Thanks for reading, Lashaan! 😊

      This was a pretty rough experience for me; I know most common approach to reading SFF is through the lens of entertainment and my own perspective might in this context stick out like a sore thumb 😉 That said, for me every book is a window to the author’s worldview, and every book is created for a slew of reasons; usually the financial one is only one among many. For me, a book more often than not reveals an inherently philosophical foundation on which its author builds their view on life and humanity – whether the author is aware of its incorporation in the book or not. This is more notable in SF than fantasy, because the authors need to create a view of humanity’s future and usually cannot, or will not, base their world on the humanity’s past. In fantasy, one has the convenience of a multitude of social forms and choices to be inspired by 😉
      And yet, even in fantasy that philosophical basis can be seen: in small elements – a secondary character’s comment, a certain confluence of events, plot resolution, or big – like the general image of the world created and the protagonists’ views and choices.

      And so, I read The Poppy War as a justification of completely immoral acts; and an insidious one, to boot, where we as readers are encouraged to root for a character that is depicted as victim of circumstance and yet perpetrates the most despicable atrocities.

      Yeah, I still feel strongly about this one, as you can see 😂

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      1. I definitely agree with you there. It’s important to try and see where the author’s ideas come from and through what lenses he develops his characters and his story. Sort of like when there’s a subtle promotion of rape, juvenile pornography, etc. When the intention isn’t right, the reader should react and take a stance.

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        1. Exactly. Of course, each reader has a different range of sensibilities, but I guess that’s what blogging’s about, among other things – to find like-minded people with whom we may discuss our experiences and reading choices 😀

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    1. Most decidedly not, moreover, after this book I’d say our own nationalists still have a lot to learn. Though I’m the first to admit that as one born and raised in Poland I have probably more sensitivity – due to historic reasons, but also some more contemporary necessity, unfortunately – than most to covert, insidious, utterly foul xenophobic nationalism 😜

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  9. This is a brilliant review- I haven’t read the book, but I can completely understand your reaction to it. I didn’t know it was based on real events- and though I’m still curious to check it out for myself- I’m kind of horrified to hear that it includes a fantasised version of Nanking. I agree- that seems in really poor taste (though I personally I’m not sure I’d say there’s no way this would’ve been done with western history- cos I’ve seen this done with fictional versions of the Holocaust and often find that in poor taste too). I do think it’s a problem that so few people know about Nanking, so it might go over people’s heads. I guess I still have to read the book to fully form my opinion on this- but thank you for the heads up. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! 😊
      I was wondering if you had read this – couldn’t remember if I saw a review on you blog. Now I have the answer 🙂
      I’d be very interested in reading your thoughts on it, especially knowing your views on similar issues. I must admit I was quite shocked by the amount of covert xenophobic nationalism present in The Poppy War, but also surprised that I seemed the only one to either notice or care. People seem to enjoy this book in general and I expected a regular, maybe a bit grimdark, fantasy, and was totally taken by surprise and dismayed by its contents.

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      1. Hehehe! Yeah I’ve not read it, but I’ve seen it around a lot.
        Yeah I’m really shocked to hear that! I’ve heard a few people mention the violence (some even praising it for being realistic… Which I find a little off now that I know it’s referencing Nanking). Yeah from reviews I was expecting grimdark- this is not what I thought it was. I checked on my Kindle and I do have a copy (otherwise I don’t think I would try this anymore cos it seems like it might be a bit too disturbing and the subject matter, just, yeesh) but I’m definitely not going to pick it up any time soon (wayyy too heavy for lockdown reading and wouldn’t want to spend my time hate reading something right now lol)- so I’m grateful for the heads up on that!

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  10. Rine

    I recently read this and I’m going through a period of trying to read as many reviews abut this book as possible to fully make my mind up. I loved the first half of this book. I enjoyed having that different fantasy taking from Asian lore and I wanted things to continue more along that line. However, when we started getting into the second half this book just turned into something that caused my opinion to sour. I had watched an interview with the author and she spoke about how she wanted to focus on the horrors of war but how it affected people. I found that this didn’t really deliver this. There was a lack of perspective from how war affects civilians and how it affected people directly involved in war. I found it quite disappointing that we have people the character is connected with that were involved in prior wars and they don’t seem to have had any internal or external traumatic consequences. I plan on picking up the sequel to see if this is something that is hopefully explored more but I really appreciate you putting together your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Rine!
      I completely agree; whatever the author’s intentions were, this book did not deal with war trauma and its effects on civilians and soldiers alike, but only with the author’s image of how said trauma could look like with regards to her vision of plot and character development. I felt that using real-life events as a justification for the main character’s atrocities was inexcusable and tough I enjoyed the first part of the book, the second catapulted my reading experience into the “never again” territory. Truth be told, I felt Rin should be the villain of the story along with the Empress 😉
      I hope your reading experience with the second installment will be better!

      Liked by 1 person

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