I’ve had R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War on my TBR for a long time because the premise sounded interesting, many of the reviews were rave ones, and because the historical elements interested in me. I finally added it to this year’s list after reading Kuang’s Babel last year, and interestingly enough, my overall likes and dislikes about this one echo what I felt about Babel.
I’ll start with the dislikes, or disappointments. Much like Babel, I felt that the pace was sometimes even. Many of the scenes were rapid-fast (perhaps not uncalled for in a fantasy/adventure, which should be a page-turner) to the point of sacrificing characterization. It also became hard to connect with the protagonist because the things that would’ve gotten me on board, like following through her training, were oh-so-briefly described. Years of education and training in martial arts were skipped over in a few passages, to get to the meat of the war which broke out about half-way into the book. Part of me wonders whether this was planned as a single book and thus the attempt to cram everything into it? Even still, I’m left preferring something like Samantha Shannon’s Priory of the Orange Tree, which prioritizes both character and plot, but which, of course, ends up being a thousand pages long. There’s got to be a happy medium somewhere, right?
What Kuang gets right again, though, is her no-holds-barred daring into the realities of Chinese history, specifically the relationship between Japan and China. While this book is fantay, it is steeped in actual historical events, such as those told in books like The Rape of Nanking. Just as the author did in Babel, she here forces the reader to confront atrocities head on. It encourages readers who don’t know much about this history to perhaps go out and learn more, of which I’m a huge fan, and it reminds readers (probably the vast minority of western readers) who have learned about some of this, just how brutal it was. Steeping these events in a fantasy world is surprisingly effective in general, despite the imbalance of prioritizing history and politics to the detriment of the story elements, in my opinion. That said, while I’ve read fantasy reimaginings of historical events in other genres, I’ve often found them ineffective, even potentially damaging to the real historical figures involved (through mythologizing and thereby weakening the figures’ real legacies). I don’t think that happened, here.
I’m all for political writing, as I think pretty much all writing is political. The myth of objectivity often rears its ugly head when talking about fiction, but it’s just that: myth. Still, in Kuang’s case, I think her brilliance and her desire to educate are getting in the way of story, and I hope that’s something she can work out as she continues writing and gifting us with her tales. They’re definitely worth reading, and learning.
Should I read the rest of the trilogy?
The Poppy War is Book 1 completed for my #TBRYear10 challenge.
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I’m approaching the halfway point of Babel and when you suggest “her brilliance and her desire to educate are getting in the way of story” I’m very close to agreeing: I absolutely follow and approve her critique of colonialism, prejudice and worker exploitation but at times it feels as though the impulse to tip this over into an issues-based novel is starting to overcome her.
That said, so far I’ve been with the thrust of the story, and can even accept the colloquialisms and modernisms (“backup” springs to mind) – this is an alternative history after all, for all her documentary research! But I think I might wait a while till I start considering The Poppy War…
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