The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Grab a coffee, grab a snack, this is going to be a long one…
Organized by the story, descriptions, and characters.
And some photo/video footage of a garden experience that I was reminded of while reading the book.
Addressed deeper perspective and problems associated with combat/war, specific ones at that, in a thoughtful way as an overarching theme built within a fantasy genre, namely a school of magic, which interestingly enough was likely not completely separate from certain cultural aspects that were being portrayed. I loved that this story was unique to me in this sense and wasn’t just an academic info dump, nor too fantastical to ignore historical realities.
The beginning of the story set the geographical and political scene clearly which was great since there were so many places, tribes, characters, and character roles to keep track of. Unfortunately there were many more to come and they became less integrated into the climax and ending. Perhaps they will all come back later in the series.
It’s a serious book with serious subtopics of historical significance. Initially I wasn’t sure about using such dark events in this one. It crossed the line of to inform vs entertain by merging nonfiction with high-fantasy realm, yet made a point of either coping/escapism as a result, depiction of other social/cultural traditions, or perhaps to bring a younger reader into such subject matter through genre appeal, of which I had to really think about. In context. I didn’t know enough of the history coming into it to probably fully appreciate it nor am I into fantasy enough to fully embrace these types of tropes.
Sometimes it was more difficult to take such seriousness with the parts of juvenile insults, occasional comedic tone, and the jarring overuse of more modern-day swearing, but maybe I am just not the main target demographic for this book.
The second half focused more on real time war details, employing previously learned war training tactics, which were interesting from a martial arts perspective and I appreciated the action. The exuberant amount of power struggles with “just in time rescuing” droned on a bit and became too repetitive for my taste.
I really liked the side stories that took time to explain the backstory, the puppet show, the parade. Very well done, I like to see clever, yet subtle integrations like this.
There was a lot to unpack in the this book. Drug users, drug dealers, supply and demand with war trauma and tactics over the use of it, military school and martial arts, sterilization procedures, losing yourself in war, role confusion, love, loyalty to the party, loyalty to the system, loyalty to roots, culture, yourself. Being called to action at a moment’s notice, feeling ill-prepared, violence, savagery, greed, all of it, changing you as a person. However it was hard to see that change in the characters. It was something I expected. I wanted to see growth, regression, change, anything.
I liked the author’s uncomplicated descriptions. And I liked how she transitioned the turning of events, especially those involving combat. She had a knack for scene changes and carrying action scenes forward.
Navigating through a world of fragmented social discord, postwar oppression, and everywhere rumors and indoctrination. I would have liked the characters to have been a little more connected with their own emotions and displayed in various ways, adding value to their actions, their rationales, and ultimately show enough self-awareness to understand others. To empathize, see beyond, the big picture, the future, the outcome as well as the nuances and details to give them purpose, something worth fighting for whether it was an internal or external motivator. Even if it was a mechanical force. Anything to shape their journey and pave the way for a more dynamic ending or to add dimension to their existence in a more personal way.
I had major issues with the characters, particularly the main one. I would have liked to have seen more character consistency. Her inconsistent characterization disrupted to the flow.
I liked how the author set the tone for the main character. Depicting attributes such as strength, stubbornness, yet also not without feeling, her plunging into despair, feeling alone, like a foreigner. Building her up as a survivor with capacity yet unknown to the character and as a reader.
However, I had a hard time understanding her. She was inconsistent, wavering, wishy-washy. She was unearthed yet defaulted to unmotivated and lacking charisma. I never found what made the main protagonist happy. Never found what made her tick. It was frustrating. Characters living (or dying) through this type of subject matter are really important for me. This character, however, ruined it for me.
There were questions of source and determination, whether training versus heritage, but nothing innate about her in either case was convincing.
She had a lot of character flaws, sure, ones that make her unlikeable to readers of her story and less favorable among her instructors and peers in the story. She was stubborn, struggling her way through life, navigating at will. Her personality, an off-putting, know-it-all novice that stemmed from humble, yet forgotten roots, not very self-aware.
It just didn’t make sense how she studied and trained so much but misunderstood the very foundation, origin, and fundamentals, leading the narration to be more of a telling as Rin went along than solidarity in showing of character. Overall it was a bit of a disconnect, making it difficult for me to get into her head. She was supposed to be gifted but wasn’t consistently depicted as either book or street smart so I wasn’t sure who she was supposed to be or who she was supposed to become in the process. Then the end came and I felt like I knew nothing about her as a person.
She embraced certain concepts but then had total disregard for others, trained by an absolute scholar yet had little respect for the art. She vacillated between working hard and having natural abilities, but by the end I wasn’t sure which given or earned characteristics she held or whether it was a brain, heart, or courage she was supposed to be seeking out. As the book went on, her character identity became increasingly difficult to pinpoint.
A risk-taking, insecure female protagonist, who sought out a path in life that she later found out was perhaps built on belonging, the accolades, general curiosity, determination, impulsiveness, and a hunger for technique still without the actual discipline, which to me, not completely knowing undermined everything that built her up to be.
She was impatient, overly complex, difficult, manipulative, and had this antagonistic personality you just want to hate, yet have hope for when you realize you still have half a book to read. So you keep reading. But time and time again, she was dismissive of people who’ve helped her, naive and green, yet headstrong without clear direction or purpose. She became an unloveable underdog with unreliability in both narration and deepest depiction of character. She was all confusion and incredibly contradictory.
And ugh, a phrase so overused in writing “Rin let out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding.”
And then we have Nezha, who was just snide, expectant of better luxuries, then slated as having snobby pretentiousness smoothed out by the war just a few paragraphs later, only to flip-flop as well, picking up pretentiousness again, and again it was confusing to not know if there would be any turning point or self-recognition, life decision, some introspection or event that would be a guide to character enrichment and ultimately frame the plot, making it not only a great story, but a solid, resourceful, and believable one.
And then there’s Atlan. I’ll stop my thoughts on other characters here though.
All in all I was ready for this book to be over. Yet in its uniqueness I also appreciated it for what it was.
My biggest issue was with the main character who was the deal-breaker. Heartless and less justifiably so, especially for a plot that was built upon actual crimes against humanity. Perhaps it was just not the style I wanted to feed my mind with, with such wavering characters. I do recognize that I’m more of a nonfiction reader when it comes to stories like this. Maybe first person narration would have helped me embody more of what she embodied in seeking clear insight into her value as the main character. I don’t know.
I haven’t decided if or when I will be reading the next in series, but I’ll be curious to pick up more from this author outside of this particular story because the other writing aspects are ones I would like to look forward to.
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