Author: R. F. Kuang
Length: 544 Pages/ 18 Hrs, 57 Mins (Audio)
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishing
Release Date: May 1, 2018
Genre: Grimdark Fantasy
Narrator: Emily Woo Zellar
While I normally review a lot of small press and indy authored books, I do still review traditionally published books that catch my eye. The Poppy War happened to be one of these, especially considering the praise I had seen heaped on it from people who's opinions I trust. So, I listened to the audiobook and came to my own conclusions, and this review reflects those thoughts.
The story takes place in a country called Nikan, which is an analogy for China. Their neighbor across the narrow sea is Mugan, an analogy for Japan, and the country that is a constant menace to Nikan. This is the setting the book starts in.
Rin, a 14 year old war orphan from the 2nd Poppy War, was adopted by a family of shopkeepers, who happen to be their villages drug dealers. They arrange an advantages marriage for Rin with the local customs inspector, who is three times her age. Rin refuses, saying she will take the national Keju placement test and score to be allowed to go to the prestigious military academy in the city. Against the odds, she succeeds, although she literally tortures herself studying to get ready for the test.
After arriving at the school, she has the typical run ins with the upper class students, since she is considered a dark skinned rural bumkin with manure on her heels. What follows is a fairly typical school sequence, where she makes a friend that is non judgmental, but gets on the bad side of the big man in her class, the heir of one of the empire's 12 province governors. She is exceptionally determined to prove herself, and has a take no prisoners attitude when it comes to her studies. She even manages to work around getting expelled from the martial arts class, finding a mentor in the Lore professor, who comes across as crazy, but is a lot more than he seems. Her first year ends in triumph.
Year three of school is when things change radically, as Nikan is invaded by the expansionist Mugan, who see the people of Nikan as less than human. As the Mugan tear their way across the country, defeating one army after another, the students of the military academy, which is in the capital, are pressed into service. When the more advanced Mugan breech the walls, and overrun the Nikan, it is then that Rin accepts the magic she has hidden from, helping turn the tide.
After the battle, she is transferred to the Sike, which are the Empress's special assassin squad, made up of shamans like herself. They are sent to the coast to defend the usual invasion point for the Mugan. Months they spend there, defending the city at heavy cost, with many setbacks and loss of lives. Rin is so fearful of her power, which is channeling the Phoenix God's power, that she is unable to use it at all. After they capture a prisoner, they learn the city isn't the real invasion target. The true target is the city the government fled to before the capital fell. Rushing their, they find the city is a charnel house, basically being a reimagining of the Rape of Nanking, except this time they killed, tortured and mutilated every last single inhabitant. The described atrocities would make a Nazi prison camp guard retch, it's that dark.
Swearing to do what's necessary to stop the Muganese, Rin's commander decides to take drastic measures to try and stop the enemy . After a stunning betrayal, Rin and Alton, her commander, are captured by the Muganese. When a mistake is made by the guards, Rin finally manages to seize her power, and her destiny, as they attempt to escape. Rin then makes a cataclysmic decision that will have wide ranging effects for a large swath of the world, and Rin is determined to bring the battle to her empire's true enemy, while dealing with the horrible aftereffects of her decisions.
I have very mixed feelings about this book. It has an original plot, which is well told, but it is inconsistent in the way the characters act in so many ways. Rin especially is a frustrating character that just makes no sense in the way she's written. At the start of the book she is written as a young woman who is mentally strong and determined enough to change her fate at any cost. This includes literally hurting herself so she can prepare for the Keju placement test. It should have been impossible for her to pass with only two years prep, but she did it, in the most brutal way possible. While at school, she literally destroys her ability to have children, because it will get in the way of her succeeding at school. She is that determined and mentally strong, and possibly a touch unhinged. She trains like a fiend physically to be able to pass the combat tests, torturing her young body along the way. She initiates the action, she is not reactive.
Then the battle at the coast comes. She becomes doubtful of her abilities and stops taking any initiative. The strong, tough orphan girl becomes a whining ditherer, and it makes no sense why she swerved in that way. She all of a sudden becomes scared to take action, and becomes completely reactive, which is the way she literally spends the rest of the book, with the final decision about the Mugan being the only exception. So very frustrating.
The morality of Rin's fellow soldiers also made no sense. In a few cases, the idea of total war against an enemy that wants to kill every man, woman and child in Nikan is taken in stride, but for the most part, people act way too appalled that Rin and Alton would use any means necessary to stop an enemy that butchered an entire city, used nerve gas weapons to kill large numbers of their troops, and was planning on releasing a plague to kill off the rest of the population! When your enemy comes into your house to kill you and your family, do you stop to debate the ethics of defending yourself with any means necessary? This just seemed to be a very confused ethos in my opinion. While it does deal with issues of race and class, eternal struggles in a large, diverse country, it treads no new ground, since the minority that shows they are as good or better than any of the majority class is nothing new. It's not badly done by any stretch, but its not going to be something people are unfamiliar with.
In the case of the narration, I actually almost didn't listen to this one, because Emily Woo Zellar is probably my least favorite big name narrator. While she can do a wide array of voices, and her narration is decent in pace and structure, when she does a character's inner dialogue, she uses a tremulous 12 year old girls voice that just grates on the ears, because it comes across as whiny and pathetic. not the inner voice I expected for a girl as mentally strong as Rin. This is, of course, a subjective opinion, but there are just better ways to do that, especially with her voice range.
All in all, this is a book that is definitely grimdark by any definition. It is, however, frustrating in ways that will limit rereads, I believe. It's worth a read through, but just be aware Rin may end up frustrating you more than endearing herself to you, and the schizophrenic morality will definitely leave you scratching your head. If I did star ratings, this one would be 3 out of 5 stars.