#REVIEW: THE POPPY WAR, by R.F. Kuang

The-Poppy-WarI will say this about R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, and that will probably be enough to make it clear how much I enjoyed it without the distraction of the rest of this post: I lost quite a bit of sleep over this book.  I read it in a couple of big gulps over a few days, and both nights I was reading it I was up much later than I wanted to be because I couldn’t put the damn book down.  I was even carrying it around with me in the house and reading the occasional chapter or few pages whenever I had a chance to during the day.  A huge percentage of my book-reading is done in bed nowadays, so if I’m setting aside time I could be spending doing something else during my limited free daylight time it’s a really impressive sign.

Early on while reading it I described it to my wife as “Harry Potter, only in sort-of-China, and the main character is Hermione instead of Harry.”  It does start off very much in that vein, almost a YA-ish format, right down to the character’s Big Bully Enemy being identified right away.  That’s only about the first 20-30% of the book, though, at which point the nation goes to war (the school the main character, Rin, attends is a military academy) and all fucking hell breaks loose.  This book lulls you in, see, and makes you think you’re in a comfortable, recognizable sort of narrative only with some East Asian cultural influences thrown in instead of Hogwarts’ staid Britishness and some occasional swearing, but once it goes off the track it goes off the track hard, and once it starts surprising you it never really stops.

Hermione was super-dedicated to her schooling, right?  Did she take medicine to burn out her own uterus so that she wouldn’t have menstruation distracting her from her studies, thus rendering her permanently infertile?  Hermione ain’t shit, then.  And once their country is invaded, genocide becomes a major theme of the book.  I don’t remember anything about genocide in the Harry Potter books.

I’m going to spare you much of a plot summary, because you deserve to see the twists and turns as the story unfolds, but be warned that R.F. Kuang does not hold back.  Once the war starts there are some scenes in this book that would have made Genghis Khan himself think man, they’re going a bit too far with this.  Oh, and drug abuse.  Lots of drug abuse.

Seriously: this is not a book for the faint-hearted, but if you aren’t too bothered by profanity and hyperviolence and drugs in what, again, starts out feeling like a slightly more grown-up version of a kids’ series, you’re going to love it.  This is definitely the first book of a series, at least a duology– and I can’t wait for the next book in the series.


That said.

(Some spoilers after this part, but I think you want to read it anyway.)

I did the thing I usually do when I really like or really hate a book and went to read a bunch of Goodreads reviews once I was finished with it.  I generally start with the bad ones; they’re more fun.  The Poppy War does not have a lot of bad reviews, but one of the one-star reviews described the book as “super-duper racist,” or something along those lines.  I blinked a couple of times at that, utterly unable to figure out what the person was talking about, and looked around some more.

So here’s the thing: this book is set in a fictional China analogue.  And the event that kicks off the last 2/3 of the book is the mainland country being invaded by the natives of the small, “moon-shaped” island not far off the coast.  In other words– and I needed this pointed out to me; I didn’t pick up on it on my own– Japan.

I do not know a lot about Chinese and Japanese history, but I know that historically Japan has not been nice to China.  And this book’s Federation of Mugen has occupied Nikara (pseudo-China) in the past, and … well, they’re not very nice either.  Now, the interesting thing is that over the course of the book Rin develops some rather major shamanic powers, to the point where by the end of the book she basically calls down the literal wrath of God on an entire island full of these people and razes it to the ground.  Now, it’s an island where the Mugen have been doing experiments on people from her ethnic group, so it’s not as if it’s unjustified, but most of her compatriots react with horror at what she’s done, and it’s set up that Rin is becoming just as bad as the Mugen were by forgetting that they’re people.  There is lots of innocent blood shed here, on both sides, and plenty of it by our protagonist.

I simply don’t know enough about the history here to be able to confidently state whether Mugen is a clear Japan analogue– I mean, there are definitely parallels, but it’s not like Kuang (who was born in Guangzhou in mainland China) dwells on racial differences between the Nikara and the Mugen very much, and this is a book where Rin’s dark skin causes a lot of friction at her exclusive military academy, so it’s not like race is something Kuang ignores.  It may be that my own ignorance is keeping me from seeing how bad this is.  So, while I absolutely enjoyed the hell out of the book, and everything I said before the line is still true, it might be that there are things about it that make it problematic that I haven’t fully explored.  Be aware of that, I guess.  I would be interested to know if someone from Japan was bothered by this; I don’t know enough to say.

#REVIEW: Swan Song, by Robert McCammon

71ro-tXRGcLVery early on in Robert McCammon’s terrible book Swan Song the words “information computer” are used to refer to… a computer.  The phrase is used by either the President of the United States or one of his close associates, as it is used during a scene in the Situations Room, which I thought was just called the Situation Room, but maybe things were different in the 1980s.

I was initially inclined to cut him a break.  The book was written in 1987, after all, and that was a while ago. Computers weren’t in super-common usage, right, so a redundant phrase like “information computer” might have been something somebody said, I dunno.

Then somebody gets asked for their “computer number” later on, and it’s just like an ID number or something, and a third computer is described as being used to keep track of dates when people entered and exited a certain building, a task much more suited for a notebook.

I should not have cut him a break, as “computers” would only be the first item entered into a very long list of things that Robert McCammon does not really understand.  And I only made it through a bit more than 300 of this book’s nearly nine hundred and fifty pages of garbage before checking out and putting the book on a shelf, never to be touched again.

The basic premise: World War III starts in the first fifty pages or so, as the Russians and the Americans and who the hell knows who else fires all of their nukes at each other, obliterating basically everything.  The war happens because of Reasons, basically; McCammon starts in media res because what he wants is a book where everybody is dead.

The book is nine hundred and fifty fucking pages long, people, and fully half of that is dedicated to describing what people or things look like.  The rest of it is dedicated to getting basic matters of fact, logic, narrative consistency or physics wrong.  Two brief examples:

EXAMPLE PRIMUS!  The President is a character for the first little part of the book.  I thought he was actually rather interesting, as it’s clear right away that he feels (rightfully!) that he’s in way over his head and has no way how to prevent the terrible catastrophe that’s coming.  That’s neat!  Too bad that a few dozen pages later he’s killed when a flying bus destroys Air Force One, which isn’t called Air Force One even though that’s what the President’s plane has been called since the 1950s.

You may be wondering if you read the phrase “a flying bus destroys Air Force One” correctly.  Yes.  You did.  A nuclear explosion somewhere sends a bus flying so far and so high that it hits and destroys Air Force One, but without the nuclear explosion itself affecting the plane.

EXAMPLE SECUNDUS!  Several characters who survived the initial bombardment of New York City by being underground at the time are attempting to escape Manhattan through the Holland Tunnel.  Radiation, by the way, is something that McCammon will have other characters talk about incessantly but wandering around Manhattan after it has been hit by several nuclear weapons is no problem.  The Holland Tunnel is ankle-deep in water at the entrance.  The characters are able to walk through it to escape.  The water never rises above waist level.

So, two things about that:  1) the tunnel is, well, a tunnel, which goes under a river, which means that if it is ankle deep in water at the entrance the part that is actually under a river is going to be completely fucking submerged.  Also, the tunnel is completely full of burned bodies and smashed cars despite having been basically the safest place imaginable during the bombardment.  It’s clear that McCammon wants us to think the damage is caused by the bombs and not, say, panicking drivers, by the way, so he doesn’t get that out.

Ah, fuck it, let’s do an EXAMPLE TERTIUS! that will explain why I put the book down.  Two of the survivors are a kid who is plainly and obviously a psychopath and his one-handed nutjob Vietnam vet mentor, both of whom escaped from a gun nut survivalist mountain compound that was basically being used as a timeshare for other gun nuts by the Vietnam dude.  Don’t ask.  A pair of people, a man and a woman, are walking toward the Salt Lake in Utah– a useful source of perfectly drinkable and not poisonous at all water, where it is logical that many people would gather after a nuclear apocalypse.

The nutjob and the psycho kid pop out from where they have concealed themselves under dirt trapdoors like fucking human spiders and slit the man’s throat.  It is not clear how long they have been under there waiting.  Many other dirt-people also pop out of their own dirt trapdoor things and begin offering the man and the boy money for the woman.  The woman, who several weeks after a nuclear apocalypse is wearing a number of diamond and pearl necklaces, a thin T-shirt that reads “Rich Bitch,” no bra and, as it will be revealed later, no underwear either, offers herself sexually to the boy to avoid being gangraped.  This is OK because the book helpfully lets us know that the man of the pair used to help her out by being her pimp.  There are loving, detailed descriptions of her nipples.

Also, the nutjob spends a lengthy monologue ranting crazily about how the people in the cool camp nearby with supplies and such won’t let him into the camp, which is why he has to live as a dirt-person, and then transitions seamlessly into screeching about how no one can keep him from getting what he wants, as if he has not just described someone preventing him from getting him what he wants.

Nope.  Done here, thanks.  Bye, book.  I found out later, reading other bad reviews, that there is a 7-year jump later in the book, because sure, why not.  This is easily the worst book I read this year– the bits I describe are only the lowlights of the first 300 pages; there are examples at least once a chapter of something that makes no Goddamn sense at all.  Don’t read this, ever, and shun anyone who says they liked it or it was good.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, the spoiler #review

AS ALWAYS, I intend to spoil the absolute everloving shit out of this movie.  I intend to do this as one post and hopefully in less than 3,000 words, but we’ll see.  If you haven’t seen Avengers: Infinity War yet, well, maybe get on that before reading this.  Although the damn movie has already made a billion dollars and it’s only been in theaters for a week, so the likelihood that you’re reading this blog and haven’t seen the movie yet is maybe not super likely.

That said, and yes I’m still filibustering for Facebook, wouldn’t it have been better if the movie had been called Shuri and Her Friends?  I mean, c’mon:

Shuri-as-Iron-Man-and-Spider-Man-1

Badass.

Okay.  Real review begins now.  Here be spoilers, motherfuckers:

avengers-infinity-warI was not prepared.

I need y’all to understand just how unbelievable that statement is to me.  I’ve been buying comic books almost every Wednesday for over thirty years.  I recently went out and bought the original Infinity War trade paperback (which is terrible, by the way) to refresh myself on the source material for the story.  I had said to multiple people that my preferred way for this movie to end was for Thanos to snap his fingers and then the screen to fade to black and the damn movie to be over.

I had, I thought, considered every imaginable combination of characters dying, both informed by real-world stuff (Downey’s contract is up!  Holland is already filming the next Spider-Man movie!  Black Panther has made more money than any rational person ever imagined!) and the knowledge that this is a comic book movie and they can basically kill whoever they want because the two movies in between Avengers 3 and Avengers 4 are set before Avengers 3 happens.  They have time to fix it.  And Thanos wins in the original series!  Everyone’s going to die!  I knew this already!

And somehow never once in any of those conversations did “Thanos is gonna choke Loki to death in the first ten minutes of the movie” come into my head.  Loki?  They fucking killed Loki, and they killed him first?

Oh.

Shit.

I was not prepared.

There were screams in my theater– actual fucking grief-induced screams– when Black Panther died.  I had to choke back a sob at Steve Rogers’ “Oh God,” his last line in the film. And I completely cracked when Spider-Man died in fear and disbelief in Iron Man’s arms.  I have never heard a theater as quiet as mine was for the few seconds after the film ended, as everyone processed what had just happened.

I was not prepared.

This movie should not have been possible, guys.  First of all, it is the eighteenth fucking Marvel movie.  No other series in film history has done anything like this; the James Bond movies are the closest thing and they have no real internal continuity to them.  Star Wars and Star Trek have done a ton of movies each but, well, we’ll dodge a lot of controversy and say that they’ve both had ups and downs and at least one real reboot in there as well.  And neither series is at eighteen movies yet, much less eighteen movies over just ten years.  How the hell am I not tired of this yet?  How the hell is everyone not tired of this yet?  What Satan-born devil-deal allows them to wring this much emotional reaction out of the eighteenth fucking movie?  How the hell did they write a movie where the main villain has to collect six different McGuffins and not have the entire middle chunk be boring as hell?

It’s impossible.  It should have been impossible.  And yet … God, I’m at the point where trying to rank these movies is the basest lunacy, especially since they’ve been on such an amazing roll since fucking Captain America: Civil War, which somehow came out just two years ago, and I’m still occasionally overcome with The Giddy about Black Panther.  But if it’s not the best movie they’ve done, again, it’s amazingly close.

Marvel movies catch shit for, other than Loki, not having especially compelling villains.  Thanos is an outstanding character, and they took his weak-ass motivation from the original comic series and tossed it into the trash heap in favor of making him basically an environmental terrorist.  He kills half the goddamn sentient beings in the universe and you understand why he did it.  He throws his adopted/stolen daughter off a cliff with tears in his eyes so that he can kill half of the universe and his motivations make sense.

Let that shit roll around in your head for a second.

That sentence wasn’t supposed to be italicized but fuck it I’m leaving it that way.

There’s so much going on in this movie that’s worthy of at least a few hundred words of geeking out about that I’m honestly paralyzed right now trying to figure out what to talk about.

  • Rocket, the character with the most issues about friendship and belonging, is the last surviving member of the Guardians.  Yes, I know Nebula’s still out there, she doesn’t count.  And Rocket doesn’t know Groot is dead. (EDIT: not true. I misremembered where Rocket was at the end.)
  • I need to see Thor: Ragnarok again to decide how I feel about the idea that the Hulk is literally too terrified of catching another ass-whipping to come out.  This is, to put it mildly, an interpretation of Hulk that I haven’t seen before, and as a Hulk fanatic I’m kind of fascinated by it.  That said, if I have a gripe about this movie it’s that Banner seemed a bit too comfortable with his alter ego, and was verging a little too close to “C’mon, little buddy!” territory.  But again, I need to rewatch Ragnarok.
  • Is Gamora still alive?  Is she trapped inside the Soul stone?   What was with that brief scene of Thanos and baby Gamora right after the Snapture?
  • Serious kudos to whoever came up with “Snapture,” btw.
  • We’re all agreed that Dr. Strange knew what he was doing, right?  Because he went straight from “I will sacrifice you in a second for the Time Stone” to “Please take this and spare Tony” with nothing in between other than, well, seeing the future.  And he, unlike every single other character who died, seemed awfully serene about his own passing.  I feel like the possibility of him having fucked with the Time stone somehow is high.
  • Possibility: that Thanos is actually trapped inside the Time stone, and has been since he took it.
  • Wanda killed her lover for absolutely no reason.  It got them nothing, as Thanos just undid the death, and she died minutes later anyway.
  • Black Panther finally opens Wakanda to outsiders and dies for it.
  • Star-Lord’s character flaws are basically responsible for the death of half of the universe.
  • Tony’s worst nightmares– his best line in the movie was “Thanos has been in my head for ten years”– have come true right in front of him, and he has to survive to see the aftermath.
  • We don’t know if Pepper survived or not.
  • THE GODDAMNED RED SKULL HAS BEEN HANGING OUT AND GUARDING THE SOUL STONE SINCE 1945.  I don’t know that non-comic-book people recognize how big of a deal this is.  This is absolutely Chekov’s gun on the wall.  There is no way you let us know the Goddamned Red Skull is still alive and it’s just for a quick cameo.  I’ll be stunned if he doesn’t play a serious role in Avengers 4.
  • The fight between Black Widow, Okoye, Scarlet Witch and Proxima Midnight was amazing.  
  • They coulda thrown us a bone on the names of the Black Order, I guess.
  • If they killed Shuri offscreen, I riot.
  • No, seriously.
  • There is talk that there will be a time jump of a couple of years in between the movies.  All the talk about the deaths being meaningless if they’re erased is nonsense if that’s the way they go, because can you imagine what basic human existence will be like two years out if they actually let this storyline play out?  Holy crap.
  • Thor.  That is all.  Every second Thor was onscreen.  Ragnarok was okay but it wasn’t much with, y’know, the actual heroism.  Thor kind of reclaimed that mantle in this movie and it was amazing.
  • And Captain Marvel is coming.

This is barely a surface-scratch, folks, and I know that, but the alternative is to rattle on for twenty thousand words.  This was an amazing goddamned film and I need to see it in theaters again on one of my days off.  It takes a whole hell of a lot of movie for that to happen– I didn’t manage to see Last Jedi or Black Panther a second time, but I think for this one I’m gonna make sure that I do.  Now that Thursdays aren’t Dentist Day any longer (short side note: I survived the Great De-Cavityfying, and I’m no longer sure why “dentist” is a job when he drills my teeth for two minutes and assistants do everything else) I may actually have time and will at the same moment to go see it.  Just gotta beat God of War and then I’m all good.

So yeah.  See Infinity War.  That is all.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR spoiler-free #review

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STANDARD CAVEATS APPLY:  I cannot always be trusted within the first couple of days after seeing a geek movie I really like.  I’m twelve hours out from this motherfucker.

This is the best movie ever made in the history of all the movies ever and if you haven’t seen this movie yet WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU EVEN DOING WITH YOUR LIFE JESUS GO SEE INFINITY WAR RIGHT NOW IF YOU CAN EVEN GET TICKETS BECAUSE I’M PRETTY SURE IT’S SOLD OUT FOR THE NEXT SIX WEEKS OH MY GOD I DON’T EVEN HAVE THE WORDS

 

HOW DID THEY DO THIS

HOW

 

THIS MOVIE SHOULD HAVE BEEN IMPOSSIBLE.  ABSOFUCKINGLUTELY IMPOSSIBLE.

 

THEY FUCKING

N

A

I

L

E

D

 

IT

 

OH MY GOD WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE GO SEE INFINITY WAR GODDAMMIT

 

NOW

 

NOW

 

NOW

DO WHAT YOU ARE TOLD THANK YOU GOODNIGHT

Two brief book #reviews

annihilationReviewlets, anyway.  I’ve had Jeff Vandermeer’s ANNIHILATION on my Kindle for what seems like forever– several months, at least, and I either got it at a scandalously low cost or actually for free.  One way or another, I don’t remember when I downloaded it, but I finally decided to start reading it the other day– mostly prompted by hearing some good things about the movie.

I don’t know what the hell I just read, guys.  On one hand, I blew through the thing in like two days, finishing the last 40% or so of it this morning while my son celebrated Spring Break by watching iPad videos and playing Mario Odyssey.  That’s actually a hell of a thing– reading, for me, is a very solitary activity, and the idea that I can get sucked into reading a book while there’s someone else in the room who is doing something that makes noise is pretty damned impressive.  And the weird thing is that most of the time while I was reading it I was vaguely annoyed by it.  I’m usually pretty quick to put down a book that annoys me, especially if I’m reading it on my Kindle and I don’t have to look at it staring at me from a shelf and mocking me with its unfinishedness.  There’s something just very offputting about the way this book is written that reminds me of a college lecture about Bertolt Brecht.  I know that sounds wankerish, and it probably is, but the prof (whose name I don’t remember) talking about how Brecht deliberately wrote his play (I don’t even remember the name of the play) to annoy and push away the audience really stuck with me for some reason.  I think Vandermeer wants you to feel a bit alienated by this book, which is both good and bad.  I mean, none of the characters have names, and they refer to each other only by their jobs, like “the biologist” and “the psychologist,” and if The Surveyor is talking to The Biologist, she’s going to call her that.

Also, and I feel like this is going to come off really weird, and I can’t explain it other than to hope that you’ve read the book and you understand, but all of the characters in the book are women, including the narrator, and there is nothing remotely feminine about any of them.  Which sounds like I think that Women Should Be Like This and Men Should Be Like That and isn’t the case.  It’s just … hell, the whole book is inexplicable.

Also: I watched the trailer for the movie after finishing the book and the two appear to have not a whole lot in common.  Part of me wonders if the movie is pulling in bits from the other two books in the series.  Which, despite having written this and not having much good to say about the book, I might buy anyway.

… someone, please tell me you’ve read this damn thing and know what I’m talking about.


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On the other end of things, I’ve been really excited to read Tomi Adeyemi’s CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE since I first heard about it, and I actually timed finishing the book before it to be able to start it as soon as possible once it got into my house.  I spent most of the book thinking it was supposed to be a one-shot (it’s not, it’s the first of a trilogy) and feeling simultaneously like it needed to be a bigger story and it needed to be pruned down a bit.  I like Adeyemi’s writing quite a lot and the broader story of BLOOD AND BONE, about a persecuted minority who used to have access to magic and for most of a generation has lost it, and the group of young people who are working to bring their magic back– is compelling as hell.  My problem with the book, and what made it a three-and-a-half-stars-rounded-up-to-four instead of the five-star I wanted, is that the book is just a touch too YA for my tastes. Which, y’know, it’s a YA novel, so that’s my reaction and not a flaw with the book, but the book employs four different POV narrators and has short chapters (five pages or fewer, most of the time) and so there’s an awful lot of recapping and restating and reminding the audience of the specific angst of this character as opposed to that character.  One character in particular discovers he has magical abilities he was unaware of and hates himself for it, which is great except that he has to hate himself anew for it in every one of his chapters, and it gets to be a bit much for me.

That said, the book’s unexpected ending and approach to the inevitable romantic entanglement of the characters wins it an extra star, Adeyemi’s wordcraft is solid throughout, and I want to know more about where this world is headed, so despite some reservations I’m definitely in for the second book.

tl;dr: I want you to have already read ANNIHILATION and tell me what you thought, and I want you to go read CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE despite the fact that it isn’t quite a home run for me.  The end.