#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.

STATION IDENTIFICATION: Infinitefreetime.com

I’m Luther Siler.  I’m a writer and an editor.  Welcome to my blog, infinitefreetime.com.

I’ve written several books you might be interested in, ranging from short story collections to near-future science fiction to fantasy space opera to nonfiction, all available as ebooks or in print from Amazon.  Autographed books can be ordered straight from me as well.

I can be found in several different places on the Internet.  Here’s the important ones:

  • You can follow me on Twitter, @nfinitefreetime, here or just click the “follow” button on the right side of the page.  Warning: Twitter is where Politics Luther hangs out.  I generally follow back if I can tell you’re a human being.
  • Sign up for my mailing list here.
  • My author page on Goodreads is here. I accept any and all friend requests.
  • My official Author page on Amazon is located here.
  • Feel free to Like the (sadly underutilized) Luther Siler Facebook page here.  It’s mostly used as a reblogger for posts.
  • And, of course, you’re already at infinitefreetime.com, my blog.  You can click here to be taken to a random post.

Thanks for reading!

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#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.

STATION IDENTIFICATION: Infinitefreetime.com

I’m Luther Siler.  I’m a writer and an editor.  Welcome to my blog, infinitefreetime.com.

I’ve written several books you might be interested in, ranging from short story collections to near-future science fiction to fantasy space opera to nonfiction, all available as ebooks or in print from Amazon.  Autographed books can be ordered straight from me as well.

I can be found in several different places on the Internet.  Here’s the important ones:

  • You can follow me on Twitter, @nfinitefreetime, here or just click the “follow” button on the right side of the page.  Warning: Twitter is where Politics Luther hangs out.  I generally follow back if I can tell you’re a human being.
  • Sign up for my mailing list here.
  • My author page on Goodreads is here. I accept any and all friend requests.
  • My official Author page on Amazon is located here.
  • Feel free to Like the (sadly underutilized) Luther Siler Facebook page here.  It’s mostly used as a reblogger for posts.
  • And, of course, you’re already at infinitefreetime.com, my blog.  You can click here to be taken to a random post.

Thanks for reading!

Prostetnic hi-res cropped