#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.

Oh so that’s what’s bugging me

xhss9So I’m reading this book right now.  It’s the third book in a series that I think is going to be seven or ten books long, it’s 1200 fucking pages long, and the two books before it were both also over a thousand pages long.  I started it right around the first of the year and I’m barely a quarter of the way through the thing.  I feel like I sailed through the first two, and I really enjoyed reading them.  That said, it’s been a while, and I read so much that my recall is not always great.  At first, I thought that was the reason that this book felt like a slog– that I just didn’t remember the story well enough from the previous books and it was holding me back.

There really shoulda been a goddamn recap chapter in the front.  I mean, shit, your book is already twelve hundred pages long, maybe you give me another 15 to recap the previous 2200 pages in the other two books?  It’d be nice.

Something hit me about this book last night.  The big conflict in this one (so far) appears to be that the race (fantasy book, remember, so literal non-human race) that humans have basically been using as slaves since time immemorial have, for lack of a better word, woken up.  They were basically big strong mute servants until recently and now they’ve got their minds back.  And they are, rather understandably, somewhat pissed about the whole centuries of slavery thing, and so there’s a bit of Kill!  All!  Humans! going on out there.

The book expects me to be on the side of the humans in this conflict.  All of the main characters are human.  There’s been at least one, maybe two POV characters from the other side in previous books but he’s either dead or just hasn’t shown up; I literally don’t remember.

I am not on the side of the humans in this conflict.

There are hints that one character is going to take the side of the newly-awakened slave race, but those same hints imply that he is going to lead them, and I kinda don’t feel like a white savior narrative is going to improve this book any.

Oh, and the series has always explicitly associated blue eyes with social status, which I was willing to ignore the implications of previously but now is kinda looking upsetting given recent developments.  Like, characters’ eyes literally change color to blue if they achieve certain abilities.

So right now I’m at war, with my 2500-page investment along with a healthy dose of “give the rest of the book a chance; this may not work out the way it seems like it’s going to” on the one hand, and literally ten other books that I’d like to start reading and nine hundred more pages of this one to slog through on the other.

Feel free to provide advice if you’d like.

(Also: I’m not a hundred percent sure why I’m effectively subtweeting the actual book here; my Goodreads feed isn’t exactly a hidden thing.  But that’s how the post came out.  I dunno.)

In which apparently these assholes are real

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These are not the assholes to which I am referring.  I’m a big fan of one of them and I’m sure the other one is a perfectly nice person.

The news hit earlier this week: that Brian Michael Bendis had signed an exclusivity contract with DC Comics.  This news probably means precisely nothing to you unless you’re a fairly hardcore comics person; if you aren’t such a person feel free to skip this post entirely as it will hold little relevance to you.

For me, it was really Goddamned bad news.  Now, to be perfectly clear: I don’t begrudge Bendis a single dime of the no-doubt enormous check DC has written him for this; the man has the unquestioned right to do whatever he wants with his career.  He doesn’t have to ask me shit, and he doesn’t owe me anything.  But as Bendis has become, for me, the definitive Spider-Man writer over the seventeen years he’s been writing the character, and as he invented Miles Morales, who for me is now a better Spider-Man than Peter Parker ever was, and as he’s also currently writing both Jessica Jones, which I love, and Iron Man, who is my favorite comic book character of all time… well, the news that he wasn’t going to be writing any of those books anymore is insanely Goddamned depressing.  I’ve been reading Iron Man since I was nine.  He’s had a lot of writers during that time.  Jessica Jones is great but I can live without it.  But the idea that I won’t be able to read any more of Bendis writing Miles is deeply upsetting.

I mean, I’ll get over it.  I’m sure whatever he ends up doing at DC is going to be pretty awesome.  But… shit.


So anyway, I went to the comic shop on Wednesday, as I do.  And I (no doubt as 90% of his customers for the day had done) asked the owner (who, by the way, is the cover artist for Skylights) what he thought of the news, and we got into a brief conversation about it. Now, Casey pulls my books for me every week, and it’s literally his job to know the tastes of the various people who frequent his store, so he knows good and well I’m a fan.  And I’m reasonably sure he is as well.

This dude comes up behind me while we’re talking.  This isn’t unusual, mind you; I’m at the counter, so “behind me” is the place where other people who want comics will naturally end up.  And I hear him mumble under his breath:

“Yeah, maybe Marvel will finally start getting good again.”

I glance at him and don’t respond, opting to continue my conversation with Casey, who gets a very brief pained expression on his face and then also moves on.  I’ve seen this guy in the store plenty of times before, and as much as my physical appearance screams Comic Book Guy to most normals this guy has me beat by at least a few levels.  Anyway, we conclude– I’m not enough of a dick, and Casey is too much of a professional, for either of us to monopolize the counter when there are people waiting.

“See you next week,” I say, as I damn near always do, and I head for the door.  And then this guy starts in on Casey.

“Yeah, he’ll probably end up getting Justice League, and then he’ll make Batman gay, and Superman black, and who knows what else he’s going to ruin…”

…and it hits me.  Bendis is married to a black woman, right?  His kids are biracial.  He was pretty explicit that he created Miles Morales because he thinks (correctly) his kids need superheroes to look up to.  And not for nothing, the person running around in red and gold armor in the Marvel universe right now is a black teenage girl named Riri Williams:

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Holy shit.  This guy is one of those fuckers who thinks Marvel screwed up comic books by getting too much brown in them.  One of those stupid, stupid bastards.  Right here!  Right in front of me!  Trying to argue with me, in fact!  Or at least inflict his stupid opinion on the guy who owns the comic shop, somebody who by definition really can’t argue back, after making at least a halfassed attempt to insert himself into our conversation and being rebuffed.

Most of this is unfolding in my head as I’m walking to my car.  And I resist the urge to go back into the store and start some shit, because part of me thinks that this type of racist asshole needs to be made unwelcome everywhere he goes all the time forever and ever, but the rest of me really doesn’t want to start a row inside this guy’s comic shop.

That said?  Next time I see Casey, I’m asking him for permission.

In case anyone was wondering where I stood

Punch Nazis.

I don’t care.

Punch them every time they show their faces in public.  Chase them away from cameras and microphones.  Do whatever the fuck you want to them.  If they want these things to not happen, they can stop being Nazis.  There’s plenty of room to be an asshole without being a Nazi.  Dox them, call their bosses, drive them entirely from public life.

We fought a fucking war over this.  Hell, we fought two.  We won both.  There is no place in civilized society for these fuckers and if I have my way there never will be again.

Tear down monuments to the Confederacy.  Vandalism?  Fuck vandalism.  Every monument to the Confederacy or any Confederate figure on public land in this country should be torn down, melted, refashioned into sewer pipes and sent to Flint.

Never fucking again.