Star Wars and stuff

This post is going to be kind of grab-baggy, so be prepared for that, and there will probably be various and sundry spoilers for various and sundry things, so be prepared to potentially be spoiled somehow on basically anything I mention.

The Mandalorian continues to be … a thing, that I watch. The show annoys me as often as it entertains me, to be honest, and reintroducing Boba fucking Fett back into continuity got directly on my damn nerves no matter how much of a badass Temuera Morrison is in the role. The show’s structure is kind of aggravating, too; I’ve talked before about how video games seem to be imposing their structure on serial storytelling, and this show is really big on episodes that feel exactly like side quests in video games. Plus, for a bounty hunter, Din Djarin sure doesn’t hunt a whole lot of bounties. Baby Yoda (Grogu, whatever; I’m actually fine with the name) has basically eaten the show. That said, I thought the show’s most recent episode did some really interesting narrative stuff, including shortcutting past what I thought was going to be an entire episode about breaking a character out of prison ended up dispensing with the entire “breakout” by basically having one character pull some strings and dealing with it in two minutes.

The show’s budget is also completely out of control, in a good way. It looks gorgeous, and it doesn’t skimp on … really, anything at all. But I feel like I spend at least half of each episode sighing.

While I’m talking about Star Wars, I may as well point out that I’m working my way through The Clone Wars, and … well, that’s a thing I watch too. I’m mostly interested in filling in my knowledge of Ahsoka Tano’s backstory, so sooner or later I’ll move on to Rebels. I’m not loving the show, though, so it’ll probably take a minute. Also, the more time I spend watching Stormtroopers shoot at people and miss or droids shoot at people and miss, the more it starts to actually get on my nerves. Turns out there’s a limit for this stuff after all.

Then again, this has happened:

… and, damn, I am so back in. I didn’t know how much I needed a Patty Jenkins Rogue Squadron movie until seeing this teaser, which blew my damn mind. I spent the whole thing thinking she was either talking about Captain Marvel 2 or, for some reason, Green Lantern, which seems kind of an unlikely announcement for a Disney production. So when she pulls that X-Wing pilot helmet out … damn.

Let’s see, what else? There was a teaser for Ms. Marvel, too:

I have kind of checked out of the MCU since Endgame and especially Far from Home, which is easy for me to say when the global pandemic has seriously curtailed any actual chance I might have to watch any new programming. But this? This is what I want, and Iman Vellani seems like the perfect actress for this role. I also continue to be hugely psyched about WandaVision, mostly because of Monica Rambeau’s presence in the program.


I have reread R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic in the last couple of weeks, and I finally, finally got to start reading The Burning God, book III of that trilogy, today. It was the right call to reread the first two books again, which 1) reminded me of just how phenomenally good the first book was, and 2) made me realize that the second really is just as good as the first one. This series really isn’t for everyone, I still stand by that, but my God is it an amazing piece of work. I can’t wait to see how Kuang wraps up the trilogy with this final book. The rest of my unread shelf can wait.

#REVIEW: THE DRAGON REPUBLIC, by R.F. Kuang

I was a big fan of the first book in R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War series– it ended up being very highly ranked in what was a very good year for reading– and I jumped on the sequel as fast as I could when it came out.

And … well, brace yourself. This is not one of my usual hyperbolic slobbery OMG GO READ THIS RIGHT NOW reviews. I still think you need to read it, but there’s gonna be a proviso or two, some quid pro quos … anyway, read on.

Trigger warning, for, like, everything that is bad. If you’ve ever needed a trigger warning of any kind do not read this book or this review.

The Poppy War starts out almost sorta feeling like a Harry Potter knockoff set in a China analogue, only Hogwarts is a military academy and Hermione is the main character instead of Harry. Oh, and she’s explicitly described as being an ethnic minority rather than being shoehorned into being one years later on the strength of her hair being described as curly, but that’s a whole different conversation. That conceit will last you about a third of the first book, and then Hermione, whose name is Rin in this book, burns out her fucking uterus with drugs because menstruation distracts her from her studies and then all the sudden it ain’t Harry Potter no more and it really never goes back. It goes dark and it goes violent and it goes really war-crimey and this is a book that I enjoyed reading quite a lot but it absolutely 100% is not for everyone. Rin eventually acquires the ability to produce and control fire, and … well, she doesn’t really use it to keep people warm.

I mean, they are warm, for the second or two until they burn to death, but not, like, in a good, comfy sort of way. The bad kind of warm. Where you’re screaming. And then you die. There’s lots of that. And the book honest to God ends with Rin committing what is basically genocide. Spoiler alert, I guess. That was book one, you should have read it by now.

Anyway.

The thing about The Dragon Republic is that it doesn’t start off with the comforting (ha, “comforting,” he called it) Harry Potter-esque maybe this is sorta YA beginning. No, the Rin in this book is already jaded as fuck and is basically a war criminal leading a gang of war criminals, and she spends the first 2/3 of the book drug-addicted, angry, depressed, suffering from massive holy shit-level fucking PTSD, and mostly unable to use her powers for various reasons. Oh, and also racism. Like entire groups of people in this book refuse to even treat Rin like she’s human. Lotsa racism.

The first book got dark. The Dragon Republic starts off dark, stays dark, and then trades that dark for a chic slightly darker dark once it gets going. And by the end of this one, we’ve completely upended everyone we’re fighting against and everyone we’re fighting against and the status quo is status gone, and everyone is miserable or dead or a refugee or all three except the ruling class, and fuck those guys anyway.

I four-starred it on Goodreads, but this is one of those books that really resists a star rating, because in many ways it’s just as good a book as the first one, and again, I really liked the first one. It’s just that it’s so fucking unrelentingly gritty that you want to wash your hands when you’re done reading it, and it’s hard to read because of that. It may end up on my end-of-year list anyway despite four-starring it, because it is what it is very, very effectively. It’s just that it’s a book where terrible things are happening all the time to main characters who are really only moderately sympathetic to begin with– saying Rin is kind of an asshole is a muted understatement– and … well, if you don’t want to read something like that, I’m not going to get mad at you. The first book Ain’t for Everybody. This book, I think, is for a slightly smaller subset of Ain’t for Everybody, because I think there will be people who read and enjoyed The Poppy War who will check out of this anyway, and again, I can’t be mad at them about it.

If you liked the first book, definitely pick this up, but if anything about this review made you think that you might be part of the Everybody that this Ain’t For, I’d gently suggest you listen to that intuition. R.F. Kuang is absolutely a writer of staggering talent, and I’m just as in for Book Three as I was for The Dragon Republic, but I just can’t recommend this book unconditionally. Enjoy, but enjoy with care.

#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.