… goes, unfortunately, to The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang. For me. This is my opinion, and everyone else might have a different view on this. In this review, I will attempt to list the points that made the book such a bad read to me. [TheRightHonourableEagle has edited this post and added a few thoughts. These are not indicated individually, because they do not differ from TheLadyDuckOfDoom’s. They were added for shock-value. ;o)]
The book starts with an underdog character getting into a military school for the rich – nothing new here. The start was solid, but nothing special. Nothing wrong so far, just some tropes I got tired of: The rich bully making the life of the main character hell, the weird teacher, the tall and brooding hero a few years older.
The problems start with part 2 of the book. Rin, the main character, doesn’t really act according to her character. For the rest of this book, she acts like a petulant child, rather than the young, though trained, soldier she’s supposed to be. So, for the sake of the story, that can be annoying, but is manageable.
Still, the whole story feels forced. There is a sudden friendship/maybe romance between Rin and her former bully. That guy tried to kill her. Multiple times. For Rin, a person driven by emotions, this does not seem likely.
The whole part of the story, where Rin, her comrades, and the rest of the army are under siege feels rather unrealistic; and let’s not talk about the thing with the salt.
Then begins the story of torture and rape. Picturesque and gory to the bone, an ex-classmate of Rin, who also bullied her, is re-introduced for one scene only: Fallen far into a husk, she retells all the scenes of her and the other women’s rape, including how a baby was ripped out of a pregnant women with the bare hands of an officer. And, guess what, all this ex-classmate was good for was to tell about how she was raped. She was not a character at all, just a tool to show the cruelty of what the enemy soldiers did. In addition, the pages of torture and rape we are talking about are not just inspired by the Nanjing Massacre, no, the text reads almost the same as the Wikipedia article. Even if we are reading a work of fiction heavily inspired by history, this is a fantasy novel. I expect the author to at least try to write an individual version, citing resources in a reference at the end of the story, to tell people that this passage was inspired by an event that really happened. This feels like a copy of the article written just for shock value.
And now that your mouth hangs open, your tongue is dry in shock of what enemy forces can do to civilians, you turn the page and find Rin ogling the older brooding guy. It’s a scene mainly focusing on opium addiction, but, although Rin is reminded of something familiar by the smell in the room, what she immediately notices is that His Broodyness has no shirt on. At least the scene stays sombre, he is smoking opium and there is no sexual tension, but I/we really stumbled over the no-shirt thingy.
Opium brings me to the next point that is highly problematic for me. Drugs are somewhat lauded in this book, but I don’t know if the writer has knowledge about how addiction works. There is a former heroin addict who never gave up on drugs, just goes from heavy drug addict to smoking opium once a month. Heavily addicted people become a husk of themselves pretty soon, and heroin is a drug that causes bodily addiction, so going so long without a hit just does not work without repercussions. Furthermore, Rin herself, who has never been on drugs before, is administered shot of heroin to the vein in her neck and falls into a hallucinating trance right away. It’s highly unbelievable that you just get into a trance this way, communing with the gods. [We are not willing to test this theory, though!]
By the way, Rin is the child of a drug-dealing family and did deliveries for them. She has seen addiction in all stages, so I guess it is only natural to just start smoking opium heavily. What could possibly go wrong? It’s for educational purposes. Or was it for the sake of the whole nation? [sarcasm]
On top, in the history of this fictional world, the Empire made an entire people addicted to opium. AN ENTIRE PEOPLE! Because, of course, everyone there is the same, that’s how humans work right? Because if everyone of them is in constant pain and mentally imbalanced, everyone will turn to drugs. Which leads to the overall problems of the book.
The book is incredibly dehumanizing in some cases. Every enemy soldier a monster, and one can feel hate seeping through the pages. This goes so far that soldiers of the Empire wonder how these enemy forces might look like and whether they actually want to see the face of their enemies.
A whole people is addicted to a drug, a whole people does this, does that. Prejudice much? A tiny paragraph at the end that tells us “Yes, they are people, too” just is not enough for me.
Fantasy and science fiction are, in my opinion, genres to explore beyond borders, borders of countries, peoples, stars and also beyond the borders of hate. I could not find this in this book. I really tried, and this book utterly failed in this regard.
We, the Sceptres, have been wondering whether we read a different book from every other reader who raved about this book. The story went from 3-star trope-y Young Adult downhill to a 0.5-star drug glorifying gore-fest. We won’t bother reading the other two books in the trilogy.