Review: The Poppy War (Kuang)

The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang, Review Graphic

Warning: Moderate spoilers ahead. This book also requires several trigger warnings.

“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains,” says Fang Runin (“Rin”), heroine of The Poppy War, long before the horrors of war reach her. Her journey is jarring, unexpected and progressively darker in this remarkable but flawed book.

Early in The Poppy War, Rin’s journey takes on a (far grittier and a lot less magical) Harry Potter-like quality as she enters Sinegard, Nikan’s top military academy. Rin becomes a student through ridiculously hard work, self-harm (she uses hot wax to keep herself awake as she crams for the national exam) and against the odds. She’s a war orphan living with a family of opium dealers, and her only way out of an unwanted marriage is to pass the exam and go to school. She aims for Sinegard, where only the best and brightest go, because it does not require tuition.

“The creation of the empire requires conformity and uniform obedience. It requires teachings that can be mass-produced across the entire county.”

–Jiang in The Poppy War, explaining why shamanism has all but died out in Nikan

The girl nobody expected to reach Sinegard, let alone succeed there, ends up on a strange path. Forced out of martial arts class, where she is woefully unprepared, she tries to teach herself, a move that earns her the notice of the mostly absent lore teacher Jiang.

The relationship between Jiang and Rin is unexpectedly beautiful. The eccentric master, brushed off as a madman by most people, opens the door for her to the true nature of things. Rin is the rare student who learns how to be a shaman, which involves psychedelic drugs, meditation, the existence of Nikan’s natural gods and the ability to call down their power. The girl who despised the opium addicts in her hometown changes her tune when she realizes those drugs can help her get power.

And Rin is obsessed with just that. Filled with anger and a drive for vengeance, she quickly becomes entangled with the Phoenix, a dangerous god with all-consuming power. The more powerful she becomes, the more power she desires—and that begins to scare her.

As war arrives in Nikan via the Japanese-like Mugen Federation, Rin’s days of struggle become idyllic by comparison. Author R.F. Kuang, a modern Chinese history scholar, includes deeply disturbing factual incidents when she writes about war, particularly from the Rape of Nanjing. There’s no humanity in her depiction of war, and Rin responds accordingly.

The writing and storytelling in The Poppy War is superb. Even so, it becomes difficult to read, though she handles the subject matter more sensitively than many fantasy authors. I had to think twice about whether I want to continue with the series, and wondered whether including selective parts of history is a disservice. The topic of comfort women, for example, is given a single scene, in a single location, that does not at all capture the systematic nature of sexual slavery by Japanese forces in World War II. One book (even a history book) couldn’t possibly encapsulate all the horrors and events. It’s my personal feeling that, in fantasy, there needs to be a wider gap between history and imagined worlds than this, so that victims’ real life suffering isn’t used as a plot element or given a perfunctory nod.

The evolution of Rin’s character also makes me reluctant to continue reading. Rin’s quote about war proves both prophetic and oversimplified. Her character becomes unpalatable through the choices she makes and how she justifies them (not to mention that she uses her abilities in a senseless way; there were other, more precise options that would have achieved her goals and still granted her vengeance, but that is barely discussed). If I continue reading the series, it will be in the hope that Rin can claw her way back toward some semblance of redemption and sanity—but that would be hard to believe.

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Supporting diversity in fantasy

Supporting Diversity in Fantasy

I’m back.

I wanted to reaffirm my commitment to reading authors of diverse backgrounds, and stories featuring diversity and non-white leads (something particularly important in fantasy). I’m going to do this by making a more concentrated effort to read said books, and by making sure I review the ones I’ve already read.

We’ve all seen how fantastic books like the three in N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth series have changed fantasy. We need more. We need international authors in translation, diverse authors, diverse characters, and a broader and more authentic inclusion of other cultures in our world-building.

Just think about the way Russian mythology in Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale felt like a breath of fresh air, and you’ll realize just how narrow fantasy is. Let’s not do that anymore. Give us all the places. Show us the cultures and well-rounded characters. Support books that do that by buying or borrowing them and leaving reviews along with me.

Note: I’ve updated this post to include a few author recommendations of my own (and one new author I’m excited about!), in no particular order, below.

Authors You’ll Love

Alexis Hendersen

The Year of the Witching is all the mystery, horror and serious trouble with witches you could ask for.  Don’t expect it to wrap up too neatly: a sequel is on the way to this beautifully (and creepily) descriptive book.

Bethany C. Morrow

A Song Below Water (YA Fantasy) is as compelling as…you know (my review here). A wonderful story of found-family sisterhood, identity, protest and myth set in a version of our world with modern mythological beings. The Renaissance fair mermaids might not be real, but the sirens and elokos are. A second book in the series, A Chorus Rises, is due out this year.

Intisar Khanani

Khanani is an indie author who is now a traditionally published one, too. She writes strong, diverse heroines, like Hitomi in the Sunbolt Chronicles (read my review of Book One here.) She is also the author who changed my mind about self-publishing.

N.K. JemisIn

The queen of science fantasy, if not all of fantasy. Jemisin won three consecutive Hugo Awards for The Broken Earth Trilogy, a series that knocked my socks off and only got better. With literary-caliber writing and an original world, Jemisin broke the mold in fantasy and made a new one. And there are more highly acclaimed books and series by Jemisin, too.

Silvia Moerno-Garcia

If you don’t know her yet, you will. Mexican Gothic will soon be a series (I can’t say this enough: don’t let anyone spoil the plot twist for you). But it’s Gods of Jade and Shadow that won, and broke, my heart. A classic fantasy odyssey set in Mexico and using Mayan and other regional mythology, it’s a truly unforgettable book.

Stephanie BwaBwa

Seraphim Falling (YA Epic Fantasy) is on my TBR list! With her first book released in 2020, BwaBwa is a more recent discovery of mine, and with a series that reminds me of Sharon Shinn’s Samaria series, I can’t wait to check it out!

Read More:

Kobo: 10 must-read diverse sci-fi and fantasy novels

Book Riot: 9 Diverse Fantasy Books that will Challenge your Idea of Fantasy Fiction

BookBub: 13 Acclaimed Sci-Fi and Fantasy Novels by Black Authors

Cheers and be well,


A quick note


It’s been a while.

I’m well, how are you?

That’s good/I’m very sorry to hear that.

(But seriously, I hope you are all well and getting by.)

As we all go through this oddness of what some medical professionals are calling “a baby virus” (some baby!), I wanted to drop a quick note with the following orders of business:

#1. Book reviews!

Have you seen them?  The most recent ones are of Andrew Einspruch’s excellent and funny The Purple Haze (fantasy + humor) and Helena Rookwood’s The Prince and the Poisoner (fantasy + just a little romance).  These are two books I loved.  I know I could use a trip to the Carnival of Stars right about now.

Princess Disasterface, Ep. 2.4

#2. New comics!

I’ve been lagging on Princess Disasterface, but managed to complete an episode in April (Episode 2.4).  It somehow takes me hours just to do one page.  Maybe because I can’t stop putting details into areas behind walls that will just get half-covered anyway (see image at left!).  I’m working on ways to be more efficient, but not much luck so far!

#3. NEW new comics!

Social Isolation and Growin’ Pup are my latest (much faster to draw) series…es (just updated today with Social Isolation #4 and #5, and pupdated with Growin’ Pup #3).  Social Isolation will of course be a temporary comic, which I may or may not turn into something else later using the same character.

Growin’ Pup is based on my own life with my puppy, who is a big sweetie that barks at birds for not playing with her and tries to eat EVERYTHING outside.

#4. Writing!

A second edition of A Shadow in Sundown, in which I correct the formatting mistakes of the first edition, spiff it up a little with a new cover and some little graphics, and include a preview of book 2 in the series, will be coming soon.  It’s also looking like I may need more than 4 novellas, so I might have to drop the whole “Quartet” idea.  How DO authors predict these things?  (Though I guess extending a series is pretty common.)

I’m also preparing a pair of free short stories, one set in a version of our world split between magic users and not, and the other about a rather resourceful witch.  More on that later!

#5. What I’m reading:

Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce (Book One of the Numair Chronicles).  Alas, I haven’t read her work in a long time.  I’m on a library wait list for Alanna: The First Adventure and Wild Magic, both of which I want to re-read.  It’s been wonderful to try something newer (I say newer because I’m behind the times and it’s likely only new to this Tamora Pierce fan).  So far so good 3 chapters in!  (Of course.  It’s Tamora Pierce.)

That’s all for now.  Take care everyone!


Indie Book Spotlight: The Purple Haze (Einspruch)

A little preface: These are tough times for all of us right now, and I hope all of you are staying well or recovering, and getting by. Recently, I found myself self-isolating in that special limbo of “is this flu or Covid-19?” It was too late for a non-healthcare worker or first responder to get tested for either, so my doctor’s office said I’d just have to let the virus run its course.  And that’s when I read today’s indie book spotlight:

(Note: I received a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

The Purple Haze just happened to be next on my reading list, and I couldn’t have landed on a better book. I was stressed, sick and anxious, and chapter one made me smile.  Princess Eloise and Jerome Abernatheen de Chipmunk (an actual chipmunk, albeit an anthropomorphic one) became a staple of my nightly wind-down routine.

But this is more than a zany, hilarious book.  Like Einspruch’s shorter work, The Wombanditos, The Purple Haze starts out amusing and the plot picks up steam as it goes, in this case replacing its endearing characters as its number one asset (which is no easy feat with such a funny, quirky and loveable cast). By its midway point The Purple Haze was getting very interesting and proved to be well-thought out, with a clever, neatly foreshadowed twist driving the action. And after that?

We have ourselves a page-turner.

The story follows Eloise Hydra Gumball III, princess of the Western Lands and All That Really Matters. She’s a shy homebody, hampered by compulsive behaviors and germaphobia referred to as her “habits,” and she’ll one day be ruler of their queendom, no matter how she–or her contrary twin sister Johanna–feels about it.  When a reliable court seer’s visions reunites Eloise with Jerome, her childhood best friend, the jester-phobic, quick-witted chipmunk becomes a peculiar choice for Eloise’s champion. Which may not be a bad thing after all, as Eloise’s short trip to retrieve her traveling sister becomes a massive quest, and Eloise is about to need all the help she can get.

Talking (or singing) horses might distract from the strong world-building, but while you’re smiling, laughing or shaking your head, it’s there all along. References to the other kingdoms, some of which will be important, are never forced, thanks to the fact that they are humorous asides. In one, a long description of the history and bureaucraticly hampered build of the Adequate Wall of the Realms sets a scene but mostly provides amusement: “[Eloise’s] reaction was the same as everyone else who saw it for the first time: ‘Yeah, that’ll do, I guess.'” But an entire chapter earlier in the story (chapter 8) centers on the travels of a disgruntled king, describing his kingdom, the purple haze and his other options to better his lot in royal life:

“Had he been a little more personable, Doncaster might have found a wife (or husband, he wasn’t choosy) from the royalty of the other four realms…So, yes, the Western Lands were off the table in the making-his-kingdom-suck-less department.”

You never quite know what will stay as a funny aside and what will be important.

And that works, because by the time Eloise and her retinue end up somewhere major, the reader already has a memory and impression of the place, which can then be upended at any time.  It’s not by chance that this story comes together so well.

All of this makes for a funny, skillfully told story that never lacks heart.  Einspruch’s greatest trick, however, is crafting a book that becomes so much to the reader, yet leaves them wanting more–without being the slightest bit disappointed.

Like Jerome’s prognostication says, “you’ll be happy about it.”

Indie Book Spotlight: The Prince and Poisoner (Rookwood)

Today’s indie book spotlight is on…

The Prince and the Poisoner (Carnival of Fae Book 1), by Helena Rookwood (May 14, 2020; New Adult Fantasy/Romantic Fantasy)

(Note: I received an advanced digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Four words: The Carnival of Stars.  The ultimate setting of Helena Rookwood’s The Prince and the Poisoner is unique, wonderful, and begs to be explored almost as much as Hogwarts or Lothlorien.  The morning after I finished this first installment of the Carnival of the Fae series, I woke up thinking I couldn’t wait to get back to the Carnival of Stars and see what happens next.  I was genuinely disappointed when I remembered I’d finished The Prince and the Poisoner the night before.

In addition to those four words, this book has four great strengths: it’s heroine (Lira), it’s near-constant plot developments (action and twists!), it’s realistic writing (the characters’ motives and dialogue), and its imagination (gorgeous, magical settings).  Those last two sound like contradictions, but Rookwood proves you really can have both.

When one character protests something, or offers troubling new information to another, the listener is quicker to believe it’s a lie than almost instantly believing what they don’t want to hear or accepting information from someone they don’t trust.  And the royals in the story are neither shining heroes nor ruthless tyrants (with one possible exception, though we see very little of that particular king).

The story begins with Lira in a small traveling circus.  Everyone in the circus has a specialty, and Lira’s is that she makes potions according to the specific ways her father taught her.  When she gets a headache at the back of her head, she knows that her potions will work.  And work they do, better than anyone else’s.  As Lira steals and scrapes to save money to flee the circus’s abusive masters, her talent draws the attention of a mysterious man on horseback, who whisks her away on a journey to the Carnival of Stars one night.

But her escape comes with a surprising catch: Lira must poison a princess and thereby frame a kingdom.  She then must balance the enormity of that task with her need to get away from her old circus, which the mysterious man threatens to return her to if she doesn’t fulfill her end of the bargain.  But this is Lira, which means there is plenty of unexpected adventure, a little romance, a helping of magic and very little navel-gazing involved.

Lira is by far this story’s greatest asset (that’s what you’d want out of a MC, right?).  She is both different and well-rounded, a secretive, bold, brassy, bratty, proud, secure, confident, flirtatious, headstrong, resilient, “preening,” braggadocios, and all-out marvelous female lead.  If the necessary quality of a main character is that they would want to tell their own story, Lira does it with a lot of flare and no self-pity.  She also has realistic motivations.

Lira rarely has a woe-is-me moment throughout the story, and when she does it’s almost always short-lived.  She tends to make brave and sometimes surprising choices, and it’s not because of generic heroism: her motives are self-preservation and unwavering belief in her own talents, and a lot of that comes from her difficult (but never overly dramatized) backstory.  It doesn’t mean she’s always likable, but she is never boring, either.  It was frankly refreshing to find a heroine who never doubts her abilities and actively promotes them.

All in all, The Prince and the Poisoner makes for one heck of a circus.