The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Book covers of The Poppy War, The Dragon Republic, and The Burning God with a phoenix wing across the top of the Dragon Republic.

“What if Mao had been a young girl” – and had access to magic and gods? Such is the premise on which R.F. Kuang bases her fantasy trilogy, starting with The Poppy War.  It’s a fascinating basis for a story.

The story follows Fang Runin, who goes by Rin, a young orphaned girl raised by abusive, opium-dealing foster parents. Rin lives in one of the poorer provinces of the Nikara Empire, which closely resembles 19th/20th century China. As the book begins, 14-year-old Rin faces the horrifying prospect of a forced marriage. Her only hope of escape is gaining entrance into the empire’s elite military school – the only school that does not require tuition payments. But to enroll, she must pass the rigorous entrance exam, better than the elites and hopefuls from around the empire, most of whom have been preparing for this exam all their lives.

On top of that, she must face the racism and classism of those around her, endure the rigors of her education, and attempt to master a long-forgotten power that brings her into contact with the rage-filled Phoenix god. 

And then the war begins.

Rin is a complicated character.  We want to cheer her on and see her succeed.  She’s sympathetic, smart, and determined as hell. She’s also desperate for power, to overcome the powerlessness of her youth. The more suffering and horror she sees her fellow citizens endure, the more determined she is to gain that power and use it, no matter the cost. 

As the story continues, particularly in the subsequent books, it became harder and harder to like Rin. Her actions and feelings were understandable, but she also makes you want to reach through the pages and shake her or shout for her to stop and really think about what she’s doing. Plenty of other characters try. But Rin is marching along her own path.

Kuang does an excellent of bringing Chinese historical themes and events to The Poppy War.  There are ties to the opium wars, the Chinese/Japanese relations, and of course the rise of Mao Zedong.  Kuang’s parents immigrated to the United States from China and never spoke of life there.  Kuang eventually spent a year living in China and heard stories from her grandparents of their experiences. 


Be aware that there are numerous scenes of self-harm, drug use, torture, rape, war crimes, and more.  For the rest of this review, I’m going to refer to the atrocities committed by Japan against China at Nanjing during the 1930s and how that relates to the book, though without going into detail. There’s mention of suicide as well, so feel free to stop here if needed. 

Of course, using early 20th century Chinese history means there are some very, very dark chapters.  About halfway through The Poppy War, war breaks out. There is a very accurate depiction of the horrific atrocities committed by the Japanese army against the Chinese during the Nanjing Massacre (also known as the Rape of Nanking) in 1937, during the Pacific War/Second Sino-Japanese War/World War II.  If you’re not familiar with it, Iris Chang’s book The Rape of Nanking is a foundational account of the seemingly endless atrocities – mass murder, mass rape, torture. It’s an important book, but Chang does not hold back.  (She later died by suicide at the age of 36.  One article focuses on her work and its effects on her in a discussion about historians traumatized by their studies.

I’ve read bits and pieces of Chang’s book, I’ve seen some of the pictures from the time period, I’ve watched movies about the massacre.  When I was teaching, I made sure to include it in my lectures about World War II.  And to this day, I cannot read or think about it without starting to feel physically ill.  Which brings us to the question – should such things be included in a fantasy novel that also has a pantheon of gods to which humans can connect with meditation and opium?

As hard as it was for me to read that section, I think it’s important to include.  First, it is not done gratuitously or as torture-porn.  It fits with what we’ve learned so far in the book and it helps us understand (if not condone) where Rin goes from there.  Kuang cites her sources at the end of the book and gives her own scholarly and personal background.  She handles the whole thing well.  Second, I strongly believe that fiction is an important vehicle for learning about reality.  The inclusion of real-world historical events or current events, and especially those which do not get much or any coverage in school, can really open doors to learn more or at a minimum develop a sense of empathy and compassion for people.  The fact that Kuang includes a list of non-fiction reading about the Nanjing Massacre is very helpful in that regard. 

While Rin herself is only a witness to the aftermath of the atrocities, other characters endured the actual event. We learn more about it from them, and importantly, how it affects their lives going forward. Kuang also has us grapple with the question – in the face of such evilness, is any response going too far? Is justice even possible or only revenge? Should there be limits on that vengeance?

In the end, The Poppy War trilogyis a difficult but rewarding series of books. The magic/religion aspects are well done and still feel like this could be part of our own world (likely enhanced by all the close historical parallels).  But just like real history, nothing is ever clear cut or simple, including the purported heroes. That’s what makes it so compelling.

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Persephone Station

by Stina Leicht

cover of Persephone Station on a star field background with a red moon in the corner

I’ve noticed recently that when it comes to my Sci-Fi/Fantasy category, the “Fantasy” side definitely has the edge.  Persephone Station was a great reminder why I love the Sci-Fi part as well. 

Persephone Station embraces all sorts of aspects of sci-fi, though more Star Wars than Star Trek.  Various types of AI, mech suits, spaceships, planets, alien-life, etc. 

The story jumps between perspectives, but the main story follows Angel, an ex-marine who endured several resurrections during her service.

She now works as a mercenary on Persephone Station, a planet outpost that has caught the attention of the Serrao-Orlov Corporation.  But like all mega corporations, their plan for the planet is full of problems for everyone who lives there.  Angel and her team must figure out where they stand and what they stand for, regardless of the cost.

There’s a lot to like about this story.  The core characters are interesting people and it’s fun to learn more about them as the story goes on.  The perspective jumps help you get a deeper sense of each of them.  Leicht weaves world building into the narrative without huge exposition dumps. While there are places where it seems a little slow, it picks up and soon you’re hooked and can’t wait to find out what happens next. 

The one downside to this book is that there are 3-4 different perspectives, but there’s such a long break between some of them that you lose connection with them.  By the time we check beck in with a specific viewpoint, it feels like a bit more like a forced break from the main story rather than an integral part of the tale.  Things do start to come together towards the end, but I didn’t feel as connected to those characters.  Other things suddenly pop up that weren’t really set up and feel a bit shoved in.

But despite that, it’s still a great, fun read.  I could see this being part of a series, but it’s a stand alone novel for now.  So if you’re looking for a fun sci-fi novel with all sorts of queer characters, interesting world building, and an operatic plot, check out Persephone Station.        

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The World We Make by N.K. Jemisin

The World We Make book in front of an iron statute of a female figure carrying a book.
Photo taken at the Cleveland Public Library

First things first: The World We Make is a sequel to The City We Became.  Highly, highly recommend you go read that if you haven’t yet.  In both books, Jemisin tackles the very real and present issues of gentrification, racism, bigotry, xenophobia, etc., but with a sci-fi/fantasy twist.  I’ll give a brief review of The City We Became, which I read a few years ago when it came out. Then I’ll jump into The World We Make.

Mini-Review: The City We Became

The City We Became book against a hazy gold background and a shadow of some kind of tentacled monster.
I took this photo ages ago and I’m not sure I could ever pull it off again.

Jemisin is the kind of author who will throw you right into the deep end. You may spend time flailing to get to the surface, but once you learn to swim, you never want to get out of the water. In this book, we learn that cities become living things, represented by human avatars. New York City is undergoing this process, but something’s different this time. Each of the boroughs must come together to protect the city.  A different person represents each borough and each has a connection to their part of the city. 

As a result, the chapters jump between the various characters’ perspectives. Manny, Manhattan’s avatar, who has lost most of his memories.  Brooklyn, who fittingly represents Brooklyn. She’s a former rapper and now a councilwoman, fighting to save her family’s brownstone. Bronca, an artist, represents the Bronx.  Pamini, a mathematician on a student visa, embodies Queens.  And from Staten Island, Aislyn.  Aside from Aislyn, all the avatars are people of color, and many are queer.  In addition to the avatars of the boroughs, there’s a primary avatar, who is missing. 

Then there is the Enemy, a force committed to city infanticide. The avatars are the only ones who can see this Enemy, but civilians are unknowingly impacted by its actions.  Despite being strangers to one another, the avatars must find each other and beat back the enemy. 

Jemisin does a great job using Manny’s amnesia to stand in for our complete loss as to what’s going on without being heavy handed about it.  Each character has such a different personality and background, yet they all feel like complete people right off the bat.  Jemisin is a master at writing stories from different perspectives.  Each time I start with one character, I don’t want their chapter to end, but by the time I start the next one’s, I’m now committed to them.  It takes a lot of skill to pull that off and Jemisin makes it look easy.    

I’ve only been to NYC once, and it was a brief trip.  I only visited Manhattan and Brooklyn, but I would love to go back for a more in-depth visit someday.  Jemisin write a fantastic love letter to the city and its people.  She doesn’t hide from the city’s struggle, but she dwells in the glory of all of its people, all their diversity, their myriad backgrounds, and their overarching identity as New Yorkers.

Ok, now on to The World We Make.

Cover of The World We Make on a stone wall with a few buildings visible through the fog.
Just a fun note, I delayed posting this review because I wanted to take the book to work with me and get some shots of it against the backdrop of downtown Cleveland (I know, definitely not New York, but this blog doesn’t make money so no travel budget). And then of course the day I went was the day it was completely covered in fog. There’s supposed to be a skyline back there.

There’s a lot I want to talk about, but I’m not sure what would count as a spoiler.  So I’m creating a World We Make spoilers page and I’ll go into some of the things there.  If you want to go into the book mostly blind, then just stay here.  But if you’ve read it or don’t mind learning more details ahead of time, check it out!

While it should probably go without saying, from here on out, there will be spoilers for The City We Became, so if you haven’t read that one yet, beware!

The book picks up pretty much right where we left everyone after The City We Became.  The borough avatars (minus traitor Staten Island, but picking up sixth borough Jersey City) along with the primary New York City avatar (going by the name Nyc, pronounced Neek) are adjusting to life as the living embodiments of a city.  While they have unique powers, they also still live their regular life.  And over all that looms the Enemy’s stronghold, hovering over Staten Island.  The Woman in White might not be able to directly enter the NYC, but the avatars (and the city) are not safe by any means. 

There are personal challenges – Brooklyn needs to save her family’s brownstone home from a tricky gentrification grab.  Manny is slowly figuring out his past, as well as struggling to figure out whether he can make a future with Nyc.  Pamini has work and visa issues, and so on and so forth.  But the bigger existential crisis is the Woman in White and the rest of the world’s avatars seeming unwillingness to address the problem. 

In this book, we branch out a bit and meet some other cities, including Tokyo and Istanbul.  We see a dead and lifeless city, a victim of the Enemy.  And we spend some more time with Aislyn and see how her deal with the devil is working. 

Current events drive the narrative of this book. (Though it should be noted that reality stole from Jemisin, as she was writing this first.)  A new mayoral candidate has appeared, claiming he will make New York great again and bring it back to “real” New Yorkers. But of course, the  so-called “real New York” he claims to represent is simply a figment of a hateful imagination.  It would be comforting to think this is simply the Woman in White’s doing but, as we know all too well, this kind of hate can thrive on its own without outside assistance. 

Overall, I thought this was very well done and I really enjoyed jumping back into this world. I appreciated the insight into why the Enemy did what it did and where it came from.  I also thought Jemisin did a great job of giving us an understanding of Aislyn without excusing or condoning her. 

Unfortunately, I felt like some of the characters got short shrift in this one.  We almost never heard from Bronca, for instance.  Overall, I felt like there was more emphasis on events rather than characters this time around, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, just different.  I missed feeling as connected with everyone this time around though.  I also felt the conclusion was a bit rushed, but as I’ll discuss in the spoiler section, additional knowledge clarified why. 

All that said, this was a powerful follow-up to a fantastic concept started in the first book.  And now that both are out, you can enjoy reading them back-to-back.  And if you haven’t read any of N.K. Jemisin’s other books, I strongly recommend them all. 

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Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher

Book cover of Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher with a skeleton dog next to it.

If I had to sum up why I like Kingfisher and her books so much, it’s because she creates characters that I desperately want to know and be friends with in real life. And not just her human characters. All of the animals she brings to life are just perfect.  In her latest novel, Nettle & Bone, that includes a dog made only of bones and brought to life by magic, but who’s still just as dog as a dog can be.  (Oh, and there’s a demon-possessed chicken.)

As you might have guessed from that, Nettle & Bone is a fantasy story. Or to be more specific, a dark fairy tale.  Marra is a princess, sent to live in a convent as a backup should her sisters fail in their strategic marriages.  Her family rules a small but vital kingdom with an important port that neighboring kingdoms have long eyed.  To provide some protection, Marra’s eldest sister wed the prince of the northern kingdom.  Sadly, she died under mysterious circumstances.  The second daughter then replaced her sister as the prince’s wife.  She successfully gives birth, but to a daughter.  When Marra arrives in the castle for her niece’s christening, she makes a disturbing discovery.  Upon return to the convent, Marra realizes that she is the only person who can save her sister, and possibly her kingdom.

But she doesn’t know where to begin. “If we were men…” she thinks to herself.  However, as the powerless echo time and again:

            They were not and the history of the world was written in women’s wombs and women’s blood and she would never be allowed to change it.

            Rage shivered through her, a rage that seemed like it could topple the halls of heaven, then vanished under the knowledge of her own helplessness.  Rage was only useful if you were allowed to do anything with it.

As she is unable to transform into a dragon, it seems hopeless.  But then she realizes she could enlist the help of a dust-wife.  Dust-wives were women who lived by graveyards and worked with the dead, along with doing other general witchy things.  A dust-wife could give her the power to kill the prince.  Of course, it’s never as simple as just asking for help.  Marra must prove herself and on the way, she collects friends and allies, ready to challenge Prince Charming. 

Kingfisher creates amazing worlds and this one is no different.  The magic is fun and I love what she does with the idea of the fairy godmother.  The other two books of hers that I’ve read, The Hollow Places and The Twisted Ones, are more horror-ific (I’ll probably never forget her descriptions of the horrors of the Hollow Places), but even in those, her humor and her protagonists make you think you could handle it if they stay with you.  I’m thrilled to add Marra and her companions to that group. 

(CW: domestic abuse, miscarriage)

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Ordinary Monsters by J.M. Miro

Book cover of Ordinary Monster with a gauzy blue background.

In 1872, a pair of detectives (Alice Quicke and Mr. Coulton) are searching the world for Talents – children with extraordinary powers.  They take their foundlings back to the Cairndale Institute, a school and home for these ordinary monsters.  There, the children learn how to use and control their unique abilities, along with all the other basic subjects any child would learn. 

When the story opens, there are two specific children for whom the pair are searching.  Marlowe is a young boy born under tragic circumstances. His skin sometimes glows blue and he can heal or melt others. Unbeknownst to him initially, there is some kind of smoke monster stalking him.  Charlie Ovid, a teenage Black boy living in Mississippi, heals instantaneously, though he still feels all the pain inflicted upon him. 

The Cairndale employees soon find their charges, but what should be a relatively straightforward task of installing the boys in their new home is anything but.  There’s the smoke monster, lichts, and other dark forces seeking Cairndale’s secrets.  It’s up to Alice, Coulton, Charlie, Marlowe, and a handful of other Talents to disrupt their plans, while facing their own darkness as well.

Ordinary Monsters is a huge book, which is fitting for a tale that travels between Europe, the United States, and Japan.  Overall, I liked all the world building and didn’t notice the length much.  There was one section with Charlie that I felt didn’t quite fit though.  It seemed like it was setting up something else or that instead of simply getting lost in the streets of London, Charlie accidentally wandered out of his book and into one of Dickens’ before finding his way back.  It didn’t destroy the narrative or anything and there were still some connections to the larger story, but it just seemed a bit out of place.

One of the things that really struck me about this book was how many times things seemed impossible or hopeless, but the characters chose to keep going or keep fighting anyway.  It’s a good reminder for all of us that sometimes we just have to keep going through, no matter how pointless it seems.  And maybe we won’t “win” or change what already happened, but there’s still a chance that we can alter the future enough that something good can come from it later.

I also really liked the historical setting.  It felt very realistic, even with the magic sprinkled all around the world.  Yet again, the Pinkertons popped up, but like in The Devil’s Revolver, they’re still a bunch of bastards.  Again, realistic.  Alice is definitely my favorite character, both for her ability to get the job done and her annoyance with the restrictions society places on her.  In some ways, she reminded me of Sara Howard from The Alienist (another book I greatly enjoyed). 

From what I’ve seen, it sounds like Ordinary Monsters is the first of a series.  While I’ll check out any sequels, I thought this worked well as a stand-alone novel.  It took me a bit before I got to a point where I didn’t want to stop reading. Once that hit, I was stuck in my usual tug-of-war between wanting to hurry through to see what happens next and not wanting it to end. 

So if you’re looking for a thick book with magical kids, Victorian settings, some globe-trotting mysteries, and humor mixed with some light horror, Ordinary Monsters may be for you!

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