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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The Ballad of Perilous Graves

by Alex Jennings

Book cover of The Ballad of Perilous Graves in front of a keyboard

The two things I splurge on are books and music, so a book based on the magical powers of music seemed right up my alley.  The Ballad of Perilous Graves is centered in a fantastical world with connections to our own in which music and art are at the foundation.

The titular Perilous Graves is a young boy who goes by the name Perry and recently finished fifth grade.  His younger sister is Brendy and a super-powered girl named Peaches is his best friend.  They all live in Nola, which appears to be very much like our New Orleans.  There are significant differences, however, such as flying trolley cars, a city of the dead, and everyday existence of magic.  Musicians, like Doctor Professor, pop up out of thin air.  But when Doctor Professor shows up in front of Perry’s house in the opening scene, it seems that something isn’t quite right. 

 In fact, something is very wrong.  Nola is built on an album of songs, which keep the city humming.  But someone – or something – is kidnapping the songs and destroying them, taking bits of the city with them.  When Perry’s grandpa disappears too, Perry feels compelled to solve the mystery.  Despite their youth, he, Brendy, and Peaches begin to scour the city, trying to knit together all the seeming disparate threads floating around them.  Additionally, Perry must surmount the feelings of fear and inadequacy stemming from some unknown traumatic even earlier in his life. 


The adventures in Nola would be enough for a book on its own, but there’s more!  While Perry and his friends race around Nola searching for the missing songs, things are afoot in “our” New Orleans.  Casey, who left New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, has returned to his roots.  He begins to reconnect with his cousin Jaylon and their shared history of street art.  But New Orleans is at risk as well, and slowly, Casey and Perry draw together. 


The Ballad of Perilous Graves tackles a lot.  The magic of music and art permeates the entire story.  In addition, Jennings explores the deep scars left by big storms.  In Casey’s story, it’s Katrina, but Nola has endured its share and is gearing up for another possible killer.  Race, gender, family, tourism, and gentrification are all wrapped up in here as well.  In addition to our two settings, multiverses make an appearance and expand the settings even further. 

At times, it’s a bit much and the story threatens to buckle under the weight.  But Jennings’ love for New Orleans radiates through the pages and makes both version of the city characters in their own rights.  I suspect that for people who have a connection to New Orleans, this book will hold a deeper meaning.  Having unfortunately never been myself, I can’t speak to that with any authority, but if you have and read this book, let me know!  

I struggled a bit with this one.  I was completely lost on the connection between Nola and New Orleans for most of the book or whether there was supposed to be one or not, although I was ok with waiting to see where it went.  It wasn’t always clear how Nola worked, but it was still a fun place to get lost in.  Things started coming together a little after the halfway mark and then nearly came apart again.  Yet Perry is a compelling character and I really wanted to know what was going to happen to him.  I’m glad I stayed with it.  Maybe at some point I’ll read it again – I have a feeling it’s the kind of book that you can get more out of with subsequent readings. And for a debut novel, it’s very impressive!

So as we come up on Mardi Gras and you’re looking for a magical New Orleans tale, check out The Ballad of Perilous Graves!

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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!

Find it here.

Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston

Book cover of Master of Poisons with a tiger lily flower on the right.

I love entering new fantasy worlds.  As terrible as I am with learning new languages, I enjoy puzzling out a society’s hierarchy, the slang, the idioms, the power structures, religious/spiritual beliefs, etc. Andrea Hairston creates a fantastic world to puzzle through. I’ve written previously that I’m also a big fan of fantasy based on something other than medieval Europe, and Master of Poisons, with its African foundation, checks that box too. 

“We are more likely to deny truth than admit grave error and change our minds.  Even in the face of overwhelming evidence of imminent destruction, we refuse to believe in any gods but our own.  Who can bear for the ground to dissolve under their feet and the stars to fall from the sky?  So we twist every story to preserve our faith.”

Djola is the Master of Poisons for the Arkhysian Empire and the right-hand man of Emperor Azizi.  He has spent the last twenty years trying to convince the Emperor and the rest of his council that if the empire didn’t start caring for the environment and make the necessary, but difficult, changes, the consequences would be dire.  Slowly at first, and then more quickly, poison deserts expanded, destroying forests and rivers and displacing people.  But:

“As long as sweet water fell from the sky every afternoon and mist rolled in on a night win, everybody promised to change – tomorrow or next week.  Then crops failed and rivers turned to dust.  Good citizens now feared change would make no difference or was in fact impossible.  Who could fight the wind?”

The allegory for our current climate crisis is clear.  Djola’s frustration is one shared by anyone who paid attention to scientists since the 70s regarding greenhouse gasses.  No one wants to make the necessary changes, which might require some short-term pain or disruptions, to prevent disaster 50-100 years down the road.  But once they start living with the actual effects of their inaction, they become paralyzed, thinking that there is no way to change their trajectory and they are doomed.  They still don’t seem to understand that even if they can’t go back to a better time, they can at least work to prevent things from getting worse.  Instead, they’ll listen to short-term cons that might provide an illusion of improvement, but create even more long-term crises.  Djola finds himself exiled, searching for magic that might finally solve the problem.

Meanwhile, a young girl named Awa already has a significant connection to alternate spirit realms.  With an affinity for bees, Awa can make journeys into Smokeland, which creates dangers for her.  Sold off by her father at age 12, Awa is all too aware of society’s views of women, non-binary folks, and non-male magic users.  Thankfully, she was sold to a group of griots (storytellers), who help her develop her skills. 

Overall, Master of Poisons is a fascinating world.  Or worlds, when you consider the Smokelands.  I also really appreciated that these characters aren’t solving the problem overnight.  Years can pass between chapters or segments of the book and characters still aren’t even sure where to start.  In addition to the climate issue, Master of Poisons also tackles issues of race, gender, empire, and family.

In a lot of ways, though, this was a book that I felt more like I wanted to like rather than one I actually did like.  There were a lot of things that still seemed a little unclear or that I didn’t quite gel with.  It’s possible that part of that reason is that the climate situation is too close to reality and knowing that there isn’t a magic spell that could turn things around is disheartening. And yet, the point of the story is that even in a world of magic, fixing systemic problems requires a lot of work, dedication, and cooperation between diverse groups. 

I felt like this was a stand-alone book, which I appreciate it. Series are wonderful, but sometimes I just want a complete story in one book.  Master of Poisons is the type of book will probably benefit from multiple re-reads.  So while it wasn’t my favorite, I’m glad I read it and maybe at some point, I’ll be back to visit it again. 

Find it online here.