Robyn Reviews: The Poppy War

‘The Poppy War’ is historical fantasy at its finest – engaging, beautifully written, with its own spin on events but clearly based on established source material. For a debut, it’s incredibly assured, with a style more reminiscent of a master of the fantasy genre. This is a dark story, but for those who enjoy grimdark fantasy there are few better examples.

Fang Runin, known as Rin, is an orphan from Rooster province, raised by an aunt who only cares about marrying her off to further the family’s criminal enterprise. Determined to escape her aunt’s planned fate, Rin studies night and day for the Keju – the test all youths in the empire can take to join a military academy. To her surprise, she aces it, and is accepted into the empire’s most prestigious academy – Sinegard. But being a Southern girl – poor, dark-skinned, lacking grace and connections – is not easy at such a prestigious institution, and it’s even less easy for a girl with an aptitude for the dangerous, half-mythical magic of shamanism. With the threat of war on the horizon, Rin must navigate the twin minefields of Sinegard and Shamanism before her people are destroyed – and before a vengeful god destroys her.

“I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible. Was she now a goddess or a monster? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.”

Rin makes a brilliant protagonist. She’s fiesty and determined, with a ready anger always brewing near the surface. She’s exceptionally morally grey, with many flaws, but her drive makes the reader root for her anyway. She also has the most beautiful friendship with Kitay – it’s unusual to have a central male-female friendship without a hint of romance, and it’s a delight reading about their pure and platonic bond.

Kitay, on the other hand, is an exceptionally sweet character. A scholar, he’s quiet and easily underestimated, and always wants to take the peaceful route. He and Rin are complete opposites yet compliment each other in a strange way.

The other primary characters – Jiang, Nezha, and Altan – are mostly mysteries. Nezha starts unlikeable but goes through exceptional character development. Similarly, Altan starts relatively two-dimensional but the more the reader learns about him the more it becomes clear that he’s suffered hugely and simply does whatever it takes to numb the pain.

This is very much a book of two halves. The first is a standard trope of high fantasy – a poor, orphan girl who unexpectedly finds herself at a prestigious institution and has to navigate the complex politics. This half is well-written, giving a solid background to all the key characters and establishing relationship dynamics. However, it’s the second half which truly makes this book special. Here, there’s an evolution to a full-on military fantasy, with skirmishes and battle plans and deeper exploration of shamanism and the destruction it can cause. Kuang’s writing is exceptional, balancing painting gorgeous pictures of setting with complex military dynamics and huge emotional impact. There are no weak points – it balances three-dimensional, morally grey characters with equally strong plot and utterly believable worldbuilding. Fans of fantasy for many reasons can find something to like here.

“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”

Overall, ‘The Poppy War’ is a remarkable debut and the start of a brilliant, fascinating military fantasy inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese war. Recommended for fans of any fantasy – as long as they don’t mind it on the darker side – along with Asian history and just expertly written books.

My review of the final book in the trilogy, The Burning God, can be found here.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: May 1st 2018 / Paperback: April 23rd 2019

Robyn Reviews: The Stone Knife

‘The Stone Knife’ is the first book in the intended ‘Songs of the Drowned’ trilogy, a new gritty epic fantasy series by Anna Stephens. The writing is raw and visceral, the world-building broad in scope, and the characters varied and intriguing. It’s a book that demands attention – it took me almost a month to read, because I regularly didn’t have the concentration and energy it required – but when given its due, this is a worthwhile read.

Over decades, the tribes of Ixachipan have fallen one by one to the Empire of Songs. Now just two tribes – the Tokob and Yalot – remain, determined to hold onto their freedom. Tayan, a shaman of the Tokob, communes with his goddess and determines to seek peace with the Empire – but his husband Lilla is preparing for war, and their friend Xessa is struggling to keep the Tokob safe from the threat of the Drowned, crocodile-like beasts which guard the tribe’s only water source. Meanwhile, Enet – first courtesan of the Singer, the ruler of the Empire of Songs – is trying to hold onto her tenuous position in his court, and Pilos, High Feather of the Empire’s armies, is trying to assure the Empire’s dominance over Ixachipan whilst dealing with Enet’s meddling closer to home. Epic fantasies which show all sides of the story are fantastic, showing that no force is precisely right or wrong, and Stephens doesn’t shy away from showing the atrocities committed by all sides in war.

The difficulty with large numbers of perspectives is it takes some time to adjust to and care about them all, and the story definitely starts slowly. The reader is introduced to the Tokob and their way of life – their shamanic rituals to their goddess Malel, their fight against the Drowned just to obtain water, the way each citizen swears their life to a certain path (e.g. the jaguar path for warriors or the snake path for those who face the Drowned). Once this is established, the counter perspectives – those living ‘under the song’ in the Empire – are gradually introduced. It takes a good 40% of the novel before everything settles and the story can start to gather pace. It also leads to some characters – especially Tayan and Xessa – being easier to care about than others. Xessa especially is a fascinating character – it’s unusual to see a Deaf character in fantasy, and the way this is both an asset and hindrance depending on the circumstance is well written. She’s also feisty, strong-willed, and has an unbelievably sweet romantic arc as well as the most loyal canine companion of all time.

The setting, Ixachipan, is inspired by central American civilisations. It’s a forest environment, with seasons of rain and drought playing a huge part in shaping society. While the central American influence is clear, the direction Stephens has taken it feels fresh and unique, and the additional fantasy elements are worked in seamlessly. An industrial colonising empire vs those with a more traditional way of life has been written many times before in many iterations, but Stephens blends in new ideas to keep this from feeling stale.

The diversity is also excellent. Gender – and attraction to genders – is mostly irrelevant in both Pechaqueh and Tokob society, with a central relationship between two male characters (Lilla and Tayan), and as many female warriors as male. Xessa is Deaf, and whilst there’s mention that this would likely lead to her death if she was born into the Empire, it’s seen as an asset to the Tokob.

There are minor issues with ‘The Stone Knife’. All epic fantasies start slowly – it takes time to understand the world and differentiate and care about the wide range of characters – but the pacing throughout feels a tad erratic, with some sections veering away from action to several paragraphs of explanation or time-skipping. Certain characters are also particularly irritating – there was one in particular who almost made me want to skip sections – and whilst I respect the author for writing difficult characters, it detracted from my enjoyment. However, it’s a solid novel and builds plenty of intrigue for what happens next.

This reads more like a Part One than a complete novel, with plenty of cliffhangers awaiting resolution in Book Two. I’ll definitely be picking up the second to find out what happens next.

Overall, this is a highly intriguing first book that creates an excellent – if dark – world with plenty of potential, populated by a diverse group of fascinating characters. Recommended for all fans of darker, grittier epic fantasy and diverse worlds.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 26th November 2020

Thanks to NetGalley and HarperVoyager for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of my review

Robyn Reviews: The Burning God

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‘The Burning God’ was one of my most anticipated releases of 2020. RF Kuang has been one of my favourite authors since her first book, ‘The Poppy War’, so I couldn’t wait to read the final instalment in the trilogy. As advance copies started to go out, praise poured in, so I went into this with sky-high expectations. It proved to be an absolutely excellent book – but for whatever reason, it just didn’t click with me quite as well as its predecessors. It was almost perfect, with gorgeous language and a fantastic plot, but there was so much hype I just expected a little bit more.

“They weren’t humans, they were stories; they were paintings winding their way across wall scrolls.”

‘The Burning God’ follows Rin, a Speerly shaman, as she tries to wrest her country back from the control of foreign invaders (the Hesperians) and defeat her mortal enemy (and old classmate) Nezha in the process. She’s already razed an entire island to ashes and will stop at nothing until victory is hers. However, the more she becomes captivated by power, the more dangerous she becomes – and in the end, even her anchor and best friend Kitay might not be enough to save her.

Rin is the ultimate morally grey protagonist. She’s stubborn, determined, and never admits she’s wrong. Her military training and shamanism have shaped her into a weapon to the extent that she doesn’t know how to be anything else – or when to stop. Kuang’s writing is masterful, making Rin into a character you want to root for, then carefully weaving her journey together so you don’t notice her falling to the wrong side until she’s already gone. Even when she commits the worst atrocities it’s impossible not to feel sympathetic towards her – a real achievement.

“They were at the stage of war where every choice would be monstrous, and the only question now was which choice kept them alive.”

Kitay is a lovely, sweet character, but here she shows more steel than he has before. It’s easy to forget that he’s a solider to – in this book, his ruthless streak comes out to play. Kitay tries to keep Rin from going too far, but he’s just as willing to play the game as everyone else. I enjoyed seeing a different side to him and Rin’s reaction to that.

Nezha is a far more peripheral character in ‘The Burning God’ than I expected. In many ways, this is realistic – war is rarely fought between the leaders, instead being fought by the cannon fodder – but I wanted to see more of him.

“She’d spent so long fighting by his side, she had to make herself remember how to hate him.”

This is a true military fantasy trilogy, and this is a more plot-driven novel than its predecessors – which I think is why it’s my least favourite. I love character driven stories, but here the characters have already been developed and it’s the plot that drives everything forward. Coupled with the fact that I’d already guessed the ending, it didn’t pack as much of an emotional punch as I expected. The plot is excellent and the ending appropriate, and for many will be incredibly emotional – but there wasn’t enough character build-up in this for it to reach those heights for me. It might have worked better if I’d reread the first two immediately before to immerse myself in the characters.

RF Kuang is an exceptional writer, and from a technical perspective this is her best novel yet. The writing is gorgeous, painting a beautiful – if at times horrible – picture of everything that happens. Every moment is visceral and real. ‘The Poppy War’ is a fabulous book but clearly a debut – this is a book written by a true master of her craft.

“She knew very well how it felt for a chasm of guilt to eat at her soul, to try to sleep when an abyss of vengeful souls whispered that she’d put them there.”

Overall, this is an excellent book concluding a fantastic trilogy that I’d recommend to every fantasy fan. It didn’t quite meet the very, very lofty expectations I had for it – but that’s a sign of how highly I value RF Kuang’s writing. I’m looking forward to reading what she writes next.

Thanks to NetGalley and HarperVoyager for providing me with an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 17th November 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Story of Silence

The Story of Silence is based on a thirteenth century poem about Silence, the only child of the Earl of Cador. The Earl was promised the fiefdom of Cornwall – but only if he had a son who could inherit. Desperate, the Earl decided that his firstborn child, regardless what sex they were born, would be raised a boy – and thus Silence, by nature female, was raised as a man. The author, Alex Myers, is a transgender writer and teacher, and this book functions as both a fascinating history and an examination of what gender is.

The protagonist, Silence, is a highly compelling individual. They’re one of the genuinely nicest characters I’ve ever read about, and their struggle with their gender identity is poignant and compelling. Silence dreams of being a knight, but their father is terrified of being found out and tries to hide them away with only their dreams, their nanny, and a priest to guide them. I was rooting for Silence throughout – and whilst it’s always obvious that the reveal is coming, plenty happened in between to surprise me, and the ending took a very different direction to what I expected – one that I greatly appreciated.

This is marketed as a fantasy novel, but I’d call it pure historical fiction. There are elements of magic – with Merlin making cameo appearances – but this is essentially a bard’s tale about a famous Knight who happened to have been born in a typically feminine body. The writing is period-appropriate and chronicles the story well. The primary setting of Cornwall is beautifully described, but the writing doesn’t wax lyrical, focusing on Silence and their life rather than anything happening around them. None of the characters, save Silence, are particularly three-dimensional, but this doesn’t detract – it’s Silence’s story, and the others are simply props. Delving deeper into characters like Albert would have changed this from a bard’s tale into something else, and I don’t know that it would have worked so well.

As a cisgender person, I don’t want to comment too much on Myers’s portrayal of gender here, but it was certainly fascinating to read and seemed from an outsider’s perspective to be very well done. Gender divergence is not a new phenomenon, but historical accounts of it are rarely discussed – how Myers presented it here was excellent and, albeit fictional, very believable. I would be interested to now read the original poem and see how much artistic license the author took in his portrayal.

Overall, this is a recommended read. It’s a very easy to read book, weaving an enjoyable tale of quests and minstrels and jousting, with an undercurrent of an issue that’s rarely portrayed in fiction. Everyone who enjoys historical fiction should appreciate this, and hopefully it’ll give them something to think about too.

 

Published by Harper Voyager
Hardback: 9 July 2020
Paperback: 18 March 2021