Series Review | The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

I have never read anything like The Poppy War Series by R.F. Kuang. Ever.

I have been reading the fantastic since I could remember…my Master’s thesis is about fantasy heroines and their rise within the genre. But nothing prepared me for Rin and her story.

I started The Poppy War (#1) in December, flying through the first 200 pages, fully engrossed in the story and Kuang’s writing. I’ve never read a military fantasy before, and I was intrigued by the story and its connection to Chinese history, poverty, gender, and … shamanic powers.

A little more about The Poppy War series:

Rin, an orphan, aces the Keju, the Empire-wide test that brings the most talented youth to learn at the academies. She attends Sinegard, the most elite military school in Nikan. She is immediately targeted for her dark skin, poverty, and gender, but soon discovers that she is one of the most powerful shamans in the world. She soon becomes the weapon that the world desperately needs to win the Third Poppy War. She is chosen by the Phoenix god to possess this unearthly power, and she makes decisions that change her nation and jeopardizes her humanity. Rin is filled with vengeance; she makes decisions throughout the series that helps her grow in power, such as aligning with the powerful Dragon Warlord. Rin does what it takes to save her world. She continues to serve as a figurehead in her nation, constantly betrayed by those she trusts, creating new allies in order to keep her world safe while also obtaining ultimate power.

The Poppy War (#1) is a Goodreads Choice Award finalist (twice over), Nebula Award finalist, Locus Award finalist, and winner of the Stabby, Crawford, and Compton Crook Awards (Understandably so).

My Thoughts

The other fantastic works I’ve read before this seem so watered down compared to The Poppy War series. Kuang does not hold back when it comes to depicting war, from its ugly battles and gore to the aftermath of genocide, to strategy and the struggles of the militia. Throughout the series, you feel as if you are there in the war room or on the battlefield. Her account of Golyn Niis in The Poppy War, though extremely unsettling, is based on real events (the Nanjing Massacre), and though I could not stomach a lot of the content, I am grateful that she did not hold back on the details.

The series’ prose, character development and world-building throughout are superb. Kuang is very, very thorough and does not skimp on the details. She provides thorough background on the world of Nikan and its military history, character descriptions, military/strategy dialogue, and more. She is a fantastic storyteller. I was never bored reading these books. The Dragon Republic, the second book, was over 600 pages and was a rich, epic book … filled with tons of crazy shit. It was super war heavy, filled with battles, strategy, and death. Be prepared for a lot of death in these books.

The books are told through third-person limited omniscient, or “close third,” (when an author sticks closely to one character but remains in third person), which allows readers to get to know the other characters, namely Kitay, Nezha, and Venka. While I did find character development lacking in The Poppy War, it started to pick up in Dragon Republic, and I finally found characters that I liked/disliked. Forever a Nezha stan.

The series’ final book, The Burning God, did not disappoint. What an incredibly detailed, smart, mind-blowing, emotional conclusion to her series. The book is a long, complicated one — you don’t read this series to binge the books. Like strategizing for battle, Kuang’s books are carefully crafted. The pacing was fantastic and the ending was so unconventional. I was so satisfied.

The problem(?) with Rin

Rin is by far the most complicated heroine/anti-hero I’ve ever encountered. From the moment I met her, I was jarred by her character. Even at 16-years-old, Rin was outspoken, impulsive, and reckless in her behavior. All admirable qualities, yes, but I’m afraid that those qualities only take a turn for the worse as the series goes on. In order to avoid an arranged marriage, Rin tortures herself (literally — she sticks her hand in fire to keep herself disciplined as she studies for the exam) to get out of her hometown of Tikany and achieve her autonomy. She’s tenacious, stubborn, and has a mouth that gets her into trouble. She makes fast enemies at Sinegard, and continues to make questionable decisions in order to rise to power. Like … really questionable decisions. She’s kind of the worst …

It’s so weird to read a series where you hate the main character. Rin is unlikable from the beginning, but you also can’t help but root for her at the same time. It’s very confusing. Rin becomes a monster. A villian. She is impulsive, murderous, and has no respect for human life. She is consumed by her power — she will do anything to protect herself and her autonomy. She is whiny, entitled, and lazy. She is abusive, naive, immature, and careless. And through all of her evil and malice, she still grapples with power and her autonomy throughout the series. She doesn’t really succeed. She has so many flaws. It’s unbelievably fascinating. She contradicts herself constantly, and its maddening as a reader. She is hated by people around her, and yet people are drawn to her. I think that’s what makes her such a rich character, and I applaud Kuang for not creating a stereotypical heroine for her books. Rin is complicated; you aren’t going to root for her. You are going to hate her, but you are going to enjoy the books nonetheless.

Some random Reddit user I found said it best: “You don’t have to make good decisions to be a good character — you just have to be compelling.” And Rin definitely checks that box.

Do I recommend these books?

A thousand times, yes. But be prepared. If you are looking for a fantasy romance, you will not get that in these books. While I’d say that typical romance is an afterthought in this book, it is also the core foundation of the plot in these books. Rin loves, and strives for love, but there’s no romance. I won’t go into more detail, but if you’re looking for the “steam,” you will not get that.

I will also provide a pretty exhaustive list of trigger warnings for this series, because it’s paramount you know what to expect going in. If you are easily triggered by any of these topics, I recommend reconsidering revisiting this series, or, being gentle with yourself as you read:

  • Abuse
  • Addiction
  • Animal cruelty/death
  • Assault
  • Cannibalism
  • Drugs
  • Genocide
  • Gore
  • Human experimentation
  • Infertility
  • Mutilation
  • PTSD
  • Profanity
  • Racism
  • Rape
  • Self-harm
  • Suicide
  • Torture
  • Violence
  • War

Book Review | Weather Girl by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Last weekend, I read Rachel Lynn Solomon’s new book, Weather Girl, and I absolutely loved it!

I am such a big fantasy reader, so reading a contemporary romance was a nice change of scenery. The book was quirky, cute, funny, well-written, and super entertaining. If it was a movie I would watch it nonstop. (Please make it a movie!)

A little more about Weather Girl:

Ari Abrams has always been fascinated by the weather, and she loves almost everything about her job as a TV meteorologist. Her boss, legendary Seattle weatherwoman Torrance Hale, is too distracted by her tempestuous relationship with her ex-husband, the station’s news director, to give Ari the mentorship she wants. Ari, who runs on sunshine and optimism, is at her wits’ end. The only person who seems to understand how she feels is sweet but reserved sports reporter Russell Barringer.

In the aftermath of a disastrous holiday party, Ari and Russell decide to team up to solve their bosses’ relationship issues. Between secret gifts and double dates, they start nudging their bosses back together. But their well-meaning meddling backfires when the real chemistry builds between Ari and Russell.

Working closely with Russell means allowing him to get to know parts of herself that Ari keeps hidden from everyone. Will he be able to embrace her dark clouds as well as her clear skies?

My thoughts

I knew I was going to love this book the moment I saw the author’s note about mental health and for the reader to be gentle to themselves if they are triggered by mental health content. I remember turning to my husband and saying, “this is going to be a good one.” It shows the author is aware of the content she is writing about and cares about her readers. There are so many authors out there who do not do this, so I really appreciated the extra effort there.

Ari and Russell are such lovable characters. They are so sweet and you root for them to succeed. As they try to get their bosses back together, they start to fall for each other too. The friction and steam is REAL, friends! I really enjoyed following their story. It’s super fun, feel-good, and will leave you smiling at the end.

Sometimes you need some predictability in your life — and I love a good romance for those moments. While this book delivered on that front, it also had body positivity, LGBTQ rep, Jewish rep, and overall diversity rep. I am so happy I picked this one up. You should too!

Book Review | Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

I adore Fredrik Backman’s books. I discovered A Man Called Ove a few years ago, and I fell in love with Backman’s writing style and character development. Since then, I have read all of his novels. All I need to do is read his novella, And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer, and I will be done with all of his works!

I finished Britt-Marie Was Here this week and wow. Backman is a genius when it comes to writing about the human experience. His characters are flawed, but colorful and loveable. There is no such thing as a two-dimensional character. A misunderstood character will have qualities about them that you adore. Backman can also introduce a character briefly on one page, and that character will possess enough emotional depth that they leave a mark when they exit the scene. It’s just truly remarkable. His books have humor, suffering, pain, heartache, romance and humor. They are all masterpieces.

A little more about Britt-Marie Was Here:

Britt-Marie can’t stand mess. A disorganized cutlery drawer ranks high on her list of unforgivable sins. She is not one to judge others—no matter how ill-mannered, unkempt, or morally suspect they might be. It’s just that sometimes people interpret her helpful suggestions as criticisms, which is certainly not her intention. But hidden inside the socially awkward, fussy busybody is a woman who has more imagination, bigger dreams, and a warmer heart that anyone around her realizes.

When Britt-Marie walks out on her cheating husband and has to fend for herself in the miserable backwater town of Borg—of which the kindest thing one can say is that it has a road going through it—she finds work as the caretaker of a soon-to-be demolished recreation center. The fastidious Britt-Marie soon finds herself being drawn into the daily doings of her fellow citizens, an odd assortment of miscreants, drunkards, layabouts. Most alarming of all, she’s given the impossible task of leading the supremely untalented children’s soccer team to victory. In this small town of misfits, can Britt-Marie find a place where she truly belongs?

My thoughts

Readers first meet Britt-Marie in Backman’s My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. She’s not exactly a likable character…but just you wait. At the end of the book, Britt-Marie has left Kent, her cheating husband, and Britt-Marie Was Here picks up where we left off.

Backman is wonderful at creating main characters that are prickly and annoying, but you eventually grow to absolutely adore them – this is Britt-Marie. Britt-Marie certainly has her quirks. She’s socially awkward and very set in her ways, but a lot like Ove in A Man Called Ove, you learn her backstory and you laugh out loud at their mannerisms and interactions with other folks. You wish you knew them in real life.

Backman is also incredible at creating communities. Borg is a small, washed-out town, but the people who live in the town are tight knit and there for one another. Like the Beartown series, the town is deeply connected to a sport. Britt-Marie finds herself working at a soon-to-be-closed recreational center and then the coach for the soccer team, a sport she knows nothing about. Soccer is what brings the town together, and though the kids aren’t very good and practice on a crappy pitch, the entire town comes to watch them play in the Cup. It is so heartwarming and Backman excels on capturing these moments. Though the town is a mess and its people are “seedy,” they are well-rounded and you grow to like them and defend them.

As I mentioned, Backman has such a talent for writing about life in its most fragile and powerful moments. Here’s an absurdly long excerpt that made me cry:

At a certain age almost all the questions a person asks him or herself are really just about one thing: how should you live your life?

If a human being closes her eyes hard enough and for long enough, she can remember pretty well everything that has made her happy. The fragrance of her mother’s skin at the age of five and how they fled giggling into a porch to get out of a sudden downpour. The cold tip of her father’s nose against her cheek. The consolation of the rough paw of a soft toy that she has refused to let them wash. The sound of waves stealing in over rocks during their last seaside holiday. Applause in a theater. Her sister’s hair, afterwards, carelessly waving in the breeze as they’re walking down the street.

And apart from that? When has she been happy? A few moments. The jangling of keys in the door. The beating of Kent’s heart against the palm of her hands while he lay sleeping. Children’s laughter. The feel of the wind on her balcony. Fragrant tulips. True love.

The first kiss.

A few moments. A human being, any human being at all, has so perishingly few chances to stay right there, to let go of time and fall into the moment. And to love someone without measure. Explode with passion (261).

My favorite part of Britt-Marie Was Here was the ending, because it was just about her and the mark she left on the town. It wasn’t about her marriage with Kent, or any new relationships she formed along the way; it was about her journey and the next steps she took for her own healing and well-being. In the end, she chose herself, and that was beautiful.

Have you read this one? If you’re a Fredrik Backman fan, what book is your favorite?


Book Review | The Night Circus

I finished The Night Circus this week. When I read The Starless Sea in February and didn’t enjoy it, a bunch of readers told me to read this one, promising that it would be a different, much better experience. They weren’t wrong … but they weren’t entirely right either.

The Night Circus

A little more about The Night Circus:

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

Written in rich, seductive prose, this spell-casting novel is a feast for the senses and the heart.

My thoughts

I will start my review by reflecting on the synopsis (above) because that was my largest issue with the book. I can’t help but wonder if the person who wrote the synopsis read the book. Did the author write her own synopsis? Did she realize it didn’t match the book she wrote? Who wrote the synopsis?!

After reading the book description, I expected to be thrown into a world with magical duels … but this “fierce competition” in the book is anything but. Sure, the “remarkable battle of imagination and will” is a little more accurate, but if you’re expecting anything fast-paced and exciting, you won’t get that with this book. You’ll just witness two characters who create tents and magical things for each other and call that fierce competition. Really lame and very flat.

Speaking of flat, Celia and Marco “tumbling” in love … eh? Yeah, when they touch hands things happen, but the characters are so two-dimensional that their love for each other seems forced and only for plot purposes. One moment, they are talking and clearly interested in each other for “competition” purposes. The next, they are hiding and kissing and in love with no context in-between. Not to mention, their first interaction and second “in love” interaction happens in a span of three years. Yeesh. I was lost.

This book promises a high stakes, competition-driven, heartbreaking romance, but the execution of the book was saturated. Don’t get me wrong — Morgenstern knows how to write flowery prose that captures your attention, but it’s almost used as a guise to hide her lack of skill in details and plot cohesion. So, again, the same issues that I found in The Starless Sea (her later work), were ever so present in The Night Circus. Lame. I don’t want to read a book JUST for its beautiful language. Especially if it is lacking in all of the areas that make it … a book?

Everything just seemed so fragmented, from the disconnect to the basic premise of the book to the disjointed storyline. Bouncing between timelines got very confusing . I kind of stopped paying attention because I just couldn’t keep track of the dates and times anymore. It got too much.

I am still working through my emotions here, but I liked the world that she created and the magic within the text. Despite all of the characters being flat, despite the lack of duel or anything of that nature, despite the not-so-convincing love story between Celia and Marco, I still read it in a few days. On Sunday, I read about 300 pages, not putting it down until it was completed. I just wish the author would pay more attention to her characters and plot.

After this experience, I have decided not to read any more of her books — even if she writes fantasy books.

Anyone else? Who has read The Night Circus? Did you love it or hate it? Do you agree or disagree with my views?