Tag: R. F. Kuang

Top 5 Fiction 2020

What a strange year it has been! I hope reading helped get you through the ups and downs. I know I definitely turned to books for both comfort and information, rereading old favourites, and learning about newly relevant subjects. These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2020. You can click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks!

The Burning God

Cover image for The Burning God by R. F. KuangDisillusioned with the Dragon Republic, Fang Runin has broken with Yin Vaisra and his Hesperian backers, and returned to the South, seeking new allies among the rag tag armies of the Southern Coalition. Nikan remains riven by civil war, and Rin finds to her dismay that the men who lead the Southern forces are no more willing to put a young woman in charge than their Northern counterparts, no matter if she is one of the last shamans in the Empire, able to call down the Phoenix, god of fire and vengeance, onto the battle field. The final installment of R.F. Kuang’s Poppy Wars series follows Rin as she makes the latest in a series of bad bargains with untrustworthy allies who both fear and covet her power.  The Burning God is a visceral finale that forces Rin into reckoning with the carnage wrought by her rash decisions and shifting alliances, even as she attempts to mentally retreat and wall herself off from the catastrophes Nikan will have to overcome in order to ever have any hope of recovering from these cataclysmic power struggles. Kuang brings her first trilogy to a close as it began, in fire and blood, and with many questions for which there are no easy answers or neat solutions.

Categories: Fantasy

Felix Ever After

Cover image for Felix Ever After by Kacen CallenderKacen Callender tells the story of Felix Love, a high school student who has already transitioned to male, but is still exploring their gender identity and coming to terms with some of the non-binary options. Felix has never been in love, but has a deep romantic streak, and this novel sees him caught between an enemies-to-lovers epistolary romance via Instagram messages, and the possibility that one of his oldest friendships is actually romantic. Next to the romances, my favourite element of this book was the way it explored the complicated forms of internalized homophobia and transphobia that can exist within the queer community where Felix is supposed to feel safe, such as his ex-girlfriend Marisol, and the anonymous bullies causing trouble at school and online.

Categories: Young Adult, LGBTQ+

Red, White & Royal Blue

Cover image for Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuistonAs the son of the President, Alex Claremont-Diaz, his sister June, and their best friend Nora Holleran are America’s golden children, beloved by the press, and the perfect political surrogates for President Claremont and Vice President Holleran as they pass through the 2018 midterms and aim for re-election in 2020. But Alex commits a very public faux-pas when he gets into an altercation with his long-time rival, Prince Henry of England, at the wedding of Henry’s older brother, Prince Philip. As the White House and Buckingham Palace fly into damage-control mode, Henry and Alex are forced to fake a public friendship for the press, even while the sparks that are flying behind closed doors are of an entirely different sort. But if they ever want to really be together, they’ll have to come to terms with themselves, their families, and their place in history. Casey McQuiston has written what is at heart a light, fluffy romance, but one that also cheekily sends up the problematic aspects of the trope at its center. I suspect that some people won’t like politics intruding into their fluffy romance in this manner, but I personally found it helped to acknowledge the cognitive dissonance rather than simply ignoring the problems inherent in the trope. Your mileage may vary, but for me this was a perfect bit of fluffy, swoony fun.

Categories: Romance, LGBTQ+

Son of a Trickster

Cover image for Son of a Trickster by Eden RobinsonOld beyond his years, teenage Jared feels responsible for all the adults around him, from his mercurial mom Maggie, to her deadbeat boyfriend Richie, to his lying father and his pregnant step-sister, and the elderly neighbours who helped him out in a time of need, as well as their wayward granddaughter, Sarah. His mom is estranged from her own family, and his father’s mother has always harboured the belief that he isn’t actually her grandson, but rather the illegitimate son of a Trickster. His only support, his beloved dog Baby, has recently died, and Jared is having a hard time keeping it together for everyone who needs him. He drinks too much, and smokes too much, and sometimes he blacks out. And sometimes he think he sees and hears things, even when he isn’t half-cut. Things that make him wonder if his grandmother might not be crazy after all. At first, Jared’s life seems normal, or at least, only abnormal in sadly normal human ways. Slowly but surely, however, Eden Robinson layers in little bits of weirdness that creep in around the edges, and Jared’s chapters are mixed with bizarre, expansive interludes that hint at a world beyond his day-to-day reality. The magic seeps in until it is almost pervasive, slowly invading every corner of his life until he has no choice but to face the destiny he has been running from.

Categories: Canadian, Speculative Fiction

The Starless Sea

Cover image for The Starless Sea by Erin MorgensternZachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student who studies video games, but has a passion for story and narrative in all its forms. Visiting the nearly-deserted library between terms, Zachary stumbles across an old book of short stories, an improperly catalogued and mysterious donation to the university’s collection. But what is truly remarkable about this book is that Zachary is in it; the third story perfectly describes a real incident from his childhood, one that he never dared to speak of, let alone commit to paper. Coming eight years on the heels of Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel The Night Circus, The Starless Sea is divided into six books within books. At first, alternating chapters from Zachary’s perspective are interleaved with fragments from his mysterious library find. Morgenstern also layers in excerpts from the diary of Zachary’s friend Kat, one of the few people who seems to notice or care when he goes missing from the university in pursuit of answers, desperate to discover the provenance of the book, and ascertain once and for all whether the world it describes might be real and reachable. The Starless Sea is the story of a magical library, but also something much more impossible than that. It is a story of doorways, and possibilities, of choices and their consequences.

Categories: Fantasy

An honourable mention also goes out to S.A. Chakraborty, who completed her truly excellent Daevabad trilogy with The Empire of Gold this year.

What were your top fiction reads of 2020? I especially want to hear about your comfort reads and fluff! What got you through?

The Burning God (The Poppy War #3)

Cover image for The Burning God by R. F. Kuangby R.F. Kuang

ISBN 9780062662620

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“Every day since the end of the Third Poppy War, Rin had learned that her victory on Speer mattered less and less. War hadn’t ended when Emperor Ryohai perished on the longbow island. War hadn’t ended when Vaisra’s army defeated the Imperial Navy at the Red Cliffs. She’d been so stupid to once think that if she ended the Federation then she’d end the hurting.  War didn’t end, not so cleanly–it just kept building up in little hurts that piled on each other until they exploded afresh into raw new wounds.”

Disillusioned with the Dragon Republic, Fang Runin has broken with Yin Vaisra and his Hesperian backers, and returned to the South, seeking new allies among the rag tag armies of the Southern Coalition. Nikan remains riven by civil war, and Rin finds to her dismay that the men who lead the Southern forces are no more willing to put a young woman in charge than their Northern counterparts, no matter if she is one of the last shaman in the Empire, able to call down the Phoenix, god of fire and vengeance, onto the battle field. Unable to trust her supposed allies, Rin will be forced to reach high and low, turning the common people to her cause, while also making dangerous bargains with former enemies as the Hesperian threat looms larger, and Yin Nezha mounts a final clash between the Republican army, and Rin’s forces.

The final installment of R.F. Kuang’s Poppy Wars series follows Rin as she makes the latest in a series of bad bargains with untrustworthy allies who both fear and covet her power. As the last Speerly, and one of only a scant handful of shaman, she is a wild card that can find no comfortable home, and like all of the god-touched, her grip on reality is tenuous at best. The Burning God is a visceral finale that forces Rin into reckoning with the carnage wrought by her rash decisions and shifting alliances, even as she attempts to mentally retreat and wall herself off from the catastrophes Nikan will have to overcome in order to ever have any hope of recovering from the cataclysmic power struggles that have poisoned rivers, flooded towns, laid waste to crops, and displaced large portions of the population. The series maintains a strong military focus, with a series of battles that take Rin and her allies across the empire and back again.

Displaced and defeated, former Empress Su Daji would seem to have no place here in The Burning God, with her empire in ruins and her crown lost. Indeed, I expected a deeper focus on Hesperia, and perhaps an increased role for General Tarcquet or the Grey Company. But in reckoning with the cycle of history, and intergenerational trauma, Kuang brings Daji back in a new capacity, with the deposed Empress as a tantalizing potential source of shamanic power and information for an increasingly desperate Rin. With the power struggle between Rin and Nezha reignited by her break from his father’s Republic, Rin finds herself increasingly interested in the power struggles of the Trifecta, and how the Vipress became the last shaman standing, ruling the Nikara Empire alone. But it remains to be seen if Rin can grasp the cautionary tale of their downfall, or if she will simply succumb and repeat their mistakes in her quest for power. While fundamentally different characters, there are fascinating echoes between Rin and Daji, and their approaches to ruling.

The relationship at the heart of this final volume is the one between Rin and Kitay, her best friend and her anchor, and the one person who has never betrayed her. As she wins victories and gains power, she comes into responsibilities for which she is wholly unprepared, and reliant upon his logistical and strategic talents. Kitay also represents her greatest weakness; without him near, she cannot call the fire, and if he dies, so does she. For an increasingly isolated and paranoid general, such a bond is both a touchstone and a secret to be guarded at all costs. Kitay is also her conscience embodied, her voice of reason, the measured response that counterbalances her impulsive nature and more violent tendencies. In many ways, he is the key that keeps us following Rin deeper into madness; what does he see in her that inspires such loyalty?

Kuang brings her first trilogy to a close as it began, in fire and blood, and with many questions for which there are no easy answers or neat solutions. If Rin and her fiery god win, is tyranny inevitable? If Nezha and Hesperia triumph, does colonization and erasure follow? These are uncomfortable questions that do not lend themselves to a tidy conclusion, and the scope of Nikara history stretches beyond the final page with possibilities that are both tantalizing and terrifying, shadowed by the real Chinese history on which Kuang has been masterfully drawing throughout her epic series.

The Poppy War

The Dragon Republic 

Top 5 Fiction 2019

Another year of reading draws to a close. These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2019. You can click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks!

The Confessions of Frannie Langton

Cover image for The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara CollinsFrances Langton was born on a sugar estate in Jamaica, the property of a depraved scientist who gave her his name, and educated her for his own ends. But Sara Collins’ novel is the story of Frances’ free life in London, and how she came to be accused of murdering her employers. The Mulatta Murderess is a broadsheet sensation, the talk of London, the boogieman in the Old Bailey, but Frannie is a woman determined to tell her own story, and to be seen as a real person, one who loved and was loved, and paid a terrible price for daring to reach above her station. By far the strongest feature of the novel is Frances’ voice. She is an avid reader, and that love of language seeps into her own writing, colouring her descriptions and insights. She consciously writes back against the slave narrative, the formulaic accounts peddled by abolitionists and anti-slavers to further their cause. Although framed by a murder mystery, The Confessions of Frannie Langton is, at heart, a tragic gothic romance.

Categories: Historical Fiction, LGBTQ+

The Dragon Republic

Cover image for The Dragon Republic by R. F. KuangGrappling with the consequences of her genocidal actions in Mugen, her involvement in Altan’s death, and her new responsibility for the Cike, Runin “Rin” Fang turns increasingly to opium to dampen the whispers of the god of fire and vengeance. Her mission to assassinate the Empress is the only thing giving her purpose, but to do so she will need to make common cause with Yin Vaisra, the Dragon Warlord, and father of her old school rival, Nezha. Vaisra promises a democratic republic that will usher in a new age of prosperity for Nikara, but when the other warlords refuse to join him, he turns to Hesperia for help. While The Poppy War focused on the conflict between Mugen and Nikara, with The Dragon Republic attention begins to turn back towards the old wounds left by Hesperia’s imperialist ambitions. In her second novel, R.F. Kuang brings all the strengths of The Poppy War, and continues to combine 20th century Chinese history with the best conventions of dark fantasy, taking the series to new highs as Rin continues to fight for her future, and try to figure out how best to wield her power for the good of Nikara, despite terrible trauma and impossible choices.

Categories: Fantasy

The Kingdom of Copper

Cover image for The Kingdom of Copper by S. A. ChakrabortyIt has been five years since Nahri and Muntadhir were forced into a marriage alliance, and Ali was exiled to Am Gezira. Ghassan’s iron-fisted rule has only tightened on the hidden djinn city of Daevabad. In the second volume of S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy, rival factions collide, and war is brewing. Tensions between the clans within the magical city are escalating, with the half-blood shafit always paying the largest price for the conflict between the Daevas and the Geziri. Chakraborty has developed a fraught dynamic by granting the reader access to multiple narrative perspectives. The warring groups are not speaking to, or sometimes even aware of, one another, but the reader can see the collision course that is being charted as the generation festival of Navasatem approaches. Their prejudices threaten to poison everything, and even Nahri is not immune to this thinking as she struggles to find her way out from under Ghassan’s thumb.

Categories: Fantasy 

Ninth House

Cover image for Ninth House by Leigh BardugoAlex Stern never expected to end up at Yale. She spent most of her teen years going from fix to fix, looking to numb out, to forget. But when an overdose lands her in the hospital, she wakes up to an unexpected visitor. Dean Sandow of Yale University knows much more about her than any stranger should, and he has an offer to make Alex; come to Yale on a full scholarship, in exchange for serving as the watchdog to Yale’s secret societies. When she arrives on campus, Alex descends into a world of privilege and magic, monitoring the arcane rights of the societies, and ensuring that they follow the proper occult forms for their rituals. Told in alternating chapters, Ninth House toggles between Alex’s arrival at Yale in the autumn, and the investigation into the murder of Tara Hutchins during the winter. Leigh Bardugo carefully peels back the layers, doling out information in dribs and drabs. This novel might be best described as a dark fantasy with horror vibes. It is set in our own world, but to the privilege of wealth is added the privilege of magic, the one contributing to the other. The fact that it feels just one step to the left of what is real only serves to make it that much more eerie.

(Trigger warnings for this title include, but are not limited to: rape and sexual assault, ritual gore, drug use, and self-harm. Bardugo is examining these events from the point of view of the victims and survivors, but nevertheless, some of these occurrences make for difficult reading.)

Categories: Fantasy, Horror

Sorcery of Thorns

Cover image for Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret RogersonAs a child of the Great Libraries of Austermeer, orphaned Elisabeth Scrivener has been raised surrounded by the magical grimoires that house the arcane secrets of the kingdom. Since sorcery is only possible via demonic bargain, magic users are necessary to the security of the kingdom, but also suspect, and never to be trusted. Librarians and their apprentices, like Elisabeth, tightly control access to magical knowledge, and are responsible for containing and protecting the most dangerous books. Worse, if a grimoire is a damaged, it can transform into a violent Malefict, wreaking havoc until it is bound or destroyed. When a disaster at the Great Library of Summershall forces Elisabeth to ally with the taciturn young sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn, and his demonic servant, the precepts of the Great Libraries are called into question, with the fate of Austermeer hanging in the balance. In Sorcery of Thorns, Margaret Rogerson has created a tantalizing world, both filled with magic, and where magical knowledge is forbidden, with the practice of sorcery tightly controlled by law. But while sorcerers are dangerous, they are also powerful, and the checks and balances of power in such a world make for intriguing politics. Who gets access to knowledge, and who gets to decide?

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy 

Looking for more great reads? You can check out my Top Picks from past years. Or check back later this week, when I’ll feature my top non-fiction reads of the year.

What were your top fiction reads of 2019?

The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War #2)

by R. F. Kuang

ISBN 978-0-060266263-7

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “She had too much power now, too much rage, and she needed a cause for which to burn. Vaisra’s Republic was her anchor. Without that, she’d be lost, drifting.”

Having called down the power of the fire god known as the Phoenix to destroy the islands of the Mugen Federation, Runin “Rin” Fang and the remaining Cike take refuge in the southern port city of Ankhiluun. In order to gather the resources they need to take their revenge for the betrayal of Nikaran Empresss Su Daji, the Cike take on a series of assassinations for Moag, the opium pirate queen of Ankhiluun. Grappling with the consequences of her actions, her involvement in Altan’s death, and her new responsibility for the Cike, Rin turns increasingly to opium to dampen the whispers of the god of fire and vengeance. Her mission to assassinate the Empress is the only thing giving her purpose, but to do so she will need to make common cause with Yin Vaisra, the Dragon Warlord, and father of her old school rival, Nezha. Vaisra promises a democratic republic that will usher in a new age of prosperity for Nikara, but when the other warlords refuse to join him, he turns to Hesperia for help.

In trying to cope with the consequences of her actions, Rin is spiraling into deep self-hatred. The atrocity she committed against the Mugen people weighs heavily, and she tries to sooth it with a variety of methods, from self-harm, to opiates, to pledging to commit various acts of atonement. Rin’s past actions are at once monstrous, and understandable, and her reaction is entirely human, if deeply disturbing. Her power means that it is a profoundly dangerous thing for someone like her to be so angry and emotionally vulnerable. Having gone dark at the end of The Poppy War, it is painful to watch her try to flail back towards the surface, even as circumstances around her continue to deteriorate, and Nikara plunges into civil war.

Despite Rin’s shifting allegiances throughout the book, her ultimate enemy remains the Empress, Su Daji. While Rin’s flawed humanity has never been in doubt, the Empress has been something of a distant, all-powerful villain. In The Dragon Republic, we gain a few closer glimpses at the woman who rules Nikara, as well as a peek into her past, when Rin encounters the Ketreyids, a nomadic people who live along the northern borders of the empire, and who can communicate mind to mind. Their leader is able to show Rin the young woman known as the Vipress who would go on to become the sole ruler of Nikara. Though Rin cannot see the similarities between herself and Daji, the Empress sees them all too clearly, recognizing both the threat and the promise of the last Speerly. Each face-to-face encounter with Daji proves critical as Rin questions what the future holds for her, and for Nikara.

Another character who comes further into focus in this second installment is Yin Nezha, Rin’s former rival and Sinegard classmate. The two made peace when the country went to war with the Mugen Federation, and all the students of Sinegard military academy were called up to serve. The two share an uneasy attraction, but their differences and their trauma make it hard for their feelings to come to fruition. In joining his father’s faction, Rin gains further insight into the power and privilege with which he was raised, as well as the secrets the family has been hiding beneath a carefully polished public exterior. His mother, the Lady Saikhara, has deep ties to Hesperia, as well as the missionaries of the Grey Company who believe that shamans are manifestation of Chaos incarnate. While The Poppy War focused on the conflict between Mugen and Nikara, with The Dragon Republic attention begins to turn back towards the old wounds left by Hesperia’s imperialist ambitions.

The Dragon Republic brings all the strengths of The Poppy War, and continues to combine 20th century Chinese history with the best conventions of dark fantasy, taking the series to new highs as Rin continues to fight for her future, and try to figure out how best to wield her power for the good of Nikara, despite terrible trauma and impossible choices.

You might also like City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

Top 5 Fiction 2018

These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2018. You can click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks!

The Cruel Prince

Cover image for The Cruel Prince by Holly BlackThis was one of the first books that I read in 2018, but it has nevertheless held up as one of the best, and the sequel is just around the corner in January 2019! Seventeen-year-old Jude and her twin sister, Taryn, are mortals who have lived in Faerie since they were children, raised by the Faerie general who murdered their parents in order to retrieve his daughter, their half-sister Vivi. Despite this violent beginning, Jude longs to find her place in the High Court of King Eldred, and dreams of knighthood and acceptance. However, many of the high fey will never see a mortal as anything more than a servant, to be used and discarded at will. Worst among these is Prince Cardan, youngest of the High King’s sons, who seems to have a special hatred for Jude, and the way she was raised as if she were part of the Gentry. When the High King announces that he will abdicate his throne, and pass the Blood Crown to one of his six children, Jude is caught up in political intrigues and violent betrayals, and is quickly reminded why the Faerie Court is no place for humans. Holly Black is an acknowledged master of the faerie tale, and The Cruel Prince represents a particularly twisty example of her talent in this arena.

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy, Fairy Tales

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Cover image for The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky ChambersI am a sucker for a found family narrative, and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is great exemplar of a sci-fi take on this trope. When Rosemary Harper abandons her privileged life on Mars for a new identity, and takes a job as a clerk aboard the Wayfarer, her only expectation is to get away from the past. Aboard the ship is a motley inter-species crew that makes their living by building wormholes for interstellar travel, and Rosemary has been brought aboard to keep their permits and paperwork in order, so they don’t lose their license. Their latest job begins when a new species is welcomed into the Galactic Commons, which will necessitate building new tunnels to facilitate travel and trade. But the Toremi Ka are only one clan of a warring, nomadic species, Hedra Ka is their newly claimed territory, and the Wayfarer and her crew may be flying into a war zone. There is plenty of science working beneath the premises Becky Chambers puts forth, but her story is character-driven, and technology is decidedly not the focus. Rather it is the development of the relationships among the crew on this journey that take center stage.

Categories: Science Fiction

The Poppy War

Cover image for The Poppy War by R. F. KuangDebut novelist R.F. Kuang hit it big this year with the gritty first installment of a planned trilogy about the Nikara Empire. A war orphan, Rin dreams of passing the Keju exam, and traveling north to study at one of the empire’s elite schools. But when her hard work pays off and she tests into Sinegard, the top military academy in the country, Rin discovers that her trials are only beginning. Sinegard’s military and political elite have little time or sympathy for a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south. Desperate to prove herself, Rin unlocks a supposedly mythical power that enables her to summon the strength of the gods. Even as she is further alienated from her teachers and classmates, she becomes the protégé of an eccentric master who has taken no other apprentices from her class. But Master Jiang wants Rin to learn to control and suppress her abilities, while Rin dreams of wielding them in battle for the glory of the Empire. And with the Empire constantly on the brink of the next war with the Mugen Federation, it becomes increasingly difficult to heed her Master’s advice and resist the call of the Phoenix, god of fire and vengeance. The Poppy War is a decidedly adult fantasy featuring a terrifyingly badass female protagonist on a worrisome trajectory towards darkness.

Categories: Fantasy

Strange the Dreamer

Cover image for Strange the Dreamer by Laini TaylorStrange the Dreamer is the kind of book where the author writes herself into difficult situations, but then makes bold choices with the consequences. From his childhood as an orphan in a monastery, to his young adulthood as a junior library apprentice, Lazlo Strange has been obsessed with the lost city of Weep. For thousands of years, magical goods crossed the Elmuthaleth desert to be traded, but no faranji was ever allowed to see the city from whence they came, on pain of death. But two hundred years ago, all trade suddenly ceased without explanation. Once, Weep had another name, but fifteen years ago it was snatched from the minds of the few who remembered the city at all, including Lazlo, whose obsession was only deepened by the loss. Now a hero from Weep, known as the Godslayer, has emerged from the Elmuthaleth, seeking the best scientists to join a delegation that will help the city solve the last remnant of the problem that halted trade for two hundred years. But what use could such a delegation have for a mere junior librarian who has studied Weep all his life, and yet undoubtedly knows less about it than anyone who was raised there? In beautiful prose that will be familiar to fans of her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, Laini Taylor brings to life a vivid new fantasy world that didn’t so much capture my imagination as take it hostage, until I stayed up far too late to reach the last page, and find out what would become of Lazlo, Sarai, and the people of Weep.

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy

Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi EdugyanCanadian sensation Esi Edugyan received international attention this year, with her Giller prize winning novel also being named to the Man Book short-list. Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brothers arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse. In her trademark exquisite prose, Edugyan tells the story of a slave who gains his freedom with nuance and complexity. Indeed it is the depth of the characters, and the nuance with which their situations are portrayed that really makes Washington Black unforgettable.

Categories: Canadian, Historical Fiction

Honourable mentions also go out to the rest of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, which I devoured, and found to be utterly delightful, though the first one was my favourite, and is thus listed here. That’s it for fiction, but check back later this week for my non-fiction selections!

What were your top fiction reads of 2018?

The Poppy War

Cover image for The Poppy War by R. F. Kuangby R. F. Kuang

ISBN 978-0-06-266256-9

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

The Keju is a ruse to keep uneducated peasants right where they’ve always been. You slip past the Keju, they’ll find a way to expel you anyway. The Keju keeps the lower classes sedated. It keeps us dreaming. It’s not a ladder for mobility; it’s a way to keep people like me exactly where they were born. The Keju is a drug.

Rin is a war orphan, being raised by the Fang family only because the government has mandated that families adopt such children, and because they find it convenient to use her to help them in their drug smuggling business. Living in the deep rural south of the Nikara Empire, Rin dreams of passing the Keju exam, and traveling north to study at one of the empire’s elite schools. But when her hard work pays off and she tests into Sinegard, the top military academy in the country, Rin discovers that her trials are only beginning. Sinegard’s military and political elite have little time or sympathy for a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south. Desperate to prove herself, Rin unlocks a supposedly mythical power that enables her to summon the strength of the gods. Even as she is further alienated from her teachers and classmates, she becomes the protégé of an eccentric master who has taken no other apprentices from her class. But Master Jiang wants Rin to learn to control and suppress her abilities, while Rin dreams of wielding them in battle for the glory of the Empire. And with the Empire constantly on the brink of the next war with the Mugen Federation, it becomes increasingly difficult to heed her Master’s advice and resist the call of the Phoenix, god of fire and vengeance.

Rin starts off as a grey protagonist who is driven hard by ambition and misplaced loyalty. I was reminded of the way we watched the development of Adelina Amouterou in Marie Lu’s The Young Elites series. However, I think it is important to note that in spite of the age of the protagonist, in tone, pacing, and subject matter, The Poppy War is a decidedly adult fantasy novel that deals with war, substance abuse, rape, genocide, and intergenerational trauma, to name a few. Although her character develops to an increasingly dark place, early in the book, I found Rin very appealing. She is independent, ambitious, and irreverent, and she doesn’t care about customs or social roles. The Fangs plan to marry her off to a local official several times her age so that he will look the other way when it comes to their opium smuggling business. Her reaction is “fuck the heavenly order of things. If getting married to a gross old man was her preordained role on this earth, then Rin was determined to rewrite it.” However, she quickly developed into a person who worried me. She burns herself to stay awake when studying for the Keju, leaving herself scarred. And when she arrives in Sinegard and finds her studies imperiled by menarche, she decides to have her reproductive organs medically destroyed. In short, she is a terrifying badass. I admired her rejection of social norms, even as I was terrified of what she was going to grow up into. While I described her as a grey protagonist above, I think it is safe to say that the grey will be pretty black by the end of this planned trilogy. In fact, the transformation is arguably in place by the end of the third act, when Rin refuses to apologize or abdicate responsibility for her actions in the war.

The Poppy War’s narrative is divided into three acts. Part I is Rin’s origin story, and covers her studying for the Keju and her time at Sinegard. Although there are parts of this section that are hardcore, as mentioned above, it is the most youthful part of the narrative, and mirrors many of the familiar traditions of the magical boarding school setting, including trials, rivalries, and unexpected friendships. However, Part II sees the arrival of a long-awaited war, and the students of Sinegard, no longer children, are drafted into the war effort. Rin is once again cast adrift, and must find her place in the Empire’s military, a milieu in many ways more daunting than even elitist Sinegard. There are some lengthy descriptions of military sieges and tactics that would generally not be in my wheelhouse, but I liked the way Kuang was using these elements to explore politics, history, and the implications of war, not just wallow in war itself. In fact, one of the most important battles (see Chapter 21) is described only by its aftermath, in a way that is somehow both understated and horrifying. These choices continued to keep me with the book despite the increasing military focus.

Debut author Rebecca Kuang studied Chinese history at Georgetown, and in the same week that she was celebrating her debut novel, she was tweeting about completing her honours thesis on the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. The Poppy War draws deeply on that knowledge, with a fantasy twist that introduces ancient gods, and the remaining few who are able to draw on their power at a terrible price. Kuang cleverly insinuates much of her history and world-building as Rin studies for the Keju, and has to master many of these subjects for herself. To the extent that The Poppy War is a dark fantasy, it is a merely a dark reflection of the history that Kuang is drawing on. And with the fantasy genre awash in European history inspired fantasies, dark and otherwise, I think it is safe to say we could use a few more like Kuang’s that are inspired by and centered on other parts of the world.

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