I can see why lots of people like this book, it has many interesting qualities to it. However, I think I’m just tired of these epic fantasy narratives. So, it didn’t really resonate with me in the end, despite the first half of the book being quite a page turner.
The Poppy War uses the general frame of Chinese history in the 20th century, but reshapes it with its own fantasy elements. So there’s an invasion from an island nation (Japan), the influx of opium and heroin but then the fantasy elements of being able to call upon gods and become shamans are mixed in with all that. It’s not using actual real place names and people, but rather it is using the different notes of that history to form the fantasy world.
There are lots of good characters, which use their diverse natures to comment on social hierarchy, skin colour and various other dynamics that allow for some natural conflict between some of the characters. This was the most compelling part of the novel, where fighting against the social norms of the existing society were so compellingly drawn out. It was only when the war starts where the story seemed to unravel a bit for me, with all those elements falling to the wayside.
I also found that the pacing and character motivations vacillate widely as the book progressed. None of the character development felt particularly earned and the characters had to explain why something was particularly important. There was also the thing that happens in books that annoys me, where a main character meets other characters after an almost impossible thing. It’s a fantasy novel and impossible things are allowed to happen, but it always takes me out of a story because of the odds being so astronomical. And of course, it’s supposed to have some emotional resonance but because I find it unlikely, it just doesn’t deliver that punch.
The first part of the book is at the military academy, where we meet quite a few characters, who show up in various points later on. However, the amount of time spent with some of them, versus the pay off for their appearance later on seemed relatively weak. For example, two of the characters who basically treat the main character, Rin, like garbage, show up later on. I can understand wanting to put behind petty childhood concerns in the face of war, but I don’t think the main character would swear vengeance because of one of them. It felt completely unearned. I can understand the reason behind wanting to do it, driving home the horror of war, but given they were witness to a massacre, it felt completely superfluous.
The pacing was a bit all over the place, slow burns and sudden spurts of horror or monumental violence. The seemingly obligatory sexual violence in fantasy is present in this novel as well, which is used as fuel to push Rin down a dark path, but it did feel relatively unnecessary. I mean, there was already a genocide or two, alongside horrible massacres and torture.
I really liked the elements about shamans, except the fact that it’s essentially a deal with the devil, which just seems immensely depressing. Maybe some of the pay off in the series will be to overcome that, but you’re left in such a depressing point at the end of this novel that I’m not sure I’m going to carry on with the series. I know it’s a personal thing, but I feel like I need some sort of hope to carry on with a series. Everyone had to make terrible choices in this book, there’s a horrible war, everyone has committed atrocities, where do you go from here? Is redemption possible? Maybe. But not sure I’m going to go looking for it.