The Poppy War – R F Kuang

The Poppy War by R F Kuang (review copy from Harper Voyager) is a stunning and gut-wrenching debut.  Kuang mixes up real historical events (such as the Rape of Nanjing) with bigotry and violence to tell a complex story of betrayal and revenge.

The novel opens as Fang Runin (Rin) – a war orphan – is studying for the entrance exam to earn a scholarship place at Sinegard, the foremost military academy in Nikara.  Education is Rin’s escape from her abusive foster parents and the prospect of an unwanted marriage.  It offers her the chance of independence and a career.  Successful, she finds herself one of a group of new students at Sinegard.  But her education is interrupted when the always strained relations with neighbouring country Mugen erupt into war.  Mugen and Nikara have a history of tit-for-tat conflict, with peace always uneasy and never lasting long.  Both countries have long memories and lists of the war crimes committed by the other.

The early parts of The Poppy War have the feel of Pat Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind – student from the wrong side of the tracks enrols in school, makes enemies among the students and tutors, but catches the attention of the most eccentric and elusive of the school’s tutors, the Lore tutor Jiang. Rin learns that the stories of her childhood about gods and men able to summon them and their magic have truth in them.  Under Jiang’s supervision she begins to learn how to access her spiritual side and the Pantheon of the gods.  This is in sharp contrast to the rest of her training on military medicine, strategy and history.

The latter parts of the book are pure military fantasy, with shades of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen.  Rin’s loyalty to her command structure and her patriotism to the Empress and Nikara is tested to the limits as the novel progresses.  This is a novel that asks us to choose between conflicting loyalties at every turn.

The Poppy War is strong on the horrors of war (particularly the sequence based on the Rape of Nanjing, where the invading Japanese army massacred the civilian population of the city) and the camaraderie between unit members.  It draws heavily on the contested history between China and Japan, particularly the Second Sino-Japanese War.  (Kuang’s academic background is in this period of history.) The military incidents in the book are modelled on that war, right down to the use of chemical and biological weapons.

This is a novel with a fantastic level of class-consciousness and awareness of inequality and prejudice.  Although the national examinations are supposed to be meritocratic, they inevitably favour the rich and privileged who can afford the classical education tested for.  Sinegard is the only college that offers a full scholarship – for all the others the student’s family must meet the costs of their education.  So, while superficially meritocratic, this education system acts as a tool to reinforce and embed the privilege and stratification in Nikara society.  Although Rin’s fellow Sinegard student Altan Trengsin, the last of the Speerlies (a nation of fearsome warriors with the reputation of being able to summon fire, who were wiped out in a brutal act of genocide in the last war), is idolised for his fighting skills, he is treated as a curiosity and freak: mocked for his dark skin and the target of all the other students.

Rin is the inevitable product of this society.  Abused and exploited as a child and the victim of racist and classist bullying at Sinegard, she is used to mistreatment.  That for her is normal.  She blackmails her childhood tutor to help her prepare for the exam.  She gets through her studying by self-harming.  Anger at her mistreatment and the fragility of her life and future are what keep her going and focused on her education.  When she does encounter kindness, from Jiang, she doesn’t quite know how to respond to it.  Ironically she ends up most comfortable in the strict hierarchy of the Militia, where she can rail against orders and authority, but within the familiar context of abusive and controlling power structures.

To that extent it is no wonder that The Poppy War ends where it does.  This is a book about what happens when you dehumanise people and push them to their limits of pain and endurance.  That this is a story rooted in real history makes this all the more chilling.  Anger and the desire for revenge are powerful motives, but they are inherently destructive ones.  Almost inevitably, the abuse victim lashes out in revenge, but the price is a terrible one.

Goodreads rating: 5*

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Godsgrave – Jay Kristoff

Second novels can be difficult things, particularly the middle novel of a trilogy, which can never provide the resolution the reader is seeking.  So, how do you follow up a smash like NevernightJay Kristoff‘s  Godsgrave (review copy from Harper Voyager) takes Mia Corvere away from assassin school to pursue her mission of revenge against the people who unseated her father and executed him.

Godsgrave picked up after the cataclysmic event of the first novel – the Red Church is diminished, with many of its top echelons dead and its branch offices destroyed.  Now a fully fledged assassin, Mia is plying her trade, killing the great and the good to order, when she spots an opportunity to progress her revenge.  But it is one that may mean she must breach some of the most fundamental tenets of the Red Church, and will take her down a path that involves working with former enemies.

Mia Corvere engineers her way into gladiator school to earn a place at the biggest tournament of the year.  If she wins, she will have the opportunity to target her father’s killers.  But it is a life or death gamble – the survival rates from being a gladiator are low, and Mia rapidly finds out that her Red Church training will only take her so far.

In Godsgrave Mia’s single-minded focus on revenge begins to come under some pressure.  Time as a gladiator slave forces her to grow a social conscience about social and economic inequality.  But it also forces her to learn about the value of community and companionship, as she grows closer to her fellow gladiators.  There is not quite the same competitive culture that she experienced during her assassin training.

This greater social conscience adds depth to the novel, but takes away some of the sparkle of the first book.  Add that to some of those difficult middle novel issues, and Godsgrave doesn’t quite reach the peaks of Nevernight, but it’s still a great read.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Blackwing – Ed McDonald and Godblind – Anna Stephens

It was fascinating reading Godblind (Anna Stephens, review copy from Harper Voyager) and Blackwing (Ed McDonald, Gollancz) closely together.  There are a lot of similiarities between both novels, but quite a few differences too.

Godblind features two warring civilisations.  Rilpor, a largely peaceful, but still militarised kingdom is bordered to the West by the Mireces, a blood-thirsty alliance of tribes.  Each worships two gods (one male, one female), but while one is peaceful and preaches redemption, the other thrives on violence and human sacrifice.  Centuries before, the gods were thrust behind the veil, but the red cultists are plotting to tear the veil through the blood-shed of war, enabling the Red Gods to walk the world again.

In Blackwing, the existential terror lies to the East.  The Misery is a warped and shifting landscape filled with mutated creatures and monsters that has been occupied by twelve evil immortals.  Set against it is a city-state that controls the Engine, the only weapon capable of damaging the Deep Kings and their twisted troops.  A weapon built by one of the twelve immortals set against them.  Although stalemate has reigned for many years, there are concerning signs that the Deep Kings are mustering for invasion.

Ryhalt Galharrow is the titular Blackwing, a soldier marked by one of his gods and regularly tasked to undertake mysterious quests for little reward.  As the novel progresses, his background as a battle-scarred noble who has turned his back on his heritage begins to emerge.  Godblind features Dom  Templeson, a warrior who is also a seer, with a portal in his head that he uses to communicate with his gods.  He works as a Watcher, guarding Rilpor’s Western border.  Galharrow is cynical and self-reflective, where Dom mostly reacts, perpetually seeking to escape his role as seer.

Chance encounters prompted by their gods are the jumping off points for both novels.  Galharrow is sent to one of the forts in the edge of the Misery which is shortly going to come under attack.  His job is to save a particular person, who turns out to be his former fiancee, now a powerful magic-wielder key to repelling the forthcoming invasion.  Dom receives a vision telling him to go to a particular place.  There he finds Rillirin, an escaped Mireces slave, and saves her from her pursuers.  She turns out to be the killer of the last Mireces king and the brother of the new one.

Both books are classic grimdark, featuring a high body count and lots of violence.  Both use it to illustrate the horror of the enemy, but where Blackwing uses it to show the horror and darkness of war, Godblind veers close to torture-porn at times, glorying in showing the full horrors of Mireces rites.

I would also give Blackwing the edge in its world-building.  The magic-system built on the use of light is fresh, but has a realistic industry supporting it.  An industry that is subject to corruption, relies on the exploitation of workers and ties the kingdom together in its focus on battling the Deep Kings.  McDonald’s gods are clearly playing a long game.  They are frequently absent and use humans as pawns in their centuries-long battles.  By contrast, it’s unclear to me how the largely agrarian country of Rilpor can manage to support a large standing army that doesn’t appear to do much most of the time, or why its small towns and cities remain loyal to the throne, beyond that it’s there.

While both are very enjoyable books, Blackwing just feels as if it has a bit more depth, more nuance and and greater maturity to it than Godblind.

Blackwing: 4*

Godblind: 3*

Nevernight – Jay Kristoff

Grimdark Harry Potter.  It’s hard not to compare Jay Kristoff‘s Nevernight (review copy from Harper Voyager) to that iconic series of books about a boy at wizard school.  Except that Mia Corvere’s time at the Red Church training to be an assassin is tougher, bloodier, swearier and sexier.  And utterly glorious.

As a child, Mia was forced to watch her high-ranking father executed for treason and her mother and brother imprisoned.  She narrowly escapes being murdered by her father’s enemies, and hides on the streets before being taken in by an antiquarian and assassin.  Mia wants revenge, and chooses to train as an assassin herself.  Without that training she won’t have the skills to get close to the three men responsible for her father’s downfall.

Mia’s time at assassin school is no cakewalk.  Getting there requires a trip across a monster-infested desert rather than a sweet-fuelled train ride.  Lessons have a high mortality rate, with teachers actively trying to kill their students.  Instead of Potions, it’s Poisons, and students are taught the finer arts of charm and seduction as well as how to kill.  With only a tiny number of students from each cohort passing the course to become fully-fledged assassins, competition between students is fierce and often fatal.

Mia herself is a delightfully refreshing break from traditional female leads.  She is small, dark, angry and not particularly pretty.  She swears like a trooper, smokes and has a healthy sexual appetite.  She is also a darkin: with the ability to call and shape shadows, and a familiar in the shape of a shadow cat called Mr Kindly.  But her talent for shadow is not much use in a planet with three suns that only experiences true night every few years.  But her underpinning morality and sense of fairness, combined with her primary motivation of revenge may not make her the best candidate to be an assassin.  The training she is undergoing is designed to create those ruthless enough to carry out a contract, regardless of how unethical or immoral it may be.

Nevernight is glossy, high-concept fantasy, with a compelling plot of conspiracy and corruption.  It’s the perfect antidote to all those hooded rogues, Buffy clones and farmboys with secret destinies.  I look forward to its sequels.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Sharp Ends – Joe Abercrombie

When I first started reading The Blade Itself, the first novel in The First Law trilogy, I wasn’t sure whether Joe Abercrombie was a genius or the worst writer ever.  Then he introduced Sand dan Glokta, the bitter inquisitor who is a victim of torture himself, and I was an instant fan.

Along with Mark Lawrence, Abercrombie is probably one of the best known, and best-loved, writers of grimdark, that sub-genre of fantasy fiction that revels in mud, blood, violence and swearing.  Done badly, grimdark is horrible.  It becomes an exploitative excuse for extreme violence, including sexual violence depicted in a titillating way, and often comes with very poor characterisation.  (See my earlier review of Andy Remic’s The Dragon Engine for an example of how bad bad can get.)

But Abercrombie’s grimdark is different.  His characters feel like real people.  Albeit people who are often living in pretty horrible circumstances, and trying to make the best of a bad lot.  They are flawed but well-rounded characters that you cannot help but feel a bit of sympathy and empathy for.  Even the ones that should, on the face of it, be profoundly unlikeable, are compelling people you come to care about.  Most of all, these are people who find wit and humour in their lives, even if it is often a very black sort of humour.

And rather than glamourising war, Abercrombie shows it in all its uncompromising horror and does not seek to draw a veil over its consequences.  Yes, people can and do show heroism, but they are also cowards, the victims of accident and misadventure, and suffer injuries and psychological damage that persists through their lives.

Sharp Ends (published by Gollancz next week, review copy through NetGalley) is a collection of short fiction set in the same world as Abercrombie’s First Law books.  There are some treats for long-term fans – particularly the first story, which shows a young Sand dan Glokta at the height of his fame, talent and arrogance.  There are a lot of cameo appearances from major and minor characters from Abercrombie’s work.  But one doesn’t have to be an Abercrombie completist to read and enjoy this collection (even if it helps).  Each story in this highly enjoyable collection stands alone.  If you’re not sure Abercrombie’s writing is for you, this would be a fantastic introduction to his work.  If you’re a fan, you will love it.

Goodreads rating: 4*