Since the start of the year I started the sci-fi novel series The Expanse. After three books in a row, despite enjoying the novels, I did need a break from space. I went to the internet and found quite a bit of buzz about a new novel that instead of being rooted in A European setting, instead based its setting on China. That was enough for me to give it a try.
The Poppy War
Writer: R. F. Kuang
The best thing about this novel was in fact it’s setting. Being based on China did add a great deal of fresh air to the work. Unfortunately, the character work was sorely lacking. Despite having an abundance of names characters, most were bland servants of the plot and easily interchangeable. The main character, while distinguishable, was barely likable, made hardly any active choices, and should little if any growth. The plot was also a mish-mash if sudden obstacles and equally sudden developments. And with a third act that felt more intended to illustrate the actual horrors Chiba faced in modern history than to serve the story, is it any surprise that the story fell apart?
Spoilers Lurk Below
I’m making a lot of claims above, let’s see if I can defend them. Let’s start with character. For a book that starts like the dark version of Mulan goes to Hogwarts, you’d hope that this would be a world populated by memorable, interesting characters. Instead you get cliche after cliche. The beautiful, rich snobs. The nerdy side-kick. The harsh professors, and the eccentric. It is all rather trite. And since they aren’t developed, it feels extra pointless. Looking forward to the third act, many of these opening characters serve as fodder for horror. As the book continues and we meet another wave of characters, they continue to be named but personality-less creations. Mere servants of the plot.
But Rin, our main character, is perhaps the most damaging simply because she is not allowed to really grow or change. The arguments with herself that she has at the beginning of the novel are still going on at the end. With five hundred pages of the same discussion, it gets old.
Plus, she rarely makes any active choices. I suppose you could say that since she goes from being a student to a soldier she is never in the right place to make a decision, but that feels like a weak argument.
Then there is the connection to history. Maybe I am biased. I have lived in Japan (represented by Mugen) for the past 15 years and do have an affection for the country. However, I am well aware of the travesties Japan has inflicted on China and of the modern governments lack of owning up to its past actions.
That said, Kuang’s use of the horrors of Nanking felt exploitative and out of place. It didn’t further the story. It just felt like finger pointing. This extends to the Mugen people, which as a stand in for Japanese, did make me wonder about Kuang’s own prejudices, seeing as they were all depicted as monstrously evil.
Ultimately it seems to come down to Kuang’s only depicting character with one note in a plot that can also handle only one note at a time. Very little is handled with any deftness.
The final, literal, deus-ex-machina and what it would reference was painfully obvious as was the bland way in which it was handled.
A squandered setting that seems to earn its laurels from its horror porn third act. So many interesting ideas left to languish.