This Week, I Read… (2019 #40)

130 - The Poppy War

#130 – The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang

  • Read: 9/26/19 – 9/29/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (83/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A book with “pop,” “sugar,” or “challenge” in the title
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Hugely disappointed and more than a little bewildered by how beloved this book is.

I went into it blind, as was recommended by pretty much everyone who touted the book as amazing, so that’s what I did. The opening act was like, huh, a female-empowerment version of Harry Potter, let’s escape my miserable home life and learn to be something better at this academy that will give me the structure and purpose that’s missing from my life. So far, I’m on board.

As far as the time spent at the academy itself, I was also mostly on board with how it was depicted, the quirks of the masters, the general antagonism and rare friendship of Rin’s fellow students, and the slow peeling-back of the mysteries of the world’s lore. Interesting stuff.

Then the war starts and implodes everything. After this, I felt like the story had no mooring–I never knew what was going to happen, I couldn’t see Rin’s arc clearly ahead of time, and when the end came and I finally did understand what the point of it all was, I was actually disgusted by where she ended up.

The pacing slows to a glacial crawl in order to fully depict the atrocities of war and fully demonize the enemy. Other reviewers have commented that they didn’t feel it was gratuitous, but I most definitely did, especially when a minor character from the school who was never well-developed or all that important miraculously survives a prolonged stint as a “public toilet” just so she can spend a few pages graphically detailing her endless cycle of rapes and the horrific treatment of the other women who were in captivity with her. Beyond that, just how long do we have to devote to describing the piles of corpses all over the city? Thank you, I got the point, can we get the plot moving again yet?

Now, the brutality of the “Mugenese” army, which is clearly based on Japan, against the “Nikara,” who are clearly Chinese, does actually have historical basis, because Japanese Imperialism wrought some horrible things on the world. My objection to this depiction of war isn’t because of any quibbles about real-world analogues.

My objection is because the only way to allow Rin to become a war criminal and still be a sympathetic protagonist, still the hero of the story, is to have the enemy she’s fighting somehow be worse.

But they’re not. And one of her comrades even points that out to her, after the fact, still trying to be the voice of reason, in yet another guise that Rin fails to listen to.

Because that’s the entire story. Rin is constantly given the choice between wisdom/prudence and power/revenge, and she constantly chooses power. Her arc is from nobody-peasant-girl to insanely powerful war criminal, and yet, I’m still supposed to be rooting for her and invested in her cause, but I’m not, because she’s an idiot who is given every chance to do better and not be a war criminal, but she always chooses wrong. No matter how many times someone with a cooler head advises her against an action, she always knows better and does what she wants to do anyway, only to have the consequences of her poor decision-making blow up (sometimes literally) in everyone’s faces.

And we have to suffer her intense moments of indecision, her internal debates, over and over again, always hoping she’ll choose differently, she’ll make the smart choice, and being disappointed over and over again when she doesn’t.

Her character arc gives her an increase in personal power that’s massive in scale and completely out of tone with her incredibly humble beginnings, so much so that even with the substantial length of this book, I still feel like it was rushed, that Rin grew too fast. And yet, really, she doesn’t grow at all, because never once did she learn from a single mistake that she made.

131 - One True Loves

#131 – One True Loves, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

  • Read: 9/29/19 – 9/30/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (41/48)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

What could have been an incredibly powerful story about love, loss, and how a person changes as they move forward was ultimately cheapened by being completely devoid of subtlety.

There wasn’t a single thing about any of the main characters that I was allowed to interpret for myself from the way they spoke or acted. The book held my hand through every page to make sure that I came away from it with exactly the message that the author wanted me to have, nothing more. Emma’s narration explained everything to me with no gaps I had to fill in.

That’s a damning criticism when leveled at most books–that the author doesn’t trust the reader to figure anything out–and it’s a serious one here. But still, I was moved. The flip side of the narrative style being so obvious and forthright was that the emotional beats had nothing holding them back from punching me square in the gut, and they did–I cried several times. While Emma could be irritating on occasion, both Sam and Jesse were charming in their own ways, and I could easily see how swoon-worthy they were. I’m a sucker for sweetness and thoughtfulness in a man, so I’d be team Sam in this Husband War, but I can certainly understand the perspective of a reader finding Jesse more appealing. That’s the other upside of the style–both men are allowed to be utterly forthcoming about their own feelings (when they choose to be, at least) and that’s a level of emotional honesty I don’t often see in romance and/or women’s fiction.

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