The Popularity War
The Poppy War starts off with a bang. Actually, it starts with the foster child of some opium dealers scarring herself into passing the most difficult test in fantasy-China, saving herself from arranged marriage to a gross old man at the expense of propelling her into a severe military academy where her lowly roots earn her enemies until she outperforms them all and shows hints of forgotten magical power… Let’s just say it was hard to put the book down for the first hundred pages. This was Ender’s-Game-meets-Harry-Potter level awesome: clever plotting, fast-paced story, snappy dialogue, and spunky main character overcoming adversity, leading to an epic showdown that had me wondering how the book could possibly get better.
It was a valid question. The snappy dialogue continues throughout, but the fast-paced story takes a hard left turn that drops most of what made the first third fun. Kuang’s loveable side characters disappear to be replaced by others that aren’t as well fleshed-out, and the spunky main character becomes increasingly passive and internally tormented. That is, the story the book promises to tell is not the one it ends up telling, nor is it told in the same way as the first third. The Poppy War ends up feeling more like two books (or three) pressed into one, without much carryover between each volume. While it is well-written throughout, the lack of continuity plus the main character’s drop in proactivity made means the book does not live up to the promise of its opening.
Kuang likely had reasons for plotting the story like this: a student of modern Chinese history and advocate for the forgotten violence of the early twentieth century, The Poppy War wears its political themes and concerns on its sleeve. As a former graduate student studying spirituality and violence, I relate to a lot of these concerns, but it feels here like they take precedence over the readability of the story. Perhaps this a worthy sacrifice to make for the cause, as Kuang’s main character makes (insanely) large sacrifices for hers. It surely cannot be said that this is a timid or unambitious book. But if the main cause you are looking for is entertainment rather than advocacy for forgotten atrocities, The Poppy War may be a difficult read.
That said, sometimes a difficult read it what we like. If a movie with Ken Liu building the sets, M.H. Boroson scripting the plot and N.K. Jemisin directing the themes sounds awesome, give it a read. Or, if you don’t mind dropping trad-pub dollars on a screaming good novella, buy it, read the first third, and see where the rest takes you.