Snapshot Review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Series: The Poppy War, #1
Pages: 544
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: May 1st 2018

TW: graphic violence, rape, torture, drug use

      “A brilliantly imaginative talent makes her exciting debut with this epic historical military fantasy, inspired by the bloody history of China’s twentieth century and filled with treachery and magic, in the tradition of Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.
      When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.
      But surprises aren’t always good.
      Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.
      For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .
      Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.”

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      “Children ceased to be children when you put a sword in their hands. When you taught them to fight a war, then you armed them and put them on the front lines, they were not children anymore. They were soldiers.”

  • Rin – Rin is a special kind of character. The Poppy War takes places over the span of several years. We see Rin as a child, defined by her orphan status. Her foster family is more interested in marrying her off than providing a stable home. We see her as a teen, determined to find a way out of her circumstances and nothing will stand in her way. As a student at Sinegard Academy, Rin is forced once again to push herself, to stretch herself thin in order to succeed. And yet she never breaks. When the Nikara Empire is thrust into another war with the Federation of Mugen, Rin is again pushed to her limits. So much of who she is and who she is becoming is tied to her ability to take things like pain and use them as a means to mold herself into something stronger.
  • School setting – There are a lot of interesting settings in The Poppy War, but readers spend a substantial amount of time at the Sinegard Academy with Rin. The most prestigious academy in the Empire is meant to produce generals and future leaders within the military. It is cut-throat and students are more likely to fail than to succeed. This setting works well on many fronts. On one hand it gives us a glimpse at Rin as a student. We see her grow and face both academic and personal obstacles. It also introduces several key characters who will play important roles going forward. But one of my favorite things about Kuang’s use of this setting is we as readers learn alongside Rin. We are taught Nikara’s history and lore. This method of world-building gives the reader a broader understanding of this universe without feeling like they are getting a huge info dump.
  • History and lore collide – Speaking of history and lore, one of the most exciting things about this world is how history and mythology are so intricately woven together. Rin uncovers a power within herself that indicates that the more fantastical stories of shamans and gods are in fact real. And these folk heroes and villains are not in the past, but are major players in present day.
  • The trauma of warfare – I knew going into the novel that I shouldn’t expect a lighthearted novel, but I wasn’t prepared for how somber this one ended up being. Rin is a war orphan and has suffered many things. But her pain is only the tip of the iceberg. TWs above apply to this section. There is torture, experimentation, genocide, rape. Kuang makes it very clear that there are no victors in war, only survivors. No one is untouched by war and it has not only changed their world, but changed who they were meant to become. Soft characters are few and far between because not many can afford to be in such a harsh world.
  • Power – One of the major themes of The Poppy War is power. Who has it. Who wants it. And how far are they willing to get it. This often ties back to how certain characters experienced the trauma of war. Rin desires power because for so much of her life, she’s been powerless. There are characters who have been bred for war, who’ve been taught power is what makes them worthy of praise. When you combine this with years of pent up anger and justifiable hatred, the result is extremely volatile.

Nothing specific.

The Poppy War is appropriately horrendous and shocking, whose ending left me emotional exhausted. Kuang’s characters are flawed and broken and though you may question their choices, as a reader you understand them.

★ ★ ★ ★
(4/5)

ARC Review: Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno

Title: Don’t Date Rosa Santos
Author: Nina Moreno
Series: N/A
Pages: 336
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release Date: May 14th 2019

      “Rosa Santos is cursed by the sea-at least, that’s what they say. Dating her is bad news, especially if you’re a boy with a boat.
      But Rosa feels more caught than cursed. Caught between cultures and choices. Between her abuela, a beloved healer and pillar of their community, and her mother, an artist who crashes in and out of her life like a hurricane. Between Port Coral, the quirky South Florida town they call home, and Cuba, the island her abuela refuses to talk about.
      As her college decision looms, Rosa collides-literally-with Alex Aquino, the mysterious boy with tattoos of the ocean whose family owns the marina. With her heart, her family, and her future on the line, can Rosa break a curse and find her place beyond the horizon?”

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Nina Moreno’s debut, Don’t Date Rosa Santos, perfectly blends romance and family in a coming of age story infused with heart and magic. In the small town of Port Coral, people have always whispered about the Santos women. How Milagro came from Cuba with a newborn babe and a face full of grief, having lost her husband at sea. The babe in turn grew up, fell in love with a sailor and he too was swept away, leaving a young Liliana heartbroken and pregnant. Rosa grew up hearing how the Santos women are cursed by the sea, how it takes from them the ones they love too much. As Rosa grapples with impending decisions about her future, her mother and grandmother’s grief continues to press in on her. And if Rosa isn’t careful, a new resident to Port Coral, a boy with a boat and a quiet smile, could once again spell tragedy for the Santos women.

Moreno does so many things well in her debut. Not only do her characters feel real, but the town of Port Coral feels like a living breathing world. It’s easy to fall in love with this town’s sights, sounds, and smells. From Mimi’s home, Rosa’s grandmother, to the town’s marina, every place feels like it could and does exist in the real world. Moreno first and foremost most builds this small town around its people. As Rosa navigates her hometown, readers are introduces to a myriad of locals, each bringing something unique to the narrative and forming the personality of Port Coral. I loved every single minor character in this one from the viejitos who make it their mission to spread chisme around town to the Peñas, Rosa’s best friend’s family, who own the local bodega, a place where people and food come together and which feels like the heart of Port Coral.

Much of the novel explores people’s ties to their homeland. For Mimi, Cuba is a part of her past. Having left during a time of political upheaval, so many of her memories of it are tied to traumatic events. For Rosa, Cuba is a safe she doesn’t know the combination to, but which holds the answers to who she is. Rosa is a product of diaspora, stuck between two worlds and not knowing if she is enough for either. So much of Rosa’s plans are tied up in Cuba, as she longs for the home she’s never known but one that feels etched onto her bones. To Rosa, Cuba is the key to healing her family, to mending the ties between daughter and mother. It’s a link to her past as well as who she will be in the future, but it’s never felt quite within her grasp like it does when she is presented with an opportunity to study in Havana.

I really loved exploring the mother-daughter relationships in this novel. Liliana has been dealing with her grief by constantly moving, leaving Rosa to be raised by her mother. Every interaction between Liliana and Mimi is filled with tension. Grief, resentment, disappointed are present in every word they exchange. Rosa is caught in the middle, between a woman she is too afraid to ask to stay and one she is too afraid to disappoint. Navigating this family isn’t easy when there are wounds in their pasts that each are too afraid to revisit. Family traumas have been swept under the rug, keeping the pain too raw and too fresh, even decades later.

Don’t Date Rosa Santos is one of those rare novels that breaks your heart and begins to heal it all within the same chapter. Its emphasis on family, friendship, and community coupled with a touch of brujería, makes it one of the most touching and magical reads I’ve ever had the pleasure of picking up.

★★★★★

(5/5)

ARC Review: Beneath the Citadel by Destiny Soria

Title: Beneath the Citadel
Author: Destiny Soria
Series: N/A
Pages: 544
Publisher: Amulet
Release Date: October 9th 2018
*I received an ARC copy of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review*

      “In the city of Eldra, people are ruled by ancient prophecies. For centuries, the high council has stayed in power by virtue of the prophecies of the elder seers. After the last infallible prophecy came to pass, growing unrest led to murders and an eventual rebellion that raged for more than a decade.
      In the present day, Cassa, the orphaned daughter of rebels, is determined to fight back against the high council, which governs Eldra from behind the walls of the citadel. Her only allies are no-nonsense Alys, easygoing Evander, and perpetually underestimated Newt, and Cassa struggles to come to terms with the legacy of rebellion her dead parents have left her — and the fear that she may be inadequate to shoulder the burden. But by the time Cassa and her friends uncover the mystery of the final infallible prophecy, it may be too late to save the city — or themselves.”

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Destiny Soria’s Beneath the Citadel has interesting political and magical systems, but I found the story overall to be a little too convoluted. Soria’s debut Iron Cast‘s biggest strength was the friendship at its center and it’s the same with this sophomore novel. Beneath the Citadel focuses on four friends infiltrating the center of an all-powerful political power in hopes of discovering why people in the city of Eldra have been disappearing. In a world ruled by seers’ prophecies, the ruling chancellor and council have used these visions to wield power over the people, squashing any rebellion before it can gain any footing. Cassandra “Cassa” Vera is the daughter of rebels. Her distrust of the council runs deep; she along with her friends, Alys, Evander, and Newt hatch a plan to infiltrate the Citadel and find answers. The novel opens with these four friends being dragged in front of the governing body, their plan having been thwarted. I’m still not sure how I feel about the choice to open the novel with the leads having already been arrested. I was really interested in reading about their scheme, how they each contributed to the plan, and how they worked together. What follows is the lead characters trying to stop the council by teaming up with a mysterious player who has his own motives.

Cassa is the unofficial leader of the pact. She’s bold and confident, with a leap-first-and-ask-questions-later kind of personality. Her drive, however, is infectious. Perhaps the reason people are so drawn to her is the legacy she carries. Her parents were prominent rebel leaders who died trying to protect the people of Eldra. In a way Cassa’s hatred of the citadel is the only way she knows how to honor her parents. Much of the time, it felt like Cassa wanted to do things only on her terms and while there is some character development in this department, it felt like she was never really a part of the group dynamic. I never felt her connection to the other characters, including Evander, with whom she had a past romantic relationship.

I really liked Alys. She’s more brains than brawn and not someone you would immediately think of when trying to break into a secure facility. Still, she’s an invaluable asset to the team and excels in her own area of expertise. She’s very science-based and believes everything can be explained through science, hence her passion for apothecary. Alys also has anxiety which hits her at inopportune moments. I loved her relationship with her brother Evander. These two are very different, but I loved how close they were and that they balanced each other out. Evander was an easy character to like, charming and sly. He’s one of the few bisexual male characters I’ve come across. There’s an openness to him that the other characters didn’t possess. He had a really interesting relationship with Cassa that I kind of wanted to explore more as it gave us more insight into who she was, but I understand why Soria chose to distance him from her as his relationship with Newt is in the first stages of a romance.

Newt has a really interesting backstory involving his father and his tumultuous relationship with the rebel group Cassa’s parents belonged to. His father has raised Newt to be better than him, but in a very abusive way. Due to his size and demeanor, Newt is used to being underestimated, but of the four, I believe he is the most talented. There is also a fifth character who is important to the story who threw me for a loop when I first picked up this book. Juggling so many different perspectives with an already complicated storyline involving people who could not only see visions of the future, but could also take memories, and see your thoughts, sometimes made the novel hard to follow. I appreciated how intricate the story was, but some of the decisions made by the characters didn’t feel like it carried as much weight as they should have. Part of these characters’ motivation is the people of Eldra, but aside from a handful of scenes, we’re never really introduced to regular folk.

I liked the high stakes in this one, but wish the world outside of the political walls of the citadel had been fleshed out. I will say that Destiny Soria’s Beneath the Citadel has one of the boldest endings I’ve read in a long while and I applaud the gutsy move.

3/5

★★★

ARC Review: Bruja Born by Zoraida Córdova

Title: Bruja Born
Author: Zoraida Córdova
Series: Brooklyn Brujas, #2
Pages: 352
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Release Date: June 5th 2018
**I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, which does not influence my review.**

      “Three sisters. One spell. Countless dead.
      Lula Mortiz feels like an outsider. Her sister’s newfound Encantrix powers have wounded her in ways that Lula’s bruja healing powers can’t fix, and she longs for the comfort her family once brought her. Thank the Deos for Maks, her sweet, steady boyfriend who sees the beauty within her and brings light to her life.
      Then a bus crash turns Lula’s world upside down. Her classmates are all dead, including Maks. But Lula was born to heal, to fix. She can bring Maks back, even if it means seeking help from her sisters and defying Death herself. But magic that defies the laws of the deos is dangerous. Unpredictable. And when the dust settles, Maks isn’t the only one who’s been brought back…”

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In Bruja Born, Zoraida Córdova reintroduces readers to the Mortiz sisters and her world of witches. When Alex Mortiz cast a spell to take away her power, she inadvertently sent her entire family to Los Lagos, a dangerous in-between realm. While Alex was able to save her family, she could never foresee just how much her world would change. In Bruja Born, Alex’s older sister Lula takes center stage. While Alex is learning to accept who she is as an encantrix, an all-powerful bruja, Lula is trying to find her way back to who she was before Los Lagos. When Maks, Lula’s boyfriend and the only person who makes her feel normal, is taken from her, Lula does everything she can to bring him back. Unfortunately for Lula, in her quest to save Maks, her actions will disrupt the very balance of life and death, and in the end, Lula will have to decide what she is willing to sacrifice to right her wrongs.

As much as I enjoyed Alex in Labyrinth Lost, I actually think I relate more to Lula. Before I had finished the first chapter, I was fully invested in Lula’s story. There is something incredibly fragile about her, but the strength and determination underneath is never sacrificed for this fragility. Lula was a character flawed from the very beginning. She makes rash decisions because she is a character driven by emotion. Though her journey has her meeting the Lady de la Muerta, the goddess of death, and facing off against zombie-like creatures, ultimately Lula’s story is internal. I don’t want to give too much away but there is one moment at the end where it felt that Lula had finally taken back control of her life and she was able to see how strong and valuable she was. It made me want to cheer out loud. Watching Lula struggle between being the girl she used to be and the one who emerged from Los Lagos is heartbreaking, but in the end, her story manages to be incredibly hopeful.

I want to touch on how much I enjoy the relationship between the Mortiz sisters. At the beginning of the novel, Lula harbors a lot of resentment toward Alex and Alex, who recognizes that Lula has changed, blames herself. Though tension and anger are always present, underneath it all is love. Alex and their younger sister Rose have done their best to take care of their older sister. While the Mortiz household has be disrupted by the return of their missing father, these three have always had each other. In the end, these sisters would do anything for each other and it’s this relationship that is at the heart of this series. I feel like we get to see this even more in this sequel and after getting to know Rose better, I am really looking forward to her novel.

In Bruja Born, the dead live and the living get their hearts carved out, both metaphorically and literally. If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting the Mortiz sisters and following them on their witchy journey, you’re missing out.

4/5

★★★★