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.

★ ★ ★ ★

Snapshot Review: The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black

Title: The Queen of Nothing
Author: Holly Black
Series: The Folk of the Air, #3
Pages: 305
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: November 19th 2019

      “After being pronounced Queen of Faerie and then abruptly exiled by the Wicked King Cardan, Jude finds herself unmoored, the queen of nothing. She spends her time with Vivi and Oak, watches her fair share of reality television, and does the odd job or two, including trying to convince a cannibalistic faerie from hunting her own in the mortal world.
      When her twin sister Taryn shows up asking of a favor, Jude jumps at the chance to return to the Faerie world, even if it means facing Cardan, who she loves despite his betrayal.
      When a dark curse is unveiled, Jude must become the first mortal Queen of Faerie and uncover how to break the curse, or risk upsetting the balance of the whole Faerie world.”

“I know what happens next. He’s going to deliver the final blow. Lopping off my head. Stabbing through my heart. The strike that’s a kindness, really. After all, who wants to die slowly when you can die fast?”

  • Jude – At the end of The Wicked King, it seemed that Jude had finally achieved her goal of attaining power; but after being betrayed, she must once again climb up from her lowly position and claim what she has rightfully earned. It was so rewarding to see how far Jude has come not just as a mortal in the faerie world, but as someone who is worthy of being shown deference regardless of who she is.
  • Sisterly bonds – Seeing Jude and Vivi, and even Taryn, whom I haven’t been very fond of, come together in this one to assist one another was so delightful. It had me rooting for their relationship and hoping for an ending that united them.
  • Madoc – In the first novel, Cardan is painted as Jude’s adversary, but as the series progressed and Cardan became someone capable of being an ally, another adversary emerged. Jude found herself pitted multiple times against her adopted father. This seemed appropriate on many levels. Madoc is her parents’ murderer, but also the strongest parent figure she’s had. He’s shaped her into the person she is, whether for better or worse. Ultimately, he sees her as an equal in a way most fae probably wouldn’t if pitted against her.
  • Cardan – I loved seeing a more vulnerable Cardan in this one. He’s more open and you can see the positive influence certain relationship have had on him. He’s come a long way since the first novel and a lot of readers are going to be happy with his development in this one.

  • Character deaths – This section is going to be vague on purpose to avoid spoilers. There was one particular character death in this one that I felt I was cheated out of. I feel like we had seen enough of this character in the previous two books to warranted readers being able to see them die rather than just hear about it. Another character lives who I expected to die and after mulling it over, I really wish we had seen them kick the bucket.
  • Cardan – Although I did enjoy a more vulnerable Cardan, I did miss the dark side of his character. He didn’t feel quite as complex in this one as he had been in the previous novels.

  • The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black has its share of flaws and isn’t quite as good as the previous two novels, but still manages to provide a satisfying ending to a twisty and dark faerie series.

★ ★ ★ ★

Snapshot (ARC) Review: Diamond City by Francesca Flores

Title: Diamond City
Author: Francesca Flores
Series: Diamond City, #2
Pages: 400
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Release Date: January 28th 2020

**This review is based on the bound manuscript of the novel received through a giveaway from the author, which does not influence my review**

      “Good things don’t happen to girls who come from nothing…unless they risk everything.
      Fierce and ambitious, Aina Solís as sharp as her blade and as mysterious as the blood magic she protects. After the murder of her parents, Aina takes a job as an assassin to survive and finds a new family in those like her: the unwanted and forgotten.
      Her boss is brutal and cold, with a questionable sense of morality, but he provides a place for people with nowhere else to go. And makes sure they stay there.
      DIAMOND CITY: built by magic, ruled by tyrants, and in desperate need of saving. It is a world full of dark forces and hidden agendas, old rivalries and lethal new enemies.
To claim a future for herself in a world that doesn’t want her to survive, Aina will have to win a game of murder and conspiracy—and risk losing everything.
Full of action, romance and dark magic, book one of Francesca Flores’ breathtaking fantasy duology will leave readers eager for more!”

  • Aina Solís – Aina was left orphaned at a young age, but grew up under the tutelage of one of her city’s most notorious gang leaders, the Blood King. She has risen through the ranks as a skilled assassin, but has high hopes of one day being his equal. Her personal arc has her working out her complicated feelings for boss/mentor, reevaluating her worldview when it comes to the classes, and prioritizing her own needs over any potential romance.
  • World-building – I really like the world Francesca Flores has built. It addresses classism, includes immigration, and deals with religious persecution in a really interesting setting. Kosin underwent a civil war years ago and many people, including Aina, lost their family. When the war ended, the lower class became even more powerless as the upper class, known as Steels, profited heavily from industrialization, but left places like the Stacks, overpoliced and subject to the laws of its gangs. There is also a magical element to the story involving diamonds, blood magic, and the worship of two goddesses known as the Mothers which I found really interesting.
  • Teo – Aina isn’t the type of person who makes friends easily, but she found a kindred spirit in the mercenary Teo. He’s charming and though he lacks Aina’s efficiency, is still a very skilled killer. He, like Aina, has been forced into the life as a mercenary because people like them do not get the same opportunities as Steels. He’s driven by the love he has for his mother, whom he is desperate to provide medicine for. His friendship with Aina was my favorite in the novel. There’s is mutual respect and both are more vulnerable with the other than they are with other people.
  • Ryuu – Ryuu is first introduced as a spoiled, out of touch upper class Steel, but he has a lot more layers. Unlike those in power, he does not have the same kind of disdain for those who worship the Mothers. He is more likely to help than to turn someone over for practicing their religion. His tenuous alliance with Aina opens both of their eyes to each other’s circumstances and they discover they have more in common than either initially believed.
  • Too many potential love interests – I honestly didn’t know where to invest myself in emotionally when it came to all of Aina’s potential love interests. I wish the author had chosen one or even two, but there were three characters that Aina expressed interest in at one time or another. While I don’t fault a girl for being interested in multiple parties, it felt more like the author couldn’t decide who she wanted readers to root for. I will say that I did like how open Aina is in the end and how she wants to prioritize herself first.
  • Stilted writing – Sometimes with debuts you come across some awkwardly worded dialogue or prose. For the most part this doesn’t bother me as I understand new writers are still finding their writing style. This is a bound manuscript review so these awkward instances may have been edited, but it definitely had me pausing and reflecting on how strange certain things were worded while reading.

Francesca Flores delivers a solid fantasy debut with Diamond City. With an impressive setting and an interesting set of characters, I will be keeping my eye out for the sequel.

★ ★ ★

Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri

Title: Realm of Ash
Author: Tasha Suri
Series: The Books of Ambha, #2
Pages: 496
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: November 14th 2019

      “The fate of an empire rests in the hands of a young woman with magical blood and nothing left to lose, and an outcast prince determined to save his family at any cost, in this “dark, melodious, and memorable” new fantasy (Library Journal, starred review) from the author of the award-winning Empire of Sand.
    The Ambhan Empire is crumbling. A terrible war of succession hovers on the horizon. The only hope for peace lies in the mysterious realm of ash, where mortals can find what they seek in the echoes of their ancestors’ dreams. But to walk there requires a steep price.
      Arwa is determined to make the journey. Widowed by a brutal massacre, she’s pledged service to the royal family and will see that pledge through to the end. She never expected to be joined by Zahir, the disgraced, illegitimate prince who has turned to forbidden magic in a desperate bid to save those he loves.
      Together, they’ll walk the bloody path of their shared past. And it will call into question everything they’ve ever believed…including whether the Empire is worth saving at all.”

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“The dagger sank hard and fast into the soil. The shadows of its body surrounded her, the daiva shattered into a dozen smaller birds. Wings battered her face and her hair—even her arms, as she raised them to protect herself. Her hand was still bleeding freely. She was lightheaded with pain.”

Tasha Suri returns to her luscious fantasy world of the Ambha Empire with Realm of Ash, the companion novel to her debut Empire of Sand. This newest installation focuses on Mehr’s younger sister Arwa. Having recently been widowed, Arwa as taken refuge in a sanctuary for widows of nobility. But no matter how hard she tries, she cannot escape the memories of how her husband and everyone at his fort perished, leaving her the only survivor. Around her the Ambhan Empire is collapsing, a consequence of their Maha’s demise a decade earlier. When Arwa’s bloodline is discovered, she agrees to aid one of the Emperor’s sons in an effort to save the Empire. Zahir is the illegitimate son of the Emperor, unacknowledged and hidden away by his sister. He’s spent years trying to find a way to save the Empire, seeking out knowledge only the Maha possessed. Together Arwa and Zahir traverse the realm of ash in search of a way to keep the Empire from crumbling, but on their journey they uncover truths that call to question whether they can or should save the Empire at all.

Suri has created one of the most profound, multi-layered worlds I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The Ambhan Empire has prospered largely in part because of the mystical Maha. As long as the Emperor showed reverence, the Maha blessed the land. Since his death, however, the Empire has been in decline and mysterious illnesses have plagued its people. In Darez Fort a darkness found its way inside, consuming its inhabitants and turning them against one another. Arwa, because of the secret of her bloodline, being Amrithi on her mother’s side, was spared. The Amrithi people have been a part of this land, but have been driven out and their religion has been regarded with distrust. The Emperor and the Maha have collectively taken part in ethic cleansing. Amrithi have been driven to their deaths or forced to hide away. Descendants like Arwa have been taught their heritage must be kept hidden, that her blood has made her a curse upon those around her. In reality the Maha has used these people for the Empire’s advancement, tapping into their special relationship with the gods of old. He and those in power have villainized and dehumanized them, so in the end their receding numbers are regarded justly or indifferently.

Arwa is one of the few people left who straddles both worlds, born from an Amrithi mother and a Ambhan father. Her ties to her maternal side are tentative at best. Her adopted mother has drilled it into her that she must shape herself into someone worthy. She’s spent years molding herself into someone more gentle, someone vulnerable who is subject to the will of others. In truth, she struggles to rein in her anger and her sharp-tongue. Her relationship with Zahir develops into more of a partnership and both are finally able to be who they are without consequence. Zahir, much like Arwa, has grown up in a kind of cage. As the illegitimate son of the Emperor he has been regarded as a threat, but his sister has done her best to keep him safe. He has spent years in study, trying to prove his worth to the Empire, but knowing that one day the favor of his sister may not be enough to keep him alive. Both of these characters have been used as pawns, taught that they are unworthy, and stripped of their agency. Together they find the strength to forge their own paths.

Realm of Ash is the perfect companion novel in a superlative duology that showcases the quiet yet fierce strength of its characters with a magical system that will steal your breath.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★