Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing.
This review is longer than my average, because I’m trying to sum up my thoughts on the entire series.
Sometimes reviewing a book is difficult, because for various reasons the reviewer doesn’t want to come off sounding like a piece of shit by giving it a negative review. Maybe the book/series is an author’s debut, so the reviewer doesn’t want to be harsh and potentially discourage the author from writing more in the future. Maybe the author is a woman or person of color, so the reviewer doesn’t want to come off sounding like a member of the alt-right by panning it. As you read this review of the ‘Poppy War’ series, bare in mind that I’m trying to be as polite as possible.
I will be harsh in this review. I am harsh because I respect what this book is trying to accomplish. I am a history buff, and the historical aspect of this story demands my respect. This book was very ambitious, and I choose to treat it with the respect that ambition deserves. Unfortunately, in this case, the book’s ambitions aren’t followed through upon. If you are a fan of this book and aren’t in the mood to hear bad things said about it, feel free to stop reading now.
I didn’t enjoy this series. I didn’t enjoy it on two levels.
On one hand, I think my lack-of-enjoyment is intentional by the author. This is a Grimdark series, and Rin is a deliberately unlikeable protagonist. My lack of enjoyment in that context means the series is working as intended as a piece of art.
On the other hand, I found this series to be sloppy on a ‘fundamentals of storytelling’ level. This is the author’s debut work, so it makes sense that this isn’t as refined at storytelling. While I’m happy for the author’s success with her debut series, I think the craftsmanship of the text wasn’t ready for such hype and limelight. After having this series built up to no end by people on Reddit and other corners on the internet, I went into this series with high expectations.
My expectations were let down. Arguably this is my fault; I came into this with high expectations. If I came into this with low expectations, and just wanted to read a fun series, I would have enjoyed this series more. If you just want a fun book/series to read, check this out.
I enjoyed the unusual setting, and Rin’s uncompromising character. The war was magnificent in it’s brutality. That’s why I read the entire series; I enjoyed the good parts enough to push through the rough parts.
A final note: I am a giant nerd. Because I am a giant nerd, I decided to listen to a 24hour lecture series about the History of Mao and China in preparation for reading this. Here’s my review of that here. Short version: if you want to know more about the setting in this book, listenting to those lectures might be fun. Alternately, if you want to learn more about the topic, you can watch this YouTube video by the booktuber Allenxandria, who both is a (I think) history teacher and a fantasy reader.
To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.
I am not a fan of really bleak Grimdark Fantasy. What is the Grimdark subgenre? Grimdark is the more depressing, “realistic” corner of the Fantasy genre. This series is probably the bleakest series I’ve thus far read- bleak to the point of nihilism. Rin is an villain protagonist; some of the other villains in this series believe in eugenics; the gods are villainous; this series contains lots of torture, rape and war crimes; the list goes on. This series is as Grimdark as it gets.
I enjoy regular old Dark Fantasy, but not Grimdark. Because I’m not a fan of Grimdark, I am naturally inclined to not like this series. And wouldn’t you know it, I didn’t really like this series. Take my harsh criticisms with a grain of salt as a result.
WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?
- 18+ years old. This has a lot of adult content, including gore, violence, and mental/sexual abuse.
- Asian-inspired fiction. This is a retelling of China’s Warlord Era, but with magic and transplanted with pseudo-European steampunk technology.
- Military Fantasy
- A heavy anti-imperialist message
READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR
Reading this series did not inspire much emotion in me, honestly. I feel apathetic about all of the characters. That’s not good.
What this series did well was making me care more about the horrors of war. The war crimes made me feel genuinely repulsed- good job to the author for getting such a visceral response in a jaded reviewer like myself.
This is where things get weird. I give the first book in the series 2.5 out of 5 stars. I give the second book 3.5 out of 5 stars. And giving the third book 2.75 out of 5 stars. (For reference, 3 out of 5 stars is what I try to give most books.) However, for the series writ-large, I’m only giving it 2 out of 5 stars. Individually the books are better than the series is as a whole. I felt that the series-wide story wasn’t as good as any one of the stories told in the individual books.
(5 Stars= Perfect, 4=Great, 3=Good/Average, 2=Fun but Flawed, 1=Not Recommended)
- ‘The Black Tides of Heaven’ by J. Y. Yang(Asian-inspired, with heavy politics)
- ‘The Grace of Kings’ Book Review (Asian-inspired, with heavy politics)
- The Shadow Campaigns Series by Django Wexler (Napoleonic military Fantasy)
CONCEPT AND EXECUTION
This series’ concept is: ‘The rise of a female Mao with magic, who has an EXTREME chip on her shoulder. Retelling the Warlord Era of China, with a focus on western imperialism.’
Individually, the books are more than the sum of all together. I had a pleasant time reading each book individually, but on reflection/having read the entire narrative of all three books, I’m left a bit underwhelmed. Rin underwent a corruption arc, but she was so cruel in books 1 & 2 that her descent into madness in book 3 felt ‘Meh. Saw it coming.’ This series was hampered by being all about Rin. I wish we had more POV characters- maybe a few scenes from Kitay, Venka and Nezha’s point of views. Because Rin is so unpleasant, having her being the myopic focus of the story really hindered my engagement with the texts.
(Again, I’m not a grimdark fan. Focusing on a very grimdark character naturally hindered my engagement. My disengagement wasn’t the author’s fault/a fault in the narrative, but I can’t lie about my personal experience.)
EDIT: I’m coming back to this review after many months. This series has continued to bug me, but I haven’t been able to put my finger on why, at least until now. The big problem I had with this series is the fact that Rin’s corruption arc occurred entirely in book 1. She went from being a (fairly hardcore) schoolgirl to being a genocide-er drug addict in book 1. In books 2 and 3 she didn’t have a character arc to speak of. As a result, books 2 and 3 were less compelling than book 1, because the protagonist became boring. This is a failure in the concepting-stage of storytelling, as well as the characterization stage.
CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:
Let’s start with the big picture:
In storytelling circles, there’s an old saying: ‘Make your protagonist likeable. If you can’t make them likeable, make them interesting.’ I’d like to add a corollary to statement: ‘If you can’t make them likeable, make them contain a spark of something in which the reader can recognize as our shared humanity.’
In my ‘biases’ section above, I used the word “realistic” in quotes to refer to the quality of recent fiction to claim that the darker and more selfish a character or setting is, the more like reality it is. In my opinion, that’s bull. In my experience, love and mercy and other positive character interactions are common in the real world. In “realistic” fiction, there seems to be a distinct lack of love and mercy. Therefore, what we call “realistic” isn’t actually very realistic. “Realistic” fiction runs the risk of getting edgelord and cringe- and for me at least, seem Uncanny Valley-like due to how there is absolutely no positive character interactions. I’m fine with reading bleak books, but I need light, hopeful moments to make the cruel moments seem darker by contrast.
Did the Poppy War series ever devolve into being edgelord or cringe? Only very rarely. But because every aspect of this series was dark, the contrast between light and dark was less compelling.
For me, this series was thematically and aesthetically so “realistic” that it feels like the Uncanny Valley. The protagonist Rin is the apotheosis of “realistic-” she’s a hypocritical warlord who lacks positive character traits, and abuses even her best friends. Do absolutely no nice people exist in this world at all? (Kitay doesn’t count as a good person; his codependent relationship with Rin enables Rin’s worst behavior. Also, he’s a warlord whose schemes kill thousands of people.) Is there no mercy or kindness or unconditional love in Nikara? What about even one genuinely healthy friendship? The Poppy War setting is so “realistic” that it doesn’t feel realistic at all (for me at least).
I’ve seen reviews where the reviewer says they really connect with Rin because they too have had anger problems and can empathize with her. They recognized themselves in Rin’s spark of rage. For them, Rin works. I’m happy for those readers.
Here’s the thing about me: I’m super chill. Because of my personality, I can’t connect with Rin; she’s fire, and I’m water. I can only review this series by coming at it from my own perspective. I acknowledge that Rin works as a protagonist for other people, but her rage against the system doesn’t work for me. This goes to show that a reader enjoying a book has more to do with their internal biases than the actual quality of the novel.
But at times I do sympathize with her. When Rin has quieter moments, reflecting and regretting her past actions- when she realizes the humanity of the people she’s killed- I do like her as a character. As an example, the drinking-and-incense burning scene between Rin, Nezha and Kitay in book 3 was legit touching. But those moments are too rare.
Okay, let’s move on.
You might have heard that Rin is based on Mao Zedong. Because of this comparison, I decided to do some research into Chinese History so I can provide a more well-thought-out commentary.
- How can you have a character based on Mao and not have Communism be a major theme in your book? Mao is arguably the most powerful Communist ever. Rin doesn’t have an equivalent philosophy to base her decisions on. Mao had principles and stood by those principles, even when it got millions of people killed. Rin didn’t have principles. I think it would be cool if she had a philosophy she zealously defended.
- Case in point, on p. 594 Kitay says, “But ideological purity is a battle cry, it’s not the stable foundation for a unified country.” Rin and Kitay don’t have an ideology. They just go around killing people who oppose them.
- On a related note, why didn’t the Poppy War series have an equivalent of Soviet Russia?
- At the end of book 3, the heroes must beg the Hesperians for aid to fix a famine the heroes caused. The Hesperians are ‘westerners.’ IRL, Mao and the communists turned to the Soviets for food bailouts. AKA, not ‘westerners.’
- I get what the author was trying to do- saying that the capitalist westerners always find a way to get on top in the end. The author was trying to be grimdark, by saying the bad guys win in the end no matter what you do.
- But this grimdark edge comes at the expense of actual historical events. IRL, the westerners don’t always come out on top. In Warlord Era China, the Soviets won, not the Westerners. In my opinion, in this case ‘realism’ came at the expense of actual realism.
- One thing the author did well with Rin was Rin’s hot-and-cold attitude with people. She’d befriend people, only to execute them later. Mao did the same thing, making him dangerous to be around. I’m happy the author brought this into the text.
- I liked that Rin was fairly easily to manipulate. Going back to Mao, in his later years his wife manipulated him into destroying her political enemies- even when those enemies weren’t Mao’s enemies.
- One thing I didn’t like about Rin’s characterization was how she used people as tools throughout most of the series. Rin is based on Mao, and in Mao’s early years he had some empathy and kindness. According to the lectures I listened to while researching for this book, young Mao would share his food with poor people and support causes like preventing forced marriages. After Mao went deep on Communism he stopped caring about individual people to instead care about ‘the people’ as a whole.
- The lectures I listened to used the metaphor of ‘you can’t make omelets without breaking eggs.’ When Mao was young he would not have broken the eggs. But when he was older, he broke millions of them. This is the historical basis for Rin’s corruption arc.
- The trouble is, Rin was breaking eggs from the very start.
- I feel that if Rin was a kinder, more generous person in books 1 & 2, then her descent into madness would be more poignant. But because Rin was toxic throughout books 1 & 2, her descent into madness felt less emotionally resonant. Her fall from grace wasn’t a very great distance.
- One thing I liked was that Rin makes the same mistakes again and again. She doesn’t learn from her mistakes, just like how a real person doesn’t learn from their mistakes.
- She trusts the Empress in book one, but Daji betrays her. She trusts the Dragon Warlord in book two, but he kidnaps and betrays her. She trusts the Monkey warlord, but he kidnaps and betrays her.
- Then at the end of book 3, she wises up and expects betrayal at every turn. Due to her paranoia, she f-‘s up the peace summit. That’s good characterization.
Nezha didn’t seem to have a solid core to his personality. One moment he seems attracted to Rin. Next, they’re enemies. They go back and forth, book after book, enemy to friend to enemy to friend. He saves her life one chapter, but a few chapters later his minions try poisoning her. His actions are bipolar, just like Rin’s. It’s clear that they love one another, but it felt to me like the author didn’t have a good sense of his personality besides that love. It felt like his actions were the silent hand of the author at work, making the plot happen, puppetting Nezha like a glove to make things happen.
Making things worse, Nezha barely appears in book 3 as a speaking character. He barely got any characterization; we are required to remember the events of book 1 and 2 to infer characterization for him. That’s not good enough; he should receive new characterization in this novel too. He is one of the series’ three primary characters. I liked Nezha in the first two books. He deserved more limelight, given how integral his personal story arc is to the series’ narrative. He needed a stronger character arc in book 3.
Kitay is a moron. The narrative keeps saying he’s a genius military strategist, but when the chips are down he’s afraid of hurting people. Sometimes his mercy works narratively; for example, early in book 3 when he asks Rin to spare hostages. That seems like good military advice. Sometimes his mercy doesn’t work; for example, in the middle of book 3 when he asks Rin to spare the people who just tried to kill her and instead keep them on as her lieutenants. That’s BAD military advice.
Kitay served as Rin’s ‘Morality Chain.’ (TvTropes link). In short, Kitay serves the narrative function of being the angel on Rin’s shoulder, encouraging her to not go around murdering people. In concept, I liked his use in the narrative. Having Kitay being the only thing preventing Rin going full axe-crazy is a great plot device. When he is kidnapped again and again, it crippled Rin, both emotionally and magically- that’s good stuff. Unfortunately, in my opinion he felt underwritten. Kitay felt like a wet blanket.
The trouble is that he was written almost entirely as an adjunct to Rin’s personal character arc. I don’t know if it was the author’s intention to write Kitay as being in a co-dependent relationship with Rin, because that’s what it seemed like. (Rin needed Kitay’s emotional stability, and Kitay needed Rin’s determination.) Even if so, Kitay needed more of his own personality beyond being the porter of Rin’s emotional baggage. Conflict is what makes books fun to read, and there wasn’t enough conflict between Rin and Kitay. Co-dependence is only as interesting as the conflict between the dependent parties.
Venka was awesome, easily the best character in the series. I’m glad the author didn’t spend too much time with her, because what little we got with Venka was excellent. Sometimes less is more, and the little we got with Venka was perfect.
Next, about the unsympathetic antagonists.
I played ‘Ghost of Tsushima’ a year ago. In ‘Ghost,’ the Mongol Horde invade Japan. The makers of that game did an good job of capturing Japanese culture in the development of their game… but I never got a really good sense of Mongolian culture. I wanted a Mongolian side character to quest along side, so we can learn more about the Mongolian civilization the protagonist was at war with. The Mongolians we fight in ‘Ghost’ might as well be Orcs from Mordor for all the moral complexity they are shown to have.
I have a personal bias to enjoy sympathetic antagonists. In ‘The Poppy War’ series, we never had a fully sympathetic Mugenese or Hesperian character who we could use as a vehicle to learn more about Mugenese and Hesperian cultures writ-large. In short, I wanted the author to take multiple chapters to prove to the reader that not all Mugenese and Hesperians are evil. But that wasn’t to be. The Mugenese had the moral complexity of Orcs from Mordor, while the Hesperians seemed like the firebombing Spanish Inquisition.
PACING AND STRUCTURE
I think book 3 used the Five Act Format.
Act 1: Status Quo
- The status quo of the book is Rin working underneath the Monkey Warlord, just as how she worked underneath Daji and Vaisra before. Rin’s stuck in her ways.
Act 2: Challenging the Status Quo
- Rin challenges the status quo when she abandons the Monkey Warlord in her attempt to take back Rooster Province without his help.
- The act ends when the Monkey Warlord betrays her, selling her out to Nezha. Rin’s no longer stuck in her ways.
Act 3: The Turning Point/Road of Trials
- Rin is captured by Nezha, escapes with Daji and Jiang, saves Kitay, saves the Southern Coalition Army, executes the people who betrayed her, and marches without food across the mountain range to the Dog Province.
- The Midpoint Climax is when the Trifecta is restored, and then destroyed.
- The act ends when Rin is left as uncontested leader of the Rebellion against the Republic.
Act 4: Escalation of the Challenge
- After that, Rin trains new shamans, and goes on conquest spree across a defenseless Nikan.
- The act ends with her assault on Arlong, the deaths of her shamans, and her victory over Nezha.
Act 5: Climax and Conclusion
- This is Rin’s descent into madness. She’s won the war, and now she’s failing to win the peace.
- The act ends with Rin’s self-destruction.
This is a good structure. It fits the 5 act structure very well.
And here is where things take a turn for the worse. The book’s pacing feels off; act 4 is too bloated (in my opinion). Simply put, at the midpoint climax the Trifecta and the Hesperian fleet annihilate one another. At this point, the book feels primed to end with the final battle against Nezha. Instead of the book ending at this point, the author added two new plot points: training new shaman, and conquering a bunch of cities one-by-one.
The book slowed to a crawl because of these added plot points. After the mutual annihilation, I feel as though the story should have gone directly to the final confrontation against Nezha; a one-two punch of first the defeat of the Hesperians and then Nezha. That would have kept the tension hot, and almost a hundred pages could have been cut from the final novel. The epic fantasy genre is rife with bloated books- this was another of them.
From an intellectual perspective, I understand why the author chose to include this city-by-city battling- wars are messy affairs of conquest and consolidation. You can’t just jump to the final boss and skip all the mini-bosses along the way. But the book’s artistry suffered for the inclusion of so many added plot points. It would have been a tighter, more gut-wrenching Act 4 to have one climax follow the other.
(This is doubly true because the shaman Rin trains in Act 4 have no impact on the outcome of the plot. The shaman are neat and memorable characters… but as the writing saying goes, ‘kill your darlings.’)
Besides this quibble, this book is tightly structured and paced, and very well done.
PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION
I’ll be blunt: this book/series contains plot holes, some glaring. If you want to know what some of those plot holes are, go to my worldbuilding section. Ordinarily plot holes don’t bother me. All books have them, and one man’s plot hole is another man’s extrapolation on a theme or a part of characterization. I try not to discuss plot holes in any of my reviews, because they’re nitpicky and generally don’t effect the readability of the story overall. But in this case, the plot holes did take me out of the story on more than one occasion.
‘The Burning God’ contained 4 primary plot lines: the Nezha plot, the Trifecta plot, Rin’s cruelty plot, and the Hesperian plot. I’m about to criticize aspects of these plots, but just to be clear I’m actually pretty impressed by the plots in this book. The author did a good job of bringing back all the unresolved plotlines from the prior books and wrapping them up. I’ve read A TON of books by more experienced authors who flopped the climax of their series. That didn’t happen here.
The Trifecta Plot
This plot was really important in the first half of the book, but reached it’s conclusion partway through the book when the Trifecta died in the act of destroying the Hesperian fleet. I have mixed feelings about this plotline. I liked Daji and Zuyi as characters, and Riga had promise. However, because they died early in the book, this plotline didn’t reach as satisfying a conclusion as it could have. I wish the author somehow re-wrote the story so this climax occurred nearer the end of the story instead of in the middle. (Trimming up Act 4 might have helped this.)
The Hesperian Plot
To me, this felt like the weakest major plot not only in this book but also the entire series. I understand what theme/message the author was trying to say with it, but for me it never solidified into something satisfying. On one hand, I liked how the Hesperians and the Trifecta took one another out of the story. On the other hand, I didn’t like how the Hesperian fleet was destroyed halfway through the novel so they stopped being a threat for most of the book, only to reappear at the very climax of the novel.
Speaking of the very climax, I didn’t like how the reconstituted Hesperian fleet showed up at the peace summit. The point of Rin’s descent into madness is to show she’d lost touch with reality. Having the fleet show up- confirming her paranoia instead of striking it down- ran in conflict with the theme of her losing touch.
The Nezha plot
Above I mentioned how I felt we needed more Nezha in this final book in the series. I stand by that. I liked Nezha in the first two books; the lack of him having a speaking role in this book disappointed me.
Credit where it’s due, the war between him and Rin was fun. I enjoyed reading about the innovative tactics they used.
Rin’s corruption arc
Rin’s character arc since book 1 has been becoming what she hates- a warmonger who goes on wars of aggression, willing to commit any crime and betray anyone to achieve her goals. Opposed against her in this is Kitay, who does his best to keep her on the straight and narrow. Rin’s trauma is pushing her to punish her enemies, while Kitay is holding her back. That’s good characterization. (I personally feel the corruption arc should have been slowed down to occur over all three books instead of just in book 1. But that’s a quibble.)
The first two books in the series have very good stakes. I define stakes as ‘why should the reader care about the outcome of the plot.’ In book 1, the stakes were humanitarian: if Rin&Co. fail in stopping the Mugenese, the Mugenese will commit genocide against their people. In book 2, the stakes were the desire to found a Republic. I can easily empathize with that desire for a republic to replace Nikan’s dictatorships. The stakes worked, and made these books thrilling to read.
I had trouble with book 3’s stakes. In this book, the stakes are less clear.
- In book 2, the stakes were establishing a republic. I, a modern person who lives in a republic, can get behind those stakes. However in book 3 the possibility of an honest republic is out of the question.
- So what are the characters fighting for, now that governmental reform is out of the question? Are we just fighting so Rin can rule over the ashes of a starving Nikan? Rin’s a jerk, I don’t want her to win- especially after she decides to turn Rooster Province into a narcostate. And because I don’t want Rin to rule, I am less compelled by this novel.
AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)
I remain impressed by the author’s prose. Her prose isn’t drop dead gorgeous, a la McKillip or Rothfuss. Instead the author’s prose carries a brazen authenticity to it which lands like a punch to the gut. The narrative voice is well suited to the Grimdark genre: blunt, brutal and effective.
This series’ primary themes revolved around ‘imperialism, genocide and cultural erasure are bad.’ Fair enough, that’s a good message. There are a lot of recently published books which interrogate this topic. (I could give you more, but you get the idea.) IRL, we live in a world in the throes of de-colonialization, so this topic deserves to be interrogated. For too many generations, the status quo of ignoring the legacy of the Age of Imperialism has gone unquestioned- now’s a good time to tell the undertold tale of the victims of these tragedies.
Book 1 in this series handled this message really, really well. The author took various tragedies which occurred in early modern China and brought them onto the page- tragedies which were the direct result of imperialism. Rin is a war orphan, who was orphaned by an act of genocide caused by an imperialist nation. At the end of book 1, she gets her revenge against the imperialist nation- by blowing it off the map. Moral of the story: ‘don’t do an imperialism or genocide, because the people you wronged might get revenge.’ That’s some good old fashioned Greek Tragedy style irony.
Books 2 and 3 didn’t handle one aspect of this theme as well. Here’s the thing: at the end of book 1, the protagonist Rin did a genocide. According to the moral of the story, the Mugenese who Rin wronged should turn the tables on her. We should tell the tale of Rin’s victims, not Rin herself. This is a small criticism, but an important one. In my interpretation, the author undercut the theme of her first book in books 2 & 3.
Rin’s goal is to kick the Hesperian and Mugenese Empires out of Nikara, and re-establish the Nikara Empire after many years of civil war and foreign intervention. She justifies her actions because her enemies are imperialists. However, Rin is also an imperialist- her goal is to establish an empire, and she’s willing to make vile sacrifices to achieve her goals. She’s no better than the Mugense and Hesperians. The author did a good job of making Rin’s actions seem hypocritical. That’s some good theme work.
Here is one aspect of the theme I didn’t think the series addressed very well: the ethical implications of shamanism. The narrative took the position that maintaining the tradition of shamanism was necessary for the sake of preventing cultural erasure. That is a valid argument.
However, I feel that the Hesperians were rational in their attempt to exterminate shamanism. Rin proves shaman are walking nukes- walking mentally unstable nukes. And nukes are bad.
After Rin blew up an island chain in book 1, I personally feel that shamanism should be treated with the same suspicion as one would treat nuclear weapons. Yes, nuclear energy and radiation medical therapy are useful byproducts of nuclear innovations, but are they worth the cost of potential human annihilation? Hesperian imperialism, eugenics and cultural erasure are evil, but the Hesperians are not irrational in wanting all shaman dead. I felt the narrative never explored the idea that Shamanism should be completely eradicated as an ethical choice. No one person should have the ability to commit genocide if they feel cholic-y in the morning.
SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY
And now we’re getting into the plot holes. I’ll start with what I liked before getting into it.
I like how:
- the gods are malign forces of raw chaos, whose only goal is to cause havoc on a mass scale.
- magic interacts with drugs, both positively and negatively.
- the gods almost feel like Lovecraftian entities- massive, powerful, and they don’t care about humanity.
I don’t like how:
- the shaman felt infinitely powerful at no price. The price the story used was ‘you go crazy using magic.’
- I’ve read multiple books which used ‘sanity is the cost of magic’ as a trope, and none of them worked. You end up with situations where characters suffer psychic breakdowns at plot-important junctures. It feels artificial to me, because you just know the hero will lose control at the worst possible moment plot-wise.
- Second, mental instability in villains is really hard to convey without drifting into problematic territories really fast. You wind up with ‘Crazy people are eeevil!’ stereotypes this way. For me, Rin’s mental issues sometimes entered this area.
- Rin was able to blow up the longbow island, thanks to Speer Temple’s magic. There are supposedly other such temples. I don’t understand why the various factions don’t view the other special places like Speer Temple as military assets in their war, and use them. Why doesn’t Rin go back to the temple and blow up Hesperia early in the series? Why didn’t Nezha use the grotto for a similar purpose?
- This is the textbook definition of a plot hole, and why I don’t generally like writing about plot holes in my reviews. I logically understand that the reason why Nezha didn’t use the grotto was because he was personally traumatized by his shamanism, so of course he wouldn’t think about using it. Despite this character-based explanation, this bugged me as a plot hole.
- At the end of book 3, Nezha invites Rin back to Speer for the peace summit. He gives her apocalyptic magic. This felt like another big plot hole to me, something he should have known not to do. Nezha is smarter than that.
- I didn’t like the Seal on Rin’s magic; it felt like an obvious plot device used to retain narrative tension. I feel the author made a WAY TOO POWERFUL magic system, and then had to put the Seal on Rin after book 1 just to reset the stakes of the plot so Rin didn’t use the overpowered magic to win the plot.
- I remember thinking after I finished reading book 1 that the author opened a narrative can of worms when the longbow island went boom. And sure enough, with book 2, in came the Seal to re-seal that can of worms.
- Also, is this the first time in the history of this planet that anyone’s used shamanism to commit genocide? With something this powerful, you’d think someone would have tried it before. And yet there’s no mention of it.
I have a few more, but you get the idea. Plot holes can ruin the enjoyment of one person, but maybe not someone else. Don’t take these criticisms too seriously.
- Too much grimdark doesn’t work, at least for me. Soften it with some hopeful scenes.
- Sympathetic villains can make fighting against them more enthralling.
- Delve into unusual mythologies, and explore undertold stories.
- I liked the malign, lovecraftian gods in this series. Don’t be afraid to take traditional tropes and invert them in new ways.
I didn’t enjoy this series as much as other reviewers. This is a solid series, but is rough in some ways. I can completely understand why other people like this series. Ultimately, I think I’m not the target audience, which explains why I didn’t like it.
Genres/Tagwords: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy, Asian-inspired fantasy, Military fantasy. Adult
Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:
- A Literary Analysis of ‘The Dragon Republic’ by R. F. Kuang, Book 2 in the Poppy War series
- ‘The Poppy War’ Book Review
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