Savage Reviews: Strange Practice and The Poppy War

WordPress has a mind of its own when it comes to formatting. I have gone over this post at least four times trying to make the formatting consistent and it’s not working so I’m publishing before I have to smash something. Onward!

I’m a pretty savage reviewer. I am not easy to please. I am prone to expressing my displeasure, rooting out faults in books and yelling about them. I’ve stopped doing this on Goodreads because the authors tend to look at those reviews and I’m not really writing the reviews for authors. I pick things apart as someone who writes as well as reads. This means that I’ll often pick stuff apart because I think the craft of the writer has faults.

I frequently trash books that are well-loved by others. I can be just as effusive with praise.

So here begins a new (probably) series: Cantatrice does savage reviews.

First up: Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw.

This is the story of Greta Helsing, a doctor to the undead and “monsters” of London. It’s your standard NOBODY MUST KNOW ABOUT THE MONSTERS urban fantasy novel. Interesting premise. Not terribly well done.

What Shaw does well: she has a pretty good grasp of how London works. This is not a given for writers who don’t live here. I must admit that I was drawn in quite quickly and the story flowed well.

What Shaw does badly: well… Shaw was originally known as a writer of fanfic. That doesn’t necessarily make someone a bad writer. I’ve never gone in for fanfic personally but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Whatever gets the creative juices flowing is good. But the fanfic world is very forgiving of less-than-brilliant writing (fair enough since many writers are very young) and there are certain prose habits that are common in fanfic that cause problems in novels. The primary one that comes out in this book is head-hopping. Shaw is writing in close third person limited. For anyone reading this thinking “huh?” think of Harry Potter. The Harry Potter books are written in third person, but in a style that sticks with Harry. We don’t see anything happening when Harry isn’t in the room. And we also have access to Harry’s thoughts, but we don’t get inside the heads of other characters. It’s so close to one character, it’s almost first person, but it’s technically third because it’s “Harry said” rather than “I said.”

Right. So, you can write a close third person limited book that has that perspective from several different characters. The novel I’ve written generally goes back and forth between two characters, and late in the book we get into the head of a third character for a brief time. But generally I’ll only change head for a new chapter, or a very clear change of scene. Shaw can have three people in the room, and she can jump between their perspectives so quickly that it’s sometimes not even clear who’s thinking.

Spoiler alert for the rest of this review, in case you plan to read the book…

Which reminds me. One of the characters is literally a demon. Fair enough. I can cope with demons not being the bad guys. But a couple of facts he throws around about his background indicate that demons, angels, heaven and hell and God and Satan definitely exist. In some form. This is news to the other characters, but they are nonetheless completely incurious about it. I would certainly have told him to sit the fuck down and tell me more, but Greta seems to go along with a vaguely secular humanist point of view, even when God’s existence is proven. The fuck?

And then there’s the medicine. Magnificent! I’d love to see how someone would go about treating a vampire or a ghoul or…. Oh. When there is any medicine performed, it’s exactly the same treatment as a human would get. Venlafaxine for depression. Amoxicillin for an ear infection. There are a couple of surface differences: lower body temperature in vampires, for example. But they still get fevers in exactly the same way as a human would. It’s all incredibly unimaginative.

Let’s move on to the end. The antagonist in this book is a non-corporeal entity. Which again, I don’t have a problem with. But it seems like this was used in order to give Shaw an excuse to have a villain who’s evil for the sake of being evil. All it wanted to do was feed on pain and make things suffer. And I’m sorry, but if you have your evil revenant tell its minions that it wants a vast fire to consume London, you need to engage with that a little more than just setting a couple of individual houses ablaze.

When they took on this entity of doom, Fass – the demon – got killed. And I immediately thought: if this fucker doesn’t Do A Gandalf I’m going to eat my cat. And of course he did. Because Shaw pulled a diabolus ex fucking machina in the form of Samael, senior demon dude, coming along and fixing everything. So that’s the climax. Can Shaw fuck up any more? Of course she can, by indicating at the very end that Greta is actually totally into the jealous, stalkery vampyre (Shaw makes a point about a distinction between vampires and vampyres, both of which exist – but it’s not clear why she bothers). He’s had an unhealthy obsession with her from the start and is parading about with more red flags than Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

So yeah, I wasn’t impressed. She clearly got a book deal because she’s loved in the land of fanfic. But I think what I find the most frustrating is that there are problems here that should not have got past an editor. The headhopping should have gone. The foreshadowing of the fire should have resulted in a bigger blaze. Sod it. Burn the whole thing.

And now on to: The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

This one is one of the most hyped fantasy books of 2018. It’s done crazily well in terms of acclaim and awards – it’s appeared on every “best of” list, and it’s a debut by a young author. It’s a fantasy story that draws from 20th century Chinese history rather than the stale old medieval Europe stuff. I wanted so much to love it and expected I would. And then…

What Kuang does well: she can certainly draw you into the scene. Everything is evocative; she does well with the details. The motivation of the different characters was always clear. When the protagonist went through town and saw all the different people doing their thing I could almost smell it. She kept tension: Rin is always utterly desperate to avoid a horrific fate and teeters on the edge of the abyss. We want her to succeed, right from the start. The stakes are meaningful.

What Kuang does badly (and I guess we move into spoilers here) It was very early on that I became aware of the tropes. Everyone can sneak one or two tropes in there, but it got really awkward when the plot became predictable because of the tropes. There have been comments about this book that it follows Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle far too closely. Wildly disadvantaged orphan from terrible life circumstances gets into prestigious university as the way to escape the horror. While there, they discover that they have mad skills in everything. Despite their crazypants giftedness, they are still at a disadvantage because they are poor and the others are rich. They make an enemy in the form of a rich, pampered snob, and are impulsive and vengeful to the extent that it causes serious problems. They’re always on the brink of getting thrown out and having their life turn back to shit. They fall in with a weirdo professor who is infuriating and unreliable, and seems to be mad, but is actually very powerful. This professor will turn out to be a fantastic mentor and will teach the Ways of the Mad Skills. Yeah. Does sound a bit like Rothfuss. But quite a lot of that would also apply to Harry Potter. The point is that these things have become cliches. Twenty years ago they might have felt fresh but now they just give away the plot before it even starts.

Which age group is this for? I’m genuinely not sure if it’s supposed to be YA or adult. That does matter, because many of my issues with the prose are more expected in YA. YA is allowed to be cliche-ridden and melodramatic. Teenage readers dig melodrama, and because of their age are often encountering those cliches for the first time. The protagonist is a teenager and it certainly reads like YA, but I think it’s supposed to be for adults; the level of grimdark and gore later on suggests that. The prose just really wasn’t very good. As evocative as the settings were, a huge amount of the word count (it’s around 160k, so no slouch in length) involved telling the reader Rin’s thoughts. Repeatedly. Stating how she feels. Stating it again. Adding in some internal monologue. Putting in obvious conclusions about the situation like so:

I want to hide. I want someone to tell me I’m going to be safe, that this is just a joke, a bad dream.

In that moment she realised that all this time she had been playing at being a soldier, playing at bravery.

But now, on the eve of the battle, she could not pretend anymore…

[another page telling us she’s scared. I’m not going to type out the whole thing but it’s pretty much more of the same, winding up with:]

War was a nightmare.

She wanted to cry. She wanted to scream and hide behind someone, behind one of the soldiers, wanted to whimper, I am scared, I want to wake up from this dream, please save me.

But no one was coming from her. No one was going to save her. There was no waking up.

I mean… it isn’t exactly bad. I just think that a master of prose can deal with a terrified character without telling the reader over and over that they’re afraid. We get it: she’s pretty damn scared. The short sentences and repetition are indulgent and they come across as novice writing. Prose weirdness like “slightly amazed” (is that a thing? Surely that would be surprised or taken aback?) shows up. Is that splitting hairs?

The whole book is a slightly awkward combination of very close to Chinese history, but set in a different world, where there are shamans and magic. I assumed, based on the curriculum of the military academy, that explosives aren’t a thing in this world. But they are: cannons certainly exist. At which point the curriculum doesn’t really make sense. It focuses very much on martial arts. That’s a good thing to learn, of course, and it’ll keep the students fit, but having got the most brilliant young minds in one place, why is there no department of engineering to come up with better weapons? Cannons are useful, but why aren’t they working on figuring guns out? Military strategy is also useful, but why do they appear to be learning it mostly from Sun-Tzu? Why does Sun-Tzu exist in this universe that doesn’t even have the same China in it? Here’s a suggestion for them: don’t focus all your training efforts in figuring out better ways to kick someone in the face.

I’m also irritated that this is yet another fictional university that doesn’t have any members of staff who aren’t professors. Not so much as a cook or cleaner is ever mentioned. But that’s a pet hate of mine.

Then the book turns very dark, very quickly. Our protagonist, of course, has the mad skillz. So she joins a little division of others with the mad skillz. They’re called the Cike but I’m gonna call them the X-men because that’s basically what they are.

So. Here’s where I may get a little controversial and I’m going to try to tread carefully. After part 1, war hits this fictional version of China. We’re basically back in 1937 and fictional Japan invades. As you probably know, the invasion and occupation of China was especially brutal, even by wartime standards. The worst kinds of atrocities were widespread. One of the most horrific events was the massacre at Nanjing: nobody knows the number killed, but it’s probably in six figures, and many were killed in the most sadistic ways. Kuang puts a fictional version in her book, where one of the characters is captured by Mugini (Japanese) soldiers.

Massive, massive CW for extreme sexual violence and the murder of a pregnant woman in what follows. I have put the text in white. If you want to read it, highlight it.

“I saw women disemboweled. I saw the soldiers slice off their breasts. I saw them nail women alive to walls. I saw them mutilate young girls, when they had tired of their mothers. If their vaginas were too small, they cut them open to make it easier to rape them. There was a pregnant woman in the house with us. She was seven months to term. Eight. At first the soldiers let her live so she’d take care of us. Wash us. Feed us. She was the only kind face in the house… The general howled and grabbed at her stomach. Not with his knife. With his fingers. His nails. He knocked her down and he tore and tore. And he pulled out her stomach, and her intestines, and then finally the baby… and the baby was still moving… the general ripped her baby in half the way you’d split an orange.”

And that, friend, is why this book couldn’t be marketed as YA. But there’s more. The Japanese had a facility, Unit 731, which performed vivisection on conscious Chinese people. All those kinds of “experiments” that the Nazis also did. You know the kind. They were also looking into filling bombs with bubonic plague. The whole situation was grim and there weren’t, as far as I know, any survivors. And lo, this book also has its own Unit 731, although it’s not called that. It’s a place where the Mugen do basically the same thing to our X-men.

In the end, Rin escapes and, as you might expect, uses her mad skills to nuke Mugen. Not just the fictional equivalents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She destroys the entire country.

So this is the fictional version of history that we’re dealing with. To note: I am not Chinese and Kuang is, and I know that these events are very much still felt as a painful memory to the Chinese people. It is compounded by the fact that the Japanese government is really not very good at acknowledging what their country did and apologising for it.

Nonetheless, I am troubled by this approach to fiction. These atrocities are real: the details are taken very closely from contemporary accounts. So bear in mind that you’re reading the stories of real people who suffered and died. Except that they’ve been thrown into a fantasy novel, where in all honesty it all becomes “grimdark” fodder, presented like a Joe Abercrombie torture scene. Extreme violence in fiction is there to titillate. I am not OK with a side character becoming a sex slave to soldiers so that she can become angry enough to make Rin promise to destroy Mugen. I don’t think that the experiences of these people should be used in that way. I hate it when women are harmed in fiction in order to prompt a plot point relating to a man’s personal development: this is sometimes called “fridging.” I feel as though Kuang has just fridged an entire city of real people who were actually slaughtered not all that long ago. It is her country, not mine, and the protagonist in this case is a woman, but I would be a hypocrite if I were ok with it.

Historical fiction of this time period abounds, of course, and sometimes it features horrors. Good WWII fiction also tends to focus on the will to survive, on comradeship and cunning, rather than a long account of relentless destruction and pain. But there is something about putting people in the context in which they actually lived, in such a way that they are remembered rather than forgotten, which seems inherently more respectful. Because, of course, many of these people are forgotten as individuals and we’ll never know who they were. But their individual identities are not so unimportant that they should be ripped out of the earth and put into a mediocre fantasy novel.

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