Virtually Imperfect: A Dual Review of “The Poppy War” by R.F. Kuang and “Wildcard” by Marie Lu

Hey gang! Sorry for being MIA the past week. I actually wrote out an entire post about my first relationship on Saturday, but never got around to editing it. Drunk Me decided that was Sober Me’s job, and Sober Me decreed it was Later Me’s responsibility. Then I repeated the cycle. And then yesterday I had so much work to do, I just didn’t have time!

I was actually planning on doing a Top 10 Tuesday post yesterday. Did I even start it? Nope! Too busy. Maybe I’ll do Top 10 Tuesday (On Thursday) or something. As for my personal narrative, I’m actually not sure whether or not I want to post it. I can’t decide if it’s a story I need to share or if it’s a bit tasteless (even though all the names are changed). Hopefully I’ll decide before the weekend, when my cycle will start again.

Today, however, I have some reviewing to do. It’s been a minute since I reviewed a book. I don’t think I’ve reviewed anything since Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli and Inkmistress by Audrey Coulthurst, another dual review. Well, there was City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte, but I don’t consider that pile of coagulated pond scum a book.

Luckily, the books on the table today are both better than that. However, they’re not without their flaws. The Poppy War and Wildcard were both books I expected to love. I anticipated five-star reads. Unfortunately, they did not live up to that promise. Only one even comes close.

And so, in the order I read them, here are my thoughts on The Poppy War and Wildcard:

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang


Official Summary: 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.

My Thoughts: As you can tell by the summary, there’s a lot in this book. That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to handle it well. Was Kuang able to master her jam-packed plot? Yes and no.

I expected to love this book. Alas, I’m not sure I do. I really like it, but I don’t quite know if I love it. I know I love this world and its characters. I know it has some great relationship dynamics (especially Rin and Jiang’s, as I’m a sucker for the teacher/mentor/master and student/mentee/apprentice trope). This book also takes some turns I wasn’t expecting.

Of course, there are also a couple twists and reveals I saw coming a mile away. It was just a waiting game for when those reveals would come. The only twist I think is a false flag is the one regarding Rin’s heritage. Kuang has seeded too much doubt in Rin to then turn around and do nothing with it. What a waste of potential that would be.

I think the biggest problem with this book is the pacing. The entire novel takes place over the span of five years (though the second half is only one of those years). The character development doesn’t always feel earned because a year would go by in a sentence. This book could’ve easily been three, Rin’s school years being the first two. With more detail and plot, the story would’ve benefited greatly.

This also would’ve alleviated some of Rin’s waffling over whether or not her shamanic ability is good. If we got to spend more time with her during both her school years and the war, her conflicted feelings could’ve been better developed. In turn, so would her relationships with her fellow characters, especially Jiang and Altan. It would’ve also better emphasized the parallels between Jiang and Altan, both as Rin’s mentors and as symbols of their opposing viewpoints.

Despite the pacing issues, there are a lot of things this book does right. To start, Kuang is very effective at getting information across without info-dumping. Even with five years crammed into this one book, it never feels like you’re slogging through exposition. Kuang has a very keen eye for where to place her world-building. I find that highly impressive. Even coming into this novel with no prior knowledge of the analogs (Nikara is China; Mugen is Japan; Speer is Korea; the Poppy Wars are the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Rape of Nanking) and their historical implications, I never once felt lost.

Moreover, Kuang’s magic system is brilliant. Essentially, shamans don’t have their own powers— they summon gods and use their powers. They take opioids to access the Pantheon, and then allow themselves to be possessed long enough to do whatever needs to be done. However, this isn’t without consequence. Shamans risk addiction the more they commune with the gods. There’s also the small fact that summoning gods slowly drives you insane, and you eventually can’t take your body back from whatever god with which you’ve bonded. Inconvenient, that.

There’s a fascinating balance between physical war and political intrigue. The warlords of Nikara are constantly at odds, each out for their own interests. I wish this could’ve been explored a bit more, but I understand why it wasn’t. Rin simply wasn’t part of the political sphere. Everything she learns about its inner workings is from her teachers, Altan, or Kitay.

Speaking of Rin, she’s a fantastic protagonist. She’s clever, yet stubborn. She’s determined and self-serving. She embarks on this journey to escape a marriage to a much older man. She wants to make something of herself, even when all the odds are stacked against her. Once she learns what she’s capable of, she’s both wary and hungry for more power. In essence, she’s complex and flawed— the very sort of heroine for which I’ve been searching.

Jiang is spacy and eccentric, but in a way that implies there’s a wise man hidden underneath. Altan is a gifted young man driven by the need to avenge his people. However, he also cares deeply for his soldiers and believes he can save even the most far gone. Kitay seems geeky, but is truly a person of profound intelligence and quiet strength. Nezha is spoiled and lauded, but he has the fighting skill to back it up. As bigoted as he can be, he’s someone you can count on in a pinch.

My only real complaint about the characters is the overall lack of women. There are a few other notable female characters: Mrs. Fang, Rin’s foster mother; two or three female students at Sinegard (Venka, Niang, and Kureel); Jima, headmistress of Sinegard; Su Deji, the Empress of Nikara; and Qara, one of the Cike. I wracked my brain for fifteen minutes and couldn’t even remember most of their names. I had to look them up. So… that’s not great on Kuang’s part. I only hope this is remedied in the next two books.

On the other hand, I really appreciate that this book doesn’t involve any romance. It’s not that romance is bad, just tired. It’s nice to see a book in which the main character stays focused on the war. No poorly-timed make out sessions for this protagonist! Rin feels attraction to a couple people, but it never goes beyond that. Her most important relationships are those with her mentors and her friendship with Kitay. I found this to be incredibly refreshing.

Fair warning to any interested readers, there’s some very graphic and disturbing stuff toward the end of the book. Yes, it’s a war, but this is beyond typical warfare. I was shaking while reading it, I was so disturbed. I’m not saying this as a strike against the book. But if this is something you think you can’t handle, please don’t read this.

As for the rest of you, I say give it a shot. I really like the direction this story is taking. Rin is turning out to be a real antihero. And you all know how I feel about antiheroes. Ultimately, if R.F. Kuang’s debut novel is this good (albeit flawed), then the rest of this series is going to blow the Richter Scale.

My Rating: 4.25/5

Wildcard by Marie Lu


Official Summary: Emika Chen barely made it out of the Warcross Championships alive. Now that she knows the truth behind Hideo’s new NeuroLink algorithm, she can no longer trust the one person she’s always looked up to, who she once thought was on her side.

Determined to put a stop to Hideo’s grim plans, Emika and the Phoenix Riders band together, only to find a new threat lurking on the neon-lit streets of Tokyo. Someone’s put a bounty on Emika’s head, and her sole chance for survival lies with Zero and the Blackcoats, his ruthless crew. But Emika soon learns that Zero isn’t all that he seems–and his protection comes at a price.

Caught in a web of betrayal, with the future of free will at risk, just how far will Emika go to take down the man she loves?

My Thoughts: Marie… no. What have you done?

Last year, Warcross was a surprise favorite for me. I loved the characters, found the plot exciting, and swooned over the romance. But what really pushed that book over the edge for me was the ending.

Lu set up a conflict that was delightfully morally gray. I could very clearly see the pros and cons of both sides. Hell, I thought Hideo had a point! So it was no small amount of anticipation that I felt for the arrival of the series conclusion. And what did Lu do with that complex conflict and potential? She threw it all away.

Lu paints a very detailed picture telling you who is Right and who is Wrong. And then she uses Emika to hammer this point in over and over again. I quickly got sick of Emika and her newfound holier-than-thou attitude. What happened to the hacker and bounty hunter who broke the rules to do what she needed? Where is the Emika I once loved?

Look, there’s character development and then there’s using your character to spell out the moral you want your book to teach. At best, it’s insulting to the reader. At worst, it completely destroys your protagonist and makes her a hypocrite. And Emika is a huge hypocrite in this book.

So, rather than genuinely explore the morality over using an algorithm to stop people from committing crimes (Imagine the discussion. Is it okay to control people’s minds if it’s only in relation to them committing crimes? Is it wrong to control people at all? Does taking away one’s option to commit a crime take away their free will? How can the algorithm be unbiased when a human has to control it? How can we keep whoever controls the algorithm from abusing it? Can that even be done? So many angles to consider!), Lu takes the story in a completely different direction. Sure, she addresses these questions somewhat, but mostly just to tell you the answer is that all mind control is wrong and you’re a bad person if you disagree. Instead, the story is about more treachery (because Emika apparently learned nothing the first time) and the mystery of what happened to Hideo’s brother, Sasuke.

Don’t get me wrong. Discovering the truth behind Sasuke’s disappearance is a fascinating ride. I even found most of it impossible to predict. The problem is this plotline also exists so Lu can eventually prove to us that the algorithm she said was wrong is, in fact, wrong and laugh in our faces for even considering otherwise.

Even though I was deeply disappointed by this book, there’s still plenty to enjoy about it. The best part by far is the characters. While I found myself largely annoyed by Emika, I was pleased to learn more about the supporting characters. Asher, Hammie, Roshan, and Tremaine are fleshed out a lot more in this book. I was happy to finally get their backstories and get a better understanding of their motivations.

We also get to know some new characters, specifically Zero, Jax, and Taylor. Zero is fascinating both in what he represents and what he is. I can’t get too much into his character without giving spoilers, but he’s able to inspire both fear and sympathy in the reader.

Jax is my favorite of the new characters. An assassin with a tragic past, this silver-haired beauty is everything to me. She tries to do the right thing, no matter the cost. But, more than that, she longs to be cared for. The biggest tragedy of this book is that she and Emika don’t end up together.

Taylor is an interesting character, but I feel like she was added too late in the game. How can a character be added too late into a duology? Well, it depends on their purpose. Once again, I don’t want to spoil anything so I won’t say too much. I’ll just say she’s an obvious foil to Hideo and we’re supposed to regard their goals as equally wrong. Even though one is clearly worse than the other and intention isn’t even taken into account. Ultimately, Taylor’s entire arc comes off more as soapboxing on Lu’s part than the complex tale it was intended to be.

As I said, I did like the plot. I just wish it wasn’t intrinsically tied to Lu’s Correct Opinion™. That said, it’s exciting and action-packed. The last third of the book truly blew me away. But the best part is the ending— and I’m talking the aftermath. I found it to be realistic in a way from which most YA authors shy away. In that sense, Lu’s choices here are truly daring. Sure, a couple things feel too good to be true, but they’re balanced enough with realism that I don’t care. If more YA finales did this, they’d probably have a better reputation.

Painful as it is, I can’t say I love this book. It just doesn’t live up to the potential the first installment promised. It has its pluses, especially the characters and ending. But it’s bogged down by Lu’s insistence that Emika has the moral high ground. I won’t let this tarnish my view of Marie Lu, though. She’s still one of my favorite writers. It’s just that this wildcard was a Draw Four and the odds were stacked against her from the start. And then it cut the brakes on this series, sending it hurtling toward its destruction.


My Rating: 3/5

So… everything you’ve read up until this point I wrote nine hours ago. As Evening Me settled in to start editing and revising, I realized I never wrote a conclusion paragraph. Whoops.

I don’t feel like banging out a real one now, so I’m just going to… not. It’d just be reiterating the introductory paragraph anyway. Instead, I’ll take this time to simply ask for your thoughts. Do you agree with my reviews? Disagree? Think this part of a post is annoying and unnecessary? Let me know in the comments!

Also, let me know if you’d like to hear that story about my first relationship. It isn’t what I’d call “juicy,” but it is… interesting.

Anyway, like, comment, share, and subscribe! *insert quirky YouTuber outro here*

3 thoughts on “Virtually Imperfect: A Dual Review of “The Poppy War” by R.F. Kuang and “Wildcard” by Marie Lu

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