the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘China

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

published May 2018

where I got it: purchased new

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I don’t know what I was expecting when I bought this book.  I’d heard good things about it, it got some buzz when it came out, and then it fell off my radar. I knew it was about a kid who attends an elite military academy, gets embroiled in a war, and has to risk everything.

 

when I read the back cover copy, my first thought was “is this a fantasy version of Ender’s Game?”   Hahahahah!!!!  yeah . . . . nope. More like Name of the Wind if written by Robin Hobb and then half way through Ian Tregillis took over in the vein of the Bitter Seeds books.

 

I meant to keep this review light and happy and talk about the plot and Rin’s adventures at school and how cute it is that she has no idea how to talk to boys she likes, and that she’s great at memorizing facts but shitty at martial arts.  I meant to write a super happy funtime book review.

 

That didn’t happen.

 

Good news first!  The Dragon Republic (book 2) is already out!  You can read books 1 and 2 back to back!

 

The Poppy War  does start out fairly light and happy – a war orphan, Rin, needs to escape her opium smuggling foster family before they marry her off, so she studies for the imperial exam and hopes for a scholarship.  Not only does she do well on the imperial exam, she has the highest score in her prefecture and gains a full scholarship to Nikan’s elite military academy Sinegard. Rin doesn’t care what she studies, she doesn’t care about dorm life, she just knows that school means she won’t have to marry a stranger and that she’ll get three meals a day, and that after graduation she won’t have to go home.

 

She’s by far the poorest most provincial kid at the school, and is relentlessly bullied by wealthier upper class students and a few teachers as well. But, like I said, none of them are forcing her to get married or get involved with opium smuggling, so she shrugs it off.  I thought it was so cute that Rin has no idea how to talk to boys she likes – she thinks they are cute, she ends up staring at them, but has zero idea how to talk to them. It was funny and adorable. And as dark as the end of this book gets, I was thankful for these cute light scenes at the beginning.

 

This is not one of those long, drawn out school chronicles, where each book is one year at school.  The Poppy War is ultra fast paced. Kuang deftly uses a few school scenes for worldbuilding, where the students are discussing world history, with the professor telling them what really happened.   Oh, and a whole shit-ton of other awesome stuff happens that I won’t spoil for you.

 

Before you know it, Rin’s first year of school is over and she’s pledged to study Lore under the school’s weirdest professor, Jiang. Doesn’t hurt that she easily recognized the hallucinogens in his garden.   He is saddened that her goal is to become a good soldier.

 

So, Jiang and Lore.  why would a military school offer classes on lore, mythology, and shamanism?  Why indeed.

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china mountain zhangChina Mountain Zhang, by Maureen F. McHugh

published in 1992

where I got it: purchased used

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How to describe the plot of this book? Impossible. There are no grand quests, or enemies to defeat, or betrayals or heroes or world changing events or any of that. What China Mountain Zhang does offer is intimacy and intense subtlety in an SFnal world.  On the one hand, this is a quiet story of a man in hiding, who only lets the world see of him what they wish to see. If the safest thing for the public to see is a marriageable Asian with a decent job, that is what he will present to them. On the other hand, underneath the facade, underneath the social demands Rafael is crushed under, he is eternally screaming.  This is a story about how the only way to find yourself is to lose yourself.

 

Winner of the James Tiptree, Jr Award and the Locus Award for best first novel, and nominated for the Hugo and Locus award, China Mountain Zhang isn’t your typical SF novel.  Reading like literature, enjoyment of this novel is like discovering a new variety of wine you never knew existed and whose flavor you can’t describe, but you know you’ll be taking an entire case home with you.

 

China Mountain Zhang takes place about a hundred years from now, after America’s socialist civil war, after China came to our rescue and became the promised land, after Martian colonies were established. In America, to be Chinese means to get preferential treatment –  better jobs, better apartments,  easy acceptance to the top universities in China.  To this end, Rafael goes by the Chinese name Zhong Shan, and doesn’t tell any of his co-workers what he does after work. He can pass for Chinese, and that’s all that matters. No one needs to know that his mother is Hispanic.

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three bodyThe Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

published in November 2014

Where I got it: purchased new

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This review contains minor spoilers.

 

I had a very tough time getting into The Three Body Problem.  In the first half of the novel, it’s hard to tell what’s going on, who or what is important to pay attention to. There are certainly interesting and important things that happen (and which are explained at the end), but I couldn’t understand how any of the dots were connected.

 

The story starts during China’s Cultural Revolution.  Professors, scientists, academics, anyone who is seen to be under the influence of western thoughts are persecuted and often psychologically tortured to the point of suicide. Ye Wenjie watches as her physicist father is murdered by teenaged Red Guards. Guilty by association, Wenjie is sent to the frontier to be politically rehabilitated through manual labor. A talented scientist herself, she is recruited to be part of the secretive Red Coast Base.  It will be years before anyone is allowed to talk about what happened at Red Coast.

 

The narrative jumps between Ye Wenjie’s life at Red Coast and modern day China, where nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao is pulled into a military investigation where he could be the key to stopping a dangerous enemy. Except no one will tell him who the enemy is, or where they are. He’s shown a list of scientists who recently committed suicide, and is exposed to a terrifying countdown that is counting down to, what exactly? Reluctantly, Wang becomes friends with Shi Qiang, the gruff police officer who had originally pulled him into the military meeting. A name on the list of dead scientists catches Wang’s attention, Yang Dong. He’s encouraged to visit Yang’s elderly mother, who turns out to be Ye Wenjie.

 

The connection between Wang and Ye Wenjie is a point of no return. For Ye, everything she’s worked towards is coming full circle. For Wang, he learns of a video game called Three Body, in which the goal of the game (or at least the first level of it) is to predict how long the next stable and chaotic eras will be in an environment in which the laws of orbital mechanics don’t seem to make any sense.  Players who understand what the game truly represents are invited to learn who made the game and why.

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bridge of birdsBridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

published in 1984

where I got it: purchased new

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In a rural village in the shadow of the Tang dynasty, the parents are all weeping.

 

They weep because their children lie dying from a mysterious illness. A matriarch of the village gives her life savings to their strongest young man, Number Ten Ox, and tells him to go to the city and purchase the services of a wise Sage, for certainly a learned man can divine the reason for the children’s plague and help develop a cure.  Number Ten Ox is soon to discover that a peasants fortune doesn’t go very far in the city.   However, he returns with Master Li Kao, who is able to understand how the children became sick, and give instructions regarding the herbs needed to cure them.  Knowing what they need, the elderly Master Li climbs onto the back of Number Ten Ox, and across China they go.

 

 

 

They rather quickly find the first portion of the cure, and set out immediately for the rest. One clue leads to another, each adventure feeding into the next. Stealing money (to fund their quest, of course) from a corrupt business owner leads to tricking a dowager,  which eventually leads to the most expensive woman in the world, which leads to visions of pleading ghosts lead which lead to phantom paintings on mountain tops which lead to heartless men, which lead to following a dragon through hell and back. Which leads to Master Li asking the all important question of why do children play the games they play? And through it all, they keep running into people they’ve met before in a curious pattern.

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long hidden anthology

Welcome to the third and final part of my review of Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older. With over two dozen pieces of fiction, I would have been cheating everyone if I tried to talk about all of my favorite stories in just one post. If you like what you read here, check out part one, and part two.

 

To unpack the subtitle of the anthology just a little bit, what are “the margins of history”?  Among other things, it’s the edges, the background, the stories that haven’t been told, the viewpoints that were pushed aside. We’ve all heard the phrase “history is written by the winners”, and those “winners” often only tell their side of the story, their interpretation. The margins are what the writers of the history books left out, most often women and minorities. the writers of the history books may call themselves the winners, but look at what they’ve lost! By pushing people and cultures and religions and stories into the margins, we get such a narrow view of the world. And isn’t this exactly what speculative fiction is supposed to be about? Widening our horizons, seeing everything that’s out there?

 

While you are chewing on that I’ll give you some thoughts on some of my favorite stories that were in the final third of the anthology:

(Knotting Grass, Holding Ring), by Ken Liu – Easily one of my favorites in the collection, as I am a huge Ken Liu fan. in the mid 1600s, in Yangzhou China, two women are on the way to their client. Half porter, half assistant, Sparrow’s job includes carrying instruments and parcels, and making sure the client pays up. Green Siskin on the other hand, is the beautiful entertainer, carried through the city on a palanquin, as walking with bound feet is very difficult. Green Siskin offers the military men she has been hired to entertain a Tanci story, one of a prince who decided to save his father’s favorite concubine. Sparrow burns with jealousy, but even she’s got to admin that Green Siskin knows a thing or two about how to flatter men, how to get them to do exactly what she wants. The men flatter her back, but they see her as a lowly whore. The Manchus are on the march, and soon the city is under siege. With the subtle elgance of a tanci song, Green Siskin quietly saves all the women she is able. She knows what she’s capable of, she knows how to get men to do what she wants.  As always, Liu’s prose is as gorgeous as blossoms falling from a tree on a perfect day.  Green Siskin knows exactly what people think when they look at her. She knows the women in the prison courtyard want her to feel ashamed of herself, to be disgusted by what she does. She never complains, never brags, never asks for pity, never even asks to be seen as anything more than a whore with bound feet.  She just saves as many people as she can from death and violence.

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Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay

published in 2010

where I got it: purchased new

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Under Heaven begins with haunting desolation, visits with imperial opulence, and then finds a sort of balance between them. A fitting journey, as the philosophies of the culture of Kitai focuses on balance in life, balance in all things.

In the western wildernesses of a fictional Tang Dynasty China known as Kitai, Shen Tai honors his late father by spending the requisite mourning period at the battleground, burying the dead of both sides, treating all he comes across with dignity and respect.  A Kitai Princess gives Tai a large gift of precious horses for his work at the battleground.  Understand, that horses are rare in Kitai, and that a man who owns two hundred and fifty of them could easily be seen as wealthier than the Emperor.

Tai’s first challenge is to get home alive. His next challenge is to survive the intrigue and subtleties of the court, where a man can be exiled, or worse, for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, or having their poetry misinterpreted. Their courtly traditions may seem formal and cold  to Western eyes, but it’s these traditions that have kept Kitai powerful and strong through the generations that shaped it.

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Of Tobacco Worms

Spending some time at a friends house the other day, she gave me the tour of the landscaping and gardens she and her husband have been working on for the last few years.  the vegetable garden (beautiful!), the hops plants (tall!) and the moonflower plot (infected!).  Apparently, their moonflowers have been infected with tobacco worms. Moonflowers are related to Nicotiana and Tomatoes, all of which are susceptible to Tomato worms and tobacco worms.  I learned more than I ever wanted to about tobacco worms and the beautiful moths they grow up to be.

Moonflowers. greenhouses. worms. giant beautiful moths.

All I could think of was China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station.  I’ll never be able to think of tomato worms the same way again.

damn you New Weird for infecting nearly day of my life!

. . . and  scifi fashion

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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