I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy lately, and two novels have recently struck me with their thematic similarities (though both are intended for wildly different audiences): Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce and The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang.
Title:Tempests and Slaughter
Author: Tamora Pierce
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Publication date: February 2018
Arram. Varice. Ozorne. In the first book in the Numair Chronicles, three student mages are bound by fate . . . fated for trouble.
Arram Draper is a boy on the path to becoming one of the realm’s most powerful mages. The youngest student in his class at the Imperial University of Carthak, he has a Gift with unlimited potential for greatness–and for attracting danger. At his side are his two best friends: Varice, a clever girl with an often-overlooked talent, and Ozorne, the “leftover prince” with secret ambitions. Together, these three friends forge a bond that will one day shape kingdoms. And as Ozorne gets closer to the throne and Varice gets closer to Arram’s heart, Arram begins to realize that one day soon he will have to decide where his loyalties truly lie.
In the Numair Chronicles, readers will be rewarded with the never-before-told story of how Numair Salmalín came to Tortall. Newcomers will discover an unforgettable fantasy adventure where a kingdom’s future rests on the shoulders of a talented young man with a knack for making vicious enemies.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the new Numair Chronicles (but follows a character deeply important in Tortall, especially the Immortals series)
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher
Format (e- or p-): Print
Arram Draper may not be a gifted orphan from a tragic background who ends up being The Chosen One–but he’s damn close to it.
In Tempest and Slaughter, Tamora Pierce goes back into the archives and follows the story of Numair Salmalin–aka the Chief Mage of Tortall and one of the most powerful in all of its history–and how he came to power. Born a young man to a decently well-off family of sea-faring merchants, Arram Draper (Salmalin’s original name) has always felt different from his father, his uncles, and everyone else in his life. He loves his family, of course, but years for books and study and magic instead of the practical call of the sea. His dreams come true when he’s admitted to the Imperial University of Carthak, where he will learn from some of the finest mage masters in the world. Arram is just ten years old and significantly younger than all of the rest of his classmates, who see him as an oddity and an outsider–when he pulls a shocking display of power far beyond the capabilities of his fellow students (and even his teacher) and nearly floods the campus, Arram fears that he will be expelled and everyone all the happier for it… but instead, it draws the attention of the school’s best mage masters, as well as two other outcasts: the kindhearted (and beautiful) twelve-year-old Varice, and thirteen-year-old black sheep (and far down the line of succession) prince Orzorne of Carthak.
Arram, Varice, and Orzorne become fast friends and inseparable, in the way that young
wizards mages at a wizarding magical school–they have adventures together through their increasingly hard classes, with Arram emerging as a magical prodigy with each year of his enrollment. Varice is a skilled master of foods and potions, Orzorne nurtures his natural skill with animals… but also his ambition. When members of the Imperial family start dying–Orzorne’s Uncle, his cousins, and all eight of the people in line for the throne before him, everything starts to change. Arram fears for his best friend, who becomes increasingly paranoid and preoccupied with power…
Tempests and Slaughter is a welcome return to the fantastical world of Tortall–full of sights, magics, and telling the origin story of three (ok, two, really) star-crossed characters in Arram Draper and Prince Orzorne. I loved getting to know both of these characters, and Varice, especially before all of the bitterness and betrayal that happens in the years to come. The best nemeses are the ones rooted in powerful friendship–Orzorne and Arram’s friendship is bittersweet here, as we start to see the streaks of ambition and the influences who nurture a streak of cruelty in the mage prince. Arram is earnest and naive, hoping to show his friend that there are old gods, that the practice of slavery is inherently wrong; meanwhile Orzorne feels passionately for his friends and every disagreement, every promise broken becomes a personal irreconcilable betrayal. (Even if you haven’t read the other books, you can easily jump into Tempests and Slaughter and immediately know: this isn’t going to end well.)
For all of that doomy-gloomy foreshadowing, though, Tempests and Slaughter is first and foremost a magical school novel. It’s filled to the brim with tropes, but they’re all tropes of the best kind. I mean honestly, who doesn’t love a magical school story?! There’s a class in which Arram learns how to create a bubble around him so he can walk on the bottom of the river and befriend an ancient crocodile god; there are times when Arram leans heavily into mythology and theory, and even awakens a great power of lightning (and the snakelike creatures who he can commune with though no one else believes him). Tempests and Slaughter is fun–much of that is because of the magic and the buildup to tension between the plot’s main characters, but truly this is a novel that is about the day-to-day life of three students, friends, finding their place in the world. It’s all of the macro stuff in combination with the minutia of everyday study, of small peer battles won and lost, that makes Tempests and Slaughter work.
Plus, y’know, it’s a return to the Tortallian Universe. My only complaint is that I wish Varice had more of a voice–but I’m sure we’ll see that soon in the next books in the series. Absolutely recommended for those craving a good magical academy story, for fans of Tamora Pierce, and for new readers looking for a dose of middle-grade-crossover-young-adult fantasy.
Rating: 7 – Very Good, leaning towards an 8
Title:The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication date: May 2018
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.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a planned series
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher
Format (e- or p-): Print
Trigger Warning: drug abuse, self abuse, rape, torture
Tempest and Slaughter is a MG/YA crossover magical academy novel that hints at darkness to come. The Poppy War is that novel’s seriously-messed-up, older, deeper, grimdark sister. These two novels share a lot from a basic plotting and thematic standpoint–both take place in Empires of substantial might and corruption, both feature immensely powerful protagonists who struggle with acceptance in their respective academies and with others. The Poppy War is not a journey one embarks upon lightly.
The novel begins with a backwater villager orphan named Fang Runin (aka Rin), whose future prospects are glum: enter a marriage to an old man as part of her Aunt’s horrible drug-laundering scheme, or ace the Keiju, Empire-wide military exam, in the hopes of escaping Rooster Province forever. Rin takes the latter path, and through grim determination and countless hours of study she manages one of the highest scores in the entire Empire and, by virtue of her score, has been invited to join the elite military academy at Sinegard. When she arrives though, she learns that she is most certainly not welcome. The academy is intended for powerful warlords’ spawn, who have all been prepared for Sinegard their entire lives in extra lessons in combat and strategy; meanwhile, Rin’s dark skin, her country accent, her lack of hand-to-hand combat knowledge and her entire existence is grossly out of place, and she is mocked, beaten, and discriminated against by her fellow students and teachers.
But Rin didn’t get this far to give up–so she finds another way. With her brilliant, knife-sharp wit and a streak of vicious pragmatism, Rin has a mind made for military strategy… but, as it turns out, she also has an affinity for magic and shamanism. Rin can channel power, drawing the attention of Master Jiang, and learns that her rage and fire comes not just from within, but to the Phoenix God who promises power beyond measure. Under Jiang’s tutelage, Rin learns the secrets of using hallucinogenic drugs to communicate with and channel the Gods who hunger for blood and chaos–and when actual war actually breaks out between Rin’s Nikara Empire and the island Federation of Mugen across the straight, she becomes a soldier in a grossly outnumbered battlefield. Rin learns that power comes at a cost–it’s merely a question of whether or not she’s willing to pay it.
The Poppy War is the debut novel from R.F. Kuang, and holy crap, it’s a long, dark trip into addiction and the heart of darkness. As a heroine, Rin is reminiscent of great military and magical academy protagonists goneby: she shares the burning rage at the core of Darrow, the cool detachment and analytical skill of Ender, the misfit appeal and struggle of Kvothe. What sets Rin apart is that she manages to get into Sinegard based on her ability to memorize and learn from books; but her other abilities aren’t innate or taken for granted. She isn’t immensely powerful, or a great natural talent with combat. She’s cunning and she learns how to fight to her advantage–the cards are stacked highly against her–and her magic later comes not because of latent, natural skill, but rather because of the intensity and power of her rage. Plus, in order to unlock her abilities, Rin heads down the path of drug abuse and addiction, gradually losing grips on her sanity and body–the price that the Phoenix will extract from her for channeling its power.
Inspired by the second Sino-Japanese War in the early half of the 20th century, The Poppy War draws on Chinese history and culture to create a fully-dimensional world in the form of the Nikara Empire. There’s a sense of scale and authenticity to the novel’s gods, culture, and history from both a world-building perspective and from a plotting perspective. In the novel’s first act, we learn about the fragmentation of Nikara and its many provinces and warlords through Rin’s eyes at Sinegard; in the second, we see the net effect of that fragmentation as full-blown war blossoms between Nikara and Mugen, and the atrocities that happen; in the novel’s final act, things get dark as hell as Rin quite literally faces a choice to trade her soul in order to burn it all down. Moving from academy, to battlefield, to metaphysical plane is no small feat, but Kuang pulls it off with a grim, gleeful sense of sadism.
This isn’t an easy book to read. It’s dark, it’s daunting, and it’s heartbreaking in equal measure. But, oh dear readers, how I loved it. (Even as I hated parts and sat there internally screaming at Rin to STOP-STOP-DON’T DO THAT YOU CAN’T EVER COME BACK FROM THAT.)
You want a fantasy novel that draws on old tropes but laces them with a fully-fleshed out world, the highest of stakes, and gruesome characters who make horrific decisions? The Poppy War is for you.
Rating: 8 – Excellent; one of my favorite books of 2018 so far
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