Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Book Review - "The Dragon Republic" by R. F. Kuang


This is sequel #2 in The Poppy War trilogy. It was as compelling as the first novel. The writing is lush and scenes are graphically presented. Rin’s internal torment and physical pain felt so real on the page!

The plot thickens as the Nikan Empire is stricken by the aftermath of the Mugenese invasion and the power struggles between the northern Warlords led by the Empress and the southern Warlords headed by the Dragon Republic leader Vaisra, Nezha’s father.

We see Rin guilt-ridden over her using the fire power of the Phoenix vindictively to annihilate the whole Mugenese island. While at a loss as to what to do next, Rin gets reunited with Kitay in the city under the control of the pirate queen Moag. Nezha appears at this juncture and convinces them both to join forces with the Dragon Republic to resist the imminent attack mounted by the Empress and her allies. Rin learns that Vaisra intends to enlist the help of Hesperia, the blue-eyed foreign nation, but she remains wary of the latter’s true intentions.

Meanwhile, her fire power is lost due to a god’s blockage. A fierce naval battle between the two sides breaks out at Lake Boyang. The Empress’s side has the help of the wind-commanding shaman Feylen, which gives her the edge. The plot then branches off to tell the history of enmity between the steppe shamans and the Nikan imperial rulers. By chance, with the help of a steppe shaman, Rin’s fire power is restored and enhanced by a spiritual bond forged with Kitay. They are ready to protect the Dragon Republic, but in the end find they have backed the wrong side. Unexpected perfidy forces Rin to assume a life-changing role in the civil war.

Here are some passages that I found resonating:

The sheer arrogance, Rin thought. It must be nice, possessing all the power, so you could approach geopolitics like a chess game, popping in curiously to observe which countries deserved your aid and which didn’t.

It’s not about who you are, it’s about how they see you. And once you’re mud in this country, you’re always mud.

‘Those devils are going to destroy our world. The Hesperians have a singular vision for the future, and we are not in it.’

The Nikara had been fighting among themselves for a millennium. Were they going to stop just because they could vote for their rulers? And who was going to vote for those rulers? People like Auntie Fang?

He could spout all the ideology he wanted, but she knew better. The Nikara were never going to rule themselves, not peacefully, because there was no such thing as a Nikara at all.

I’m giving this novel 4.5 stars, rounding up. 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Book Review - "Descendant of the Crane" by Joan He

The book blurb describes this novel as "Chinese-inspired fantasy", but frankly, I would have liked for the cultural settings to relate to a real Chinese historical period and/or some real Chinese historical figures. Most of the time, I felt like reading contemporary fiction (because of the Western flavor of the dialogues and behaviors) set in a weird make-believe medieval world.

The story is about a (supposedly) Chinese princess who vows to find the murderer of her father but then finds herself entangled in a web of lies and betrayals during the investigation. When she's caught in a dilemma between upholding her subjects' trust and seeking redress for one particular group of oppressed victims (the soothes, or fortune-tellers), which situation is further complicated by the prospect of war with a neighboring state, she realizes that her ideals are useless and something has to give.

The first third of the novel moves at glacial pace, but picks up considerably about mid-way. But I was unable to feel connection with any of the characters and found the writing a bit disjointed.

I'm giving this novel 3 stars.

Friday, October 23, 2020

French Blogger's Review of Tales of Ming Courtesans

I've always had a soft spot for the French language and literature. Discovering a French blogger's genuine appreciation of the three heroines of my new novel Tales of Ming Courtesans is nothing less than sheer ecstasy, because this represents a mutual love of each other's literary culture!

This is my translation of the last paragraph of the blogger's (Une Occidentale en Chine) review:

"I heartily recommend this book to you, which, despite all the harshness it describes, also shows us the beauty and the power of these women who kindled and inspired the greatest literary icons of the period."

"Je vous conseille réellement ce livre qui malgré toute la dureté qu’il comporte nous montre aussi la beauté et la force de ces femmes qui ont enflammées et inspirées les plus grands littérati de cette période."

Here's the link to the full review in French (you can click on the language of your choice on the right-hand side of the website):


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Book Review - "Mistress Miao" by Yun Rou

I had the pleasure of reading an earlier version of the novel and was impressed with the writing and the author's knowledge of Chinese history and culture. The protagonist Miao is loosely based on a real-life 12th century female rebel leader called Yang Miaozhen, who married and joined forces with Li Quan, a Jurchen bandit leader. They first defected from the Jurchen Jin Dynasty to Southern Song, then rebelled against Southern Song, and later pledged allegiance to the Mongols.

The story runs on a dual time-line, alternating between present-day America and China, and 12th century China, and is punctuated with Chinese mythological elements. The bizarre happenings in the lives of present-day interracial couple Lulu (ethnic Chinese) and Solomon (American) and in the life of 12th century Miao are woven tightly and intriguingly to leave the reader breathless. The modern-day narrative in large part involves Solomon's visit to China in a desperate quest for a way to save Lulu's life. He discovers more than he can handle.

The novel was quirky in places but did have a deeper message. It was an entertaining read overall.


Sunday, October 18, 2020

Book Review - "The Poppy War" by R. F. Kuang

This fantasy novel was grippingly immersive with a complex plot and creative execution! The narrative, though seemingly grounded in the Second Sino-Japanese War, is woven with heavy mythological elements and featuring fantastic characters and locales. It’s nonetheless not difficult to identify the real equivalents of major locales where key historical military events actually took place.

Part One tells how a young orphaned peasant girl named Rin, in order to flee her destiny of being married off against her will, succeeds against all odds in entering the Nikara Empire’s most prestigious military academy at Sinegard, the capital. All her fellow students come from noble families, which make her feel like a fish out of water. But her strong will, intelligence and grit pit her against Nezha, the brilliant and arrogant son of the Dragon Province Warlord, who is way beyond her match in combat training, and who has no qualms in belittling her. In a year-end tournament, she accidentally discovers that she can call up a hidden lethal flame. Her desire for supernatural power urges her to take up apprenticeship in Lore (which focuses on the study of shamanism) with Master Jiang, who teaches her to meditate in order to access the deities of the Pantheon, but warns her that asking for power bears a price.

During her two years at the academy, she comes to befriend Kitay, who is a walking encyclopedia, and she secretly admires Altan, the attractive and invincible combatant and the only war survivor from the island of Speer, which a few decades earlier was brutally annihilated by Mugen. Then comes the day when the academy students learn that the newly enthroned Mugen Emperor is planning to invade the Nikara Empire.

In Part Two we see the academy Masters and students being drafted into military divisions in preparation for Mugen’s invasion into Sinegard. During a bloody scuffle, Rin manages to call up her flame to incinerate Nezha’s attacker. When the Masters at the academy see that, they send her to the Cike, which is a group of assassins that will fight as the Thirteenth Division under Altan’s command. She then discovers that she is also a surviving Speerly, like Altan, and that the assassins are all shamans who can call the gods for aid. Under orders from the Nikara Empress, Altan leads the Cike to Khurdalain, the war front. After beating back the Mugenese army from the coast, Altan receives news that Golyn Niis to the south is under siege. The Cike must go to their rescue.

Part Three describes the carnage and aftermath of Mugen’s massacre at Golyn Niis, as recounted to the Cike by Kitay and another female student. Many of the academy Masters and students have been savagely killed. To avenge them, and to save the Nikara Empire, Altan and Rin want to seek help from powerful but retired shamans who are imprisoned in a stone mountain. On their way out, they are waylaid by Mugenese soldiers and unspeakable things happen to them. A brutal truth of betrayal is also revealed. Rin becomes so heart-broken and enraged that she is determined to ask the Phoenix (the goddess of fire and vengeance) to grant her the power for revenge, knowing full well that she has to pay a price for it.

This was a gripping read that was hard to put down. As well, there were some memorable quotes that remind us of the terrors of war, hatred and racism:

War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.

When they were cutting my squadron down, I looked into the eyes of one of them. I thought I could make him recognize me as a fellow man. As a person, not just an opponent. And he stared back at me, and I realized I couldn’t connect with him at all. There was nothing human in those eyes.

It was not founded in military strategy. It was not because of a shortage of food rations, or because of the risk of insurgency or backlash. It was, simply, what happened when one race decided that the other was insignificant. The Federation had massacred Golyn Niis for the simple reason that they did not think of the Nikara as human. And if your opponent was not human, if your opponent was a cockroach, what did it matter how many of them you killed?

I’m giving this book 4.5 stars, rounding up.

I might mention that I had previously read The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe, which is an eye-witness account of the Nanjing massacre. Here’s my review:


Monday, October 12, 2020

Book Review - "Sword of Sorrow, Blade of Joy" by JF Lee

This delightful read has rekindled my love for wuxia/fantasy. I was a childhood fan of Jin Yong's famous martial arts novels and the parallel universe (called "jianghu", literally meaning rivers and lakes) that he so masterfully created. It's a fantastical world where wrongs are arduously righted by super-skilled swordsmen whose mission is to uphold justice.

JF Lee's evenly paced debut novel is filled with deftly described tension-filled fight scenes as well as philosophical musings about duty, guilt and redemption. It also subtly explores the meaning of life and death, while the intricate plot glides along with fluidity and playfulness. The writing is suffused with humor and warmth. The novel is as much a great escape from the present unsettling times as it is an invitation for us to look deeper into our own souls to find our raison d'être.

This novel is the first in a series, and the sequel looks most promising.

I'm giving it four full stars.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Tales of Ming Courtesans - Print Copies Available in Hong Kong

 My author friend in Hong Kong, Les Bird, sent this photo to me! It was taken at the Bookazine IFC store. Bless him! He's the author of A Small Band of Men and will be featured at the upcoming Hong Kong International Literary Festival. Congrats, Les!