So as R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War started out, I was really loving it. It was doing this kind of boarding school story where a scrappy kid in a bad situation works hard and gets into the big school, and now has to deal with a whole new world of high society that they know nothing about, dealing with the resentments of their rich classmates, etc. Like Harry Potter if Harry Potter were good. It’s a shape of story that I have a real fondness for, and it was done well.
But then, something like half of the way into the book, it took a turn into the grimdark. And to clarify what I mean by that phrase, it’s not about the events in the book (though those were often both grim and dark), it’s about the attitude of the characters. Once we get to the grimdark portion of the book, there’s almost never a non-sardonic smile, almost never a moment of non-mordant levity, almost never any interpersonal relationship that isn’t warped and twisted by self-loathing and violence.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, as such. Kuang seems to be doing something very intentional with the grimdark here. (From the ending, I’m pretty sure this is the start to a trilogy; it tells a complete story in itself, but there’s a lot of dangling ends.) But me personally, I super-hate grimdark. I kept reading this book, hoping that it would take another turn and go back to being the book I wanted it to be, but no such luck. I’m curious about where the series goes from here, but I suspect that it’s going to stay solidly in the grimdark, so will probably never read the sequels to find out, alas.
Recommended for people who are more grimdark-tolerant than me.