Sometimes, a woman needs to wield anger like a weapon. For some, that’s a dagger in the dark, for others it’s a blazing torch. In these two debut novels, the heroines grapple with the meaning of justice, the price of war, and the ravages of revenge. They both know power is the key.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson is a meticulous story about a woman who knows her strengths and points them at her enemies. When a highly efficient empire runs roughshod and genocidal over her homeland, Baru chooses to seek her revenge from within the system. And, of course, this twists her in ways that are painful and poignant, and ultimately, leave her broken.
In The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang, Rin wants to join the system so she can escape her rural and degrading future. She twists herself to reach a pinnacle, only to find her dreams are built on shifting sand, and so she chooses to embrace monstrous anger to seek revenge. That choice leads her to loss and grief everywhere she turns, so she has to keep going. Otherwise, everything she did will be wasted.
Both books are full of excellent world-building. These are non-Western settings as a breath of fresh air, and immense histories and mythologies lurk under the surface. The themes of nationalism, heroism, and martyrdom are a through-line, but overwhelmingly the point is personal choice against destiny. If you sharpen yourself into a weapon, don’t be surprised when that’s all people can see in you.
Both have rival warlords and empires bent on conquest, but while Dickinson addresses the erasure caused by colonization, Kuang targets the stark outcome of genocide by massacre. Both feel well drawn, but Dickinson spends more time with character detail in his ending and doesn’t rush. I felt Kuang needed to linger a little longer.
Both books also wrestle with keeping the main character, the monster created, as empathetic to the reader. How far can you push a person into hate before no one sympathizes with your plight? Where does the outrage burn off for the reader? That’s a pretty subjective line. I felt like both authors pulled punches that would have made the blows hurt more. I ended up feeling a distinct desire to be sadder at the endings.
I rated both these novels at 3/5 stars. Dickinson’s sequel, The Monster Baru Cormorant, is already bought and on my TBR shelf, and I’ll probably be revisiting Kuang’s world of pantheon gods when The Dragon Republic drops in 2019.