It’s super gross that this book was written by a nineteen year old on her gap year. I thought it was good before I learned that’s how old she was when she wrote it but now I’m straight up sickened. I’m just thinking about the kind of shit I was up to when I was nineteen, and it was basically attending classes, going to marching band practice, afternoon naps in my dorm, and eating infinity burritos from the burrito cart.
Kuang was basically like, Oh, let me just write this awesome book that plays with genre tropes and is also a fantasy exploration of the second Sino-Japanese war, and a meditation on war and violence in general, and a bunch of other really cool, smart crap, oh and also I will give it one of the most badass throw you for a loop endings ever written, and then maybe I will go to college now!
Ugh, I can’t believe I just wrote a review complaining about how talented someone else is. I hate those types of reviews and now I have gone and written one. I’m leaving it, though, because I really was a shocked to find out how young this author was. This book already didn’t read to me like a debut, and now the discrepancy between my experience of reading the book and my expectations of the mind behind it are even bigger.
It starts off like a pretty standard fantasy novel, a magical boarding school story where a young upstart, underdog main character has to prove herself against all odds, before being accepted into the top school in her country. In retrospect, there were inklings from the beginning as to how hardcore this book is going to get (for instance, while studying for the Keju–the entrance exam anyone can take, but hardly anyone of no means ever passes–Rin (our main character) burns herself repeatedly with hot wax from a candle in order to stay awake to study, and this self-harm becomes somewhat routine). But it’s not until about halfway through that the book takes a turn, and pretty much everything you thought was going to happen is turned on its head. What Kuang does with her main character, who she gets you to root for pretty early on, is absolutely fascinating, and I was not expecting her arc to go where it did. I can’t say more without significant spoilers.
This book is not for the faint of heart, although, it didn’t affect me as much as it seems to have affected other people. If you are familiar with the history surrounding the Nanjing Massacre, that’s the kind of unflinching brutality you can expect here. Maybe because I was warned ahead of time what to expect it didn’t hit me as hard as it could have.
I am extremely interested to see where Kuang is going to take Rin’s character going forward, as where I had assumed she would end up when I first started the book is completely out of the question now.
I did the audiobook, and Emily Woo Zeller did a nice job, although I think she isn’t super great at conveying high intensity emotions, and there are a lot of those in play here. Still, I will probably do the audio going forward.