Juushika's Reviews > Under the Poppy

Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja
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's review
May 01, 11

bookshelves: status-borrowed, genre-fantasy, genre-historical, subgenre-fantasy-of-manners
Read in May, 2011

In a historical city that could be 1870s Brussels stands Under the Poppy, a brothel with a flair for the theatrical, run by hard-edged Decca and stoic Rupert. But the unexpected arrival of Decca's brother Istvan, with his puppet troupe and tidings of war, brings unreset and change to the Poppy: the intrigues of politics and murder, hearts broken and won. Under the Poppy is a stylistic tour de force oftentimes hampered by that same strong style. A fantasy of manners in the way of Kushner's Swordspoint, but with a distinctive dark bend and lush aesthetic, it's strongly reminiscent of Robins's Maledicte. Combined with the book's theatrical inclinations—and puppetry and theatre are omnipresent—its style may inspire love and hate in equal measure: it holds no middle ground. Koja has an intense, terse voice which brings her book to life, embodying the unrelenting conflict and strange arts that fill it, and that style is often beautiful, but as faithful as Koja is to it it's never wholly natural or immersive. Combined with the convoluted machinations of a fantasy of manners and the many names used by some characters, this can make Under the Poppy hard to follow. Such a lush, complex world invites total immersion, and so it's a pity that the otherwise intriguing style holds the book at a remove.

On a personal note, Under the Poppy is so much my sort of book that I find it difficult to attempt the pseudo-objectivity that I try to maintain in my reviews. The puppetry wasn't to my taste, and it may not quite be the book that I would write myself, but it's a story I understand well. For better and worse the characters could easily have been residents of my id and I was able to anticipate all the plot twists and character interactions—and while such literary wish fulfillment was initially a delight, it ultimately dulled my enjoyment: reading the events that had already played out in my head felt redundant. I want to own Under the Poppy (despite the typos that plague this small-press book), because in many ways it's exactly the book for me and I think that revisiting it when familiar with, and so more comfortable with, its style and familiar with, and so not hoping for the unexpected from, its plot will allow me to revel in that. I find it hard to recommend it to others not because it's not good, but because of my lack of objectivity. For what it's worth, while no book is for everyone this book has a particularly limited, peculiar audience—but that audience, those in search of a dense dark world of prostitution emotional and physical, playacting on the stage and off, violence in politics and in love, where no quarter is given to character or to reader, may do well to pick up this book. It is not without flaws, but it is wholly, unapologetically, beautifully itself.
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