Exploring Character Introduction in Novels: Blood Scion, Beasts of No Nation, and The Poppy War

Estimated read time 11 min read

Early last year, before the release of the novel Blood Scion, I was excited to dive into it. Fueling this anticipation were numerous positive reviews by New York Times best-selling authors. From Roseanne A. Brown depicting it as “Equal parts soaring fantasy, heart-pounding action, and bloody social commentary” to Stephanie Garber commending it as “A compelling story of magic, survival, and revenge.” Given my prior fascination with similar novels and a particular interest in character introduction in fiction, my eagerness knew no bounds.

However, as the release date rolled around and I finally embarked on the journey, I discovered my expectations were misaligned. I did not enjoy the novel as much as I was anticipating. What’s more? I couldn’t help drawing comparisons to previous books and remembering how much I enjoyed them. This pattern haunted my enjoyment until I struggled past the novel’s midpoint. At that point, I ceased reading because I could no longer fathom why I needed to go through the motions of turning each page.

After taking this decision, some friends in the diaspora, seeking a native Nigerian perspective, inquired about my thoughts. I, hesitant to respond, pondered: Could I review this novel on its merit, considering the lingering bias of my comparisons and the fact that I didn’t complete it as well?

Over time, however, I couldn’t stop thinking about this novel and what bothered me so much about the portions I read. Eventually, I resolved to articulate my concerns. My intention in doing so is to both preserve my sanity and offer insights from a reader’s standpoint on what I felt didn’t quite work regarding the novel Blood Scion. I will introduce two other books that explored comparable storylines but employed character introduction approaches I found more appealing within the realm of novels.

Blood Scion: Synopsis

Blood Scion Book Cover - A Fantasy Novel by Deborah Falaye
Designer: Corina Lupp
Illustrator: @tajfrancis

Drawing inspiration from Yoruba mythology, Nigerian-Canadian author Deborah Falaye crafts Blood Scion, a military fantasy novel introducing us to the world of Sloane, a fifteen-year-old girl who finds herself forcefully conscripted into the military ranks of the occupiers and oppressors of her homeland, the Lucis. Unbeknownst to them, Sloane is a scion, a descendant of the orisha, a person of immense significance, the very type the Lucis vehemently seeks to exterminate.

Juggling the weight of her secret to safeguard her life, enduring grueling training to transform into a weapon the Lucis wield against her kind, and coerced into demonstrating loyalty through committing atrocious acts, Sloane embarks on a harrowing journey marked by anguish and suffering.

The novel’s themes draw parallels to the impact of real-world colonization, imperialism, and the brutal exploitation of children–some as young as Sloane–some younger. Through Sloane’s eyes, the narrative unveils a fictional yet visceral portrayal of child soldiers, delving into the palpable psychological toll they endure.

Beasts of No Nation: Synopsis

Beasts of No Nation Book Cover - A Novel by Uzodinma Iweala

Set within an unnamed West African nation, Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala paints a poignant tale focusing on expressing the experiences of child soldiers through his literature. At the outset, we meet a young boy named Agu who lives a rustic yet familiar lifestyle, playing pranks with his brother, goofing around with his friends, and doing chores for his family. Yet, this tranquil existence halts when the nation’s brutal civil war intrudes upon Agu’s world.

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Overnight, the horrors of conflict shatter his peaceful routine. His close-knit family is torn apart, his mother and sister separate from him, and the tragedy piles on as he helplessly witnesses the execution of his father and elder brother right before his eyes. Fleeing into the jungle, Agu narrowly escapes immediate death.

Beasts of No Nation Movie Image - Abraham Attah as Agu and Idris Elba as the Commandant

His reprieve, however, proves short-lived when he is captured by the notorious rebel group, the National Defense Forces (NDF). A group led by a sinister yet charismatic figure, the ‘Commandant,’ a beast of a man specializing in the physical and psychological indoctrination of child soldiers. Under his dominating yet father-like manipulation, Agu and others like him commit unspeakable acts, from murder to mayhem, all over the country. And Agu’s circumstances spiral further into darkness, only culminating with the faintest glimmer of hope.

In 2015, the novel was adapted into a major motion picture featuring stunning performances from Abraham Attah as Agu to Idris Elba as the infamous ‘Commandant.’

The Poppy War: Synopsis

Fan Art of 'The Poppy War' by ttreelore - An artistic interpretation of the book cover for R.F. Kuang's epic fantasy novel
Stunning Fan Art of R.F. Kuang’s ‘The Poppy War’ by ttreelore

Drawing inspiration from Chinese mythology and the Sino-Japanese conflict during World War II, The Poppy War by Chinese-American author R.F. Kuang unravels the story of Rin, a young war orphan thrust into an adoptive family as a necessity intended to prevent her from becoming a burden on society. Yet, these adoptive parents exploit Rin, using her for financial gain. Rather than providing genuine care, they considered marrying her to an inspector for profit.

Rebelling against this stifling destiny, Rin charts her course. Driven by sheer determination, she earns a place at Sinegard, the most prestigious military school in the nation. This achievement defies the expectations of those who dismissed war orphans, especially Rin, as having no potential. However, her admission to Sinegard doesn’t erase the discrimination she encounters. Nevertheless, amidst the challenges, she forges a bond of friendship with Kitay and finds guidance from the eccentric Master Jiang.

As Rin hones her skills, she eventually wins a prestigious tournament and awakens latent magical abilities. Just as her power emerges, chaos descends upon Sinegard with the invasion of the barbaric Mugen. Encountering a crucial turning point, Rin faces some eye-opening moments and unexpected truths, living out the harsh realities of situations that were once mere classroom ideas. As the story progresses, Rin must decide whether to save her nation, even if it means sacrificing her humanity.

Fan Art of Fang Runin and the Phoenix God - A mesmerizing depiction of the main character and a Chinese mythology deity from R.F. Kuang's 'The Poppy War' by artist LOERRE
Captivating Fan Art of Fang Runin and the Phoenix God from ‘The Poppy War’ by LOERRE

Overview of Similarities

At this point, you may have deduced that these three novels share common elements. You wouldn’t be understated if you concluded all three delve into profoundly weighty themes.

They all attempt to provide a glimpse into the harsh experiences child soldiers endure. Whether it’s the brutality they suffer or the violence they perpetuate when compelled, these stunning debut novels take on the arduous task of portraying real-world issues understandably and humanely.

Digital Art - A striking portrayal of a child soldier, a poignant depiction created by artist Paul-Alanjones on DeviantArt
Portrait of a Child Soldier by Paul-Alanjones on DeviantArt

Hence—take heed before immersing yourself in any of these stories, as their prefaces aptly highlight specific content or trigger warnings.

The Challenge with Blood Scion

Although I eventually did not finish this novel, it wouldn’t be fair to say there were no aspects I enjoyed. One notable element was the enthralling ancient lore surrounding the Yoruba pantheon, or orishas, vividly weaving its mythology roots into the fabric of its fantasy worldbuilding.

Photograph - An exquisite depiction of Erinle, the Yoruba deity, embellished with cowries, captured by an anonymous photographer and shared on theafricanhistory.com
Photograph: Majestic Statue of Erinle, a Yoruba Deity Adorned with Cowries (Ancient Money)

Encountering familiar names like Sango and others added a captivating dimension. However, I found it disappointing seeing them vanquished without a compelling explanation by the Lucis, especially given the significant power I expected from them and since the Lucis didn’t seem to possess any magic as far as I could discern. Nonetheless, it was commendable for the author to weave the orishas into the narrative.

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My primary issue with Blood Scion revolves around its strong focus on outlining the protagonist’s dire circumstances right from the first page. Sloane’s life takes a downward trajectory from the very beginning and the rest of the portions I read further unfold a tapestry of tragedy that engulfs her existence.

Upon reflection, it seemed that the narrative was more preoccupied with showcasing the magnitude of her misfortunes than delving into Sloane’s multidimensional character. While this approach aimed to elicit empathy from readers, it only resulted in a sense of pity for Sloane as a tragic figure. As a result, a genuine connection failed to form.

Although I enjoyed certain aspects of the lore surrounding the ‘orishas,’ this wasn’t enough to propel me beyond the DNF point. Sloane’s lack of interest in mastering her magic was also a deterring factor. She treated her magic with disdain, attempting to suppress it at every turn, even though it had previously aided her in challenging situations, albeit uncontrollably. I anticipated that she would eventually develop an interest in honing her magical abilities and employing them cleverly in ways the Lucis couldn’t anticipate. Unfortunately, this never seems to happen, even if it might occur later in the series.

However, my central issue–the lack of investment in Sloane’s journey–remains the primary reason for my disinterest.

How The Poppy War Avoids This Issue

To begin with, The Poppy War sets itself apart from Blood Scion by offering logical explanations for the defeat of Rin’s people, even though they possessed a strong affinity for magic that should have made them nearly invincible. This, however, was a minor concern, akin to an itch that I was pleased had been satisfactorily scratched.

As for my main concern about how Blood Scion introduced its main character through tragedy, The Poppy War took a different approach, which I appreciated. Despite the hardships in Rin’s life, her characterization didn’t solely focus on them. Throughout the first act, I saw many aspects of her, from her unique perspective to her quirks, making me connect with her in a way I never did with Sloane. Even several years after finishing the Poppy War trilogy, I still remember Rin fondly, and I could go on and on about her if given the chance without necessarily rereading the novels.

Her determination to succeed and her curiosity about the world’s pantheon and their powers captivated me. Consequently, what might have appeared as exposition dumps, served as vital puzzle pieces I could use to complete Rin’s mosaic.

Fan Art - A striking portrayal of Rin, the main character from R.F. Kuang's 'The Poppy War,' showcasing unwavering determination and strength, created by artist Hanna Muriel on Tumblr
Fan Art: Rin from ‘The Poppy War’

Moreover, her diligent efforts to excel in the imperial exam, known as the ‘Keju,’ evoked memories of my undergraduate days. Her intense commitment was captivating, and her eventual triumph was deeply satisfying. As she encountered fresh challenges, I wanted to stay with her to see how she responded. This is what I found lacking in the introduction of Blood Scion—moments that create a multidimensional bond with the main character. While some may not emphasize the importance of such initial connections, for me, they are essential in cultivating genuine attachments. Ensuring deeper investments in their journey, making the emotional impact of when things nosedive hit harder, akin to a powerful ‘counter punch.’

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How Beast of No Nation Achieves This

While some have labeled the beginning of this novel as slow-paced, I would describe it as patient. Its initial sequences, don’t rush in presenting Agu’s background or introducing us to him. It takes its time, showing us his likes–dislikes–creativity, and versatility. Although his personality makes him easily likable, the narrative still lingers with him in several moments, portraying diverse aspects of him, from the challenging to the idyllic.

Artwork - A poignant portrayal of a young child soldier, capturing innocence amidst a grim reality, by artist tomsleeps
Artwork – A poignant portrayal of a young child soldier, capturing innocence amidst a grim reality, by artist tomsleeps

Then, the tension gradually seeps in, beginning with news of the government’s collapse and progressing with the following uncertainties and debates as the villagers try to choose their next steps. With Agu, you can feel the weight of societal expectations compelling him to stay and defend his village, despite reassurances from his mother and sister, who soon left, that seeking safety is not shameful. You could anticipate that Agu would stay, even with heralds of the danger ahead. And when tragedy finally unfolds with him as a witness, it’s impossible not to be heartbroken.

Sketch - An evocative black and white sketch of Agu from 'Beasts of No Nation,' with a powerful quote 'war is still hell,' by artist TopCat1984 on DeviantArt
Agu’s Unforgettable Journey: An Artistic Tribute to ‘Beasts of No Nation’

Another powerful tool in the novel’s prose is the use of the first-person narrative in the present tense, which immerses me further in Agu’s perspective with his unique diction, making him feel like a person rather than just a character or plot element.

“The only way to not be fighting anymore is to be dying”

Beast of no Nation by Uzodinma Iweala

In essence, Agu, much like Rin, is a character I deeply care about. And responsible for this, I surmise, is none other than the vital role his introduction played in connecting us.

Conclusion

Do I believe Blood Scion commits grave narrative offenses? Most certainly not. I admire the author’s intentions and aims. While it wasn’t a personal fit for me, I’m pleased that the book has reached readers worldwide who found value in it. Furthermore, I would recommend it to readers who—unlike me—prefer bold openings without gentle introductions.

For those like me—who seek a methodical and patient buildup of stakes aided by nuanced character introductions in their novels—I highly recommend both Beast of No Nation and The Poppy War. These are outstanding novels that I thoroughly enjoyed.

To you who made it this far: thank you for reading. If you found this piece enjoyable, please consider sharing it with fellow readers who share your interests. And if you hold differing opinions, whether partially or entirely, I wholeheartedly encourage a discussion in the comments below. I’m eager to hear your insights.

Usman Bello

Two years ago, if you had asked me, I would have probably said that I wasn't a writer. I had imposter syndrome and considered myself just a reader. But what I didn't realize then was that I was a writer all along. Whenever I wrote anything, I felt liberated. The thoughts that were once jumbled in my head became clear words that captured my feelings and insights.

However, my love for reading never diminished. Now, I believe I am a perfect blend of both—a reader who loves to write and a writer craving more to read. You'll find in this literary haven my thoughts, musings, and insights on books and literary elements. Through blogs and book reviews, I explore what works and what doesn't across the fantasy fiction genres, still learning and growing with each page read and written.

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