Again, not a review, because I am not a reviewer. More of a flailing-about-madly-squee-er.
The Bastards’ Paradise is set some time after the events of The Mercury Waltz, (which I did not-review here) and again, if you pick up this book without prior knowledge of Under the Poppy or TMW you will be utterly lost. It is the final act in a grand epic, a smash of masks and puppetry even when the deep lines must be hidden with grease paint and Kohl, the cough stifled with gin and laudanum. Where under the prayers and the Church pageantry and the stern mask of rectitude lie war and hashish and cocaine and grinning thieves. Where everything is a lie. (If you think I’m harping on a bit about this, no, it really is a theme that runs strongly through all three books)
Koja is a phenomenal writer, and my favourite kind – the one that doesn’t give a shit about Gentle Reader. The story leaps and twists back on itself like a hare chased by hounds (a lord of hares, perhaps?), and the words play tag among themselves. Gentle Reader has no place here, only us fools and dreamers.
UM SPOILERS BECAUSE THIS IS BOOK 3
We’re back with Istvan and Rupert—Rupert who is meant to be a dead man in hiding after the final play of the Mercury. Holed up in garrets and attic rooms and rented bedsits and under starlight coughing himself to death while Istvan of the thousand names pretends to play it alone, puppets and wit still his to swindle and entertain.
But while the Poppy books have always been about lies and artifice and plays and players, the dark swirl beneath the city’s tarnished reflection, now the rot and the ache have truly set in. Istvan and Rupert are old and injured, no longer the bright young kits who found in each other the only true things, who understood that the whole world was theirs to fuck over, because it was that or be fucked over first.
These are men on the edge of dying. These are men who put newspaper in their boots, who lie to everyone, (including, and most painfully, each other) and who see themselves echoed in their sometime proteges Frédéric and Haden. Indeed, the stories of the two couples mimic each other, the pairs shinning the tale between them, ghosting and feinting.
Istvan, the eternal wanderer, knows that Rupert needs to settle down somewhere—a safe place, where he can stop being “the dead M Bok” and can regain his health, and he sets in motion a great swindle; a piece of artistry and vice to part the pretty gems from the fat fingers of the rich.
While Rupert stays alone in his room secretly (or so he believes) penning all the tales of their time together. There are plans made, old alliances gently pinned together in the hopes of a future. Piece by piece the two and their compatriots put their respective plays in motion, each wanting to save the other.
Through this main thread twists a million more—the women who form the net of the story. And their stories are, in their own ways, just as important. They are none of them written as throwaway characters—they can be just as selfish and petty and broken and obsessed and wonderful as our main characters. Women who are sisters, enemies, friends, fortune tellers, those who want to own Istvan and Rupert as though they were puppets themselves, those who want Istvan and Rupert as lovers or fathers, and sometimes lovers and fathers. All these threads twine together to build a story that grows richer and richer, crimson and emerald and blue black, until the final thumb to the nose, the tragedy and the closing curtain.
The story hops from place to place, giving hints and scenes that the reader puts together like a huge puzzle without a cover. All three of the Poppy books are meant to be savoured, to be taken slow. They reward careful reading—little witticisms and sleights of tongue are thrown out casually, carelessly, easily missed in a fast read.
You need to indulge in these stories the way you eat a 95% cocoa Lindt, and take your time, let the bittersweetness melt. Koja’s writing style can be vexing if you’re used to authors who follow more conventional rules, and if you’re not familiar with her work it can seem like a rough-grown thicket, impenetrable with brambly italicy undergrowth. But take your time and you begin to find the hollows and curves that lead you through the darkness, the hare trails and fox’s tunnels. She leaps from character to character – often in mid line—and it’s easy, if you skim, to find yourself completely lost.
But that is also part of what makes her work stand out. That and the utter heartbreaking gorgeousness of the story, which I sadly feel I’m not doing any justice.
I loved this book. It broke my heart and gutted me and made me cry, but it also made me grin, and shake my head, and turn the pages faster.
And when I walked blinking out into the light, it stayed in my head. And that, not-so-fucking-gentle-reader, is what makes a story.