Kathe Koja's novel UNDER THE POPPY is the love child of Moulin Rouge and Cabaret with puppets and politics thrown in for good measure.
I was almost afraid to write that because I could immediately picture people thinking it was a musical and envisioning Liza Minelli or the Nicole Kidman in the role of protagonist but that's not true at all. I do want you to wrap your head around the decadent nature of those films and the gaudy flash of their stories and then picture them as books with people like Minelli and Kidman in the cast.
And then add puppets.
POPPY is set in 1870s Brussels, Belgium. Keep in mind that the Franco-Prussian War was fought from 1870-1871 and even though Belgium was always neutral in these conflicts, it was constantly surrounded by tension and war. (Plus that whole neutral thing was pretty nebulous anyway. Remember WWI & WWII?) There are soldiers and generals and politicians and everyone shows up at the Poppy because it is a brothel, a very well known crazy kind of brothel, where lots of folks come and go and get what they pay for. The story is partly about all of the minor characters who find their way to the Poppy and their own worries and concerns and the things they want and the ways in which they are human and flawed. Many voices are heard in this novel. But mostly it is about Decca, who runs the Poppy, Rupert, the business mind behind it and the man she loves and Istvan, Decca's wildly creative half brother, his puppets and the lifetime of love he and Rupert share.
Yes, it's a wicked love triangle.
Decca and Rupert have been okay; they have held the business together with all the jealousies and insanities that a business so reliant upon human foibles can be. Istvan arrives in the opening pages with his trunks of puppets and his secret motivations and while not the catalyst for what follows (events are far bigger than any of them), he is a tornado plain and simple. From the review up at Tor:
When Decca's brother Istvan, a master puppeteer, rolls into town with his troupe of louche puppets in tow, he sets off a hot mess of unforeseen consequences.
Because, of course, Decca is in love with Rupert, Rupert is in love with Istvan, and Istvan's in love with his puppets first and human beings afterward. The main characters' love triangle takes place amidst the brothel's debauchery and violence. As soldiers move in and war looms ever closer, both the Poppy's employees and its owners are forced to perform increasingly intricate deceptions in order to keep themselves safe.
It's hard for me to explain what it is about this book that works best. It's a complicated narrative and you will read many reviews telling you it is a challenge to read - believe it. There are a lot of names and a lot of thoughts and you go from one to another and pick them up and drop them and come back to them and it all whirls and spins at a pace that seems very Cabaret-ish but we are not always accustomed to in novels. It's a wicked narrative for sure. But the atmosphere, the gorgeous way in which she brings life to this distant decadent time and place - a time and place most readers will know nothing at all about - impresses so much. The velvet and brocade, the rips and tears, the music and theater, you see it all as you read about what the denizens of the Poppy do to stay in business, stay ahead of the tide, stay alive.
That's where you see Minelli and Kidman, in the messy struggle to stay alive.
There is a web site, and you can read all about Kathe Koja and the interviews she has done and the book's origins and where it will take you. (Also see the trailer.) Don't be afraid of reviews that refer to it as erotic - honestly I've seen a lot more erotica in the average romance novel. It is set in a brothel and in the opening pages you might think "holy toledo!!" but stick with it and you quickly find it is just at trick and not what you (or the characters) think and Istvan's arrival is revealed and then the narrative takes off.
That's when you sit back, sink in, and let yourself be as carried away by events as everyone is in the novel. This is story - big, messy, emotional story. Revel in all that it offers and demands.
[Post pic of 1870s Brussels; copy of Under the Poppy provided by the publisher - the divine Small Beer Press.]