Under the Poppy

Under the Poppy

3.0 5
by Kathe Koja

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Love: it’s a triangle. War: is coming. Betrayal: is inevitable. Sex: watch out for the naughty puppets.  See more details below


Love: it’s a triangle. War: is coming. Betrayal: is inevitable. Sex: watch out for the naughty puppets.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The latest from Koja (Skin) is a page turner with riveting language and close attention to sensory detail. Set in late 19th-century Brussels, the story follows the adventures of puppeteer Istvan and brothel owner Rupert who bond as friends and lovers. The first half of the novel is set at Rupert's brothel, Under the Poppy, a haven for bawdy puppet shows and loose women. With war in the air, the brothel is forced to house soldiers led by a corrupt general. A mysterious assault on Rupert leads to more violence and an exodus of prostitutes from the establishment. Istvan and Rupert, with one of the former working girls, who morphs into a theater owner and puppeteer, leave as well and arrive in a new town, where they cavort with a family of aristocrats that includes Isobel, who falls for Rupert (as does her young brother, Benjamin, the family heir). Koja's style is unconventional, resulting in a melodrama with deep insights into character and a murky plot balanced with prose as theatrical as the world it portrays.(Oct.)
From the Publisher

"The brothel of Kathe Koja's Under the Poppy requires no time and space coordinates. It is a fictional universe unto itself—rich and bawdy and violent and sad, with a beating human heart underneath. I love Koja’s daring and flair."
—Louis Bayard, author of The Black Tower

"Koja can pack a lot Dickensian humor into a sentence . . . [she] takes a page from Victorian lit in her writerliness, and she reveals human nature like someone slipped her the manual."
Cleveland Plain Dealer

"This book made me drunk. Koja’s language is at its poetic best, and the epic drama had me digging my nails into my palms. It’s like a Tom Waits hurdy-gurdy loser’s lament come to life, as sinister as a dark circus."
—Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing

"Unlike anything I’ve ever read, a world unto itself, spun out of fevered, sensual prose and vivid, compelling characters."
—Lewis Shiner

"A gothic, glam-rock take on love and sex and death that reads a little like what would happen if Sarah Waters and Angela Carter played a drunken game of Exquisite Corpse in a brothel . . . will make you want to get out your very finest crushed velvet, drink a couple bottles of wine, and do something a little bit illegal with someone very good-looking. In other words, it’s a winner."

"All the elements of a great novel are present in Koja’s work: from suspense and intrigue to undying love and toxic jealousies, this highly developed read is brimming with imaginative flair and originality."
—Lambda Literary

"People will probably love this book or hate it–possibly both. But let me just say that it would take an author of extraordinary talent to open with a scene of a woman being sodomized by a ventriloquist’s dummy and make me want to keep reading. And Kathe Koja is that talented. Five stars."
—Speak Its Name

"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."
—Colleen Mondor, Chasing Ray

"Frequently changing viewpoints and fluid segues in and out of flashback illuminate actions readers have already witnessed. Part of the fun is heading into the past after knowing the future; even when you know where the story will go, you wonder what will happen next."
Ann Arbor Observer

"I loved Under the Poppy. It pours like chocolate—laced with brandy; sexy and utterly compelling!"
—Ellen Kushner, author of Swordspoint

"An atmospheric tale for those who like their historical fiction on the dark and lurid side. Those readers who enjoyed Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin or Sarah Water’s Fingersmith will find similar themes.”
Library Journal

“A page turner with riveting language and close attention to sensory detail. Set in late 19th-century Brussels, the story follows the adventures of puppeteer Istvan and brothel owner Rupert who bond as friends and lovers.”
Publishers Weekly

Library Journal
In an unnamed 19th-century European town about to be overcome by war, Rupert and Decca, who run a brothel that specializes in stage shows, await the return of Decca's brother and Rupert's lover, Istvan, a master puppeteer. When Istvan does appear, he and the brothel crew must perform in several ways to keep their lives safe from the military, the ruling elites, and the endemic violence. The ornate prose has a sometimes confusing syntax, but the chapters told in first person by Rupert, Istvan, and their acquaintances are clear and draw the reader into a web of relationships, betrayals, love, spies, and murder. Despite all the trappings of puppets, sex shows, stabbings, and drawing-room treachery, this is a love story about how, sometimes despite themselves, Rupert, Istvan, and their friends have created a family. VERDICT Koja has written several YA novels and horror-tinged fiction (The Cipher; Skin) for adults. Here, she creates an atmospheric tale for those who like their historical fiction on the dark and lurid side. Those readers who enjoyed Emma Donoghue's Slammerkin or Sarah Water's Fingersmith will find similar themes.—Devon Thomas, DevIndexing, Chelsea, MI

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Product Details

Small Beer Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.68(w) x 11.80(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

An excerpt from the first section:


“Laddie,” Guillame says, “you’re the Light of Love, you’ll be here with the candelabra. Vera on the chaise, yes, just so. And you, Jen, up there, I want you dangling like a grape. A ripe grape about to fall into a hungry mouth—”
“The straps hurt my back,” says Spinning Jennie. “I can’t do it.” Lucy, kneeling beside her on the stage, hemming her costume, pinches Jennie’s long white thigh through the cheesecloth skirt; Jennie makes a sluggish gesture as if to chase a fly and “You’re so dosed,” says Lucy, “a hammer couldn’t hurt you. Puggy, look at her eyes.”
“Shut up, Lucy!”
“The harness, Jen. Go on,” chewing a cigar like Omar does; if it is true that Omar wants to be Rupert, then Guillame wants to be Omar, or at least look the part, bald head, cigars, and all. He has none of Omar’s imposing physical presence, being rather comically short and round, but when Guillame is in his element, bringing life to this stage, he possesses an undeniable energy, a human dynamo in boiled wool and old blue spats.
His title is stage manager, which means a thousand things on a hundred different days: direct and wrangle the players, cadge the props—such as the harness, a refurbished cast-off from the livery; conjured diamonds from paste, Triton’s trident from a hayfork, a paper dove that flutters into life—and construct and assemble the sets, school Lucy into a seamstress, make sure Jonathan has piano enough to play. Some nights he works the doors with Omar, vetting the lustful from the drunks. Most nights he stays up past dawn, reviewing the evening’s playlets: what brought applause or indifference, what roused the crowd, what roused them too much. The verge, he likes to say. That’s where we want them, the utter, utter verge.
Guillame tells a thousand stories of his advent at the Poppy, his life before he came: in some he is the hero, some the villain, some just a winning young lad with a wonderful gift to share. There is no telling which story might be true, if any, though portions of the tale persist in every telling, so perhaps the factory father is real, and the consumption that killed him; certainly the scars on Guillame’s legs are real, from riding on the trains, any trains, as long as they were headed east. The theatre was calling me, he likes to say.
And it is true that he has a gift for it, the spectacle, the glitter and dash; he can make do with few resources, though he agitates always for more: as now, Decca passing through, a passing pince-nez glance and “Wax candles,” he implores, pointing at the candelabra held by a yawning Vladimir. “This fucking buffalo tallow, it’s all smoke, no one will be able to see a thing.”
“I can see her tits,” Decca says. “So will they.”
“If that’s all we mean to offer, we might as well change our name to the Sloppy. Or set up next to that cesspool on the corner.” First strident, now wheedling; he is a bit of an actor himself, Guillame. “Decca, have mercy. To spin gilt-paper to gold, and cheesecloth to silk, I must have the proper light.”
“The tables will have wax candles. We cannot afford—”
“We cannot afford to skimp for Jürgen Vidor, his one night will bring a year’s worth of business.” This is an exaggeration, but close enough to truth that Decca frowns, and fiddles with the pins on her breast, topaz winking between her fingers until “All right,” she says. “But save all the ends, mind…. Lucy, why are you here? No one wants you in the show.”
Lucy looks up from the skirt she is pinning. “Puggy wants me.”
“You belong upstairs.”
Slowly, Lucy draws the pins from her mouth. The others—Guillame, Jennie, Vera, Vladimir, Jonathan sitting quiet behind his keyboard—take a waiting breath, cut their eyes one to another. There are various theories as to why Decca so implacably hates Lucy; it is Guillame’s private opinion, shared only with Omar, that there is some jealousy involved.
Now “Upstairs,” Decca repeats and “That’s all you think I’m good for,” snaps Lucy. “You think I’m just tits and two holes.”
“Three.” Decca taps her lips. “Now go and ready your room.”
“Decca.” Guillame steps forward, into the sightline between Decca and Lucy. “If I might—”
“You might remember who is in charge here. Every hour Lucy spends prancing onstage is an hour stolen from the lockbox. Why do you flatter her into thinking she can do more than suck prick?” Her voice grows louder. “Why does she—”
“Stop.” Rupert in overcoat and gloves, the cold still on him, a princely apparition at the back of the house; his voice is calm but it carries. “In this room, Puggy is in charge; if he needs Lucy he must have her. When she must, she will be in her room, yes?” to Lucy who nods, replaces the pins in her mouth, straightens the hang of the cheesecloth with an angry tug. “Where’s Omar?”
Decca’s voice is even. “Seeing to the wine.”
“More guests are due than we expected—half the garrison it seems. Have him buy double. Puggy, tonight’s show will be exceptional?” as Guillame bows—“Exceptionally so”—and “It had better be,” striding up the aisle with Decca in his wake, into the empty lobby where she stands before him, en garde, at bay and “If she’s an actress,” low, “I’m a Dutchman. Have I no authority at all, here?”
“Why must you meddle where you’re not needed?” He stuffs his gloves into his pocket, rubs his forehead. In this brighter light, his overcoat looks scuffed and slightly shabby, his hat in need of brushing: the pauper prince. The whole lobby wears that same declining air, brave enough by candlelight, by day just a bedizened box smelling distantly of damp wool, cigars, and ancient sperm. “Christ knows there’s plenty else for you to do this day.”
She knows the truer source of his agitation; she bites her lip. “And what of you? You were abroad early.”
“Vidor sent for me this morning. Apparently he must have Redgrave and that idiot Franz attending, as well as the colonel and his retinue. And the man from abroad, all expecting our ne plus ultra, he says.” He rubs his forehead again. “Kippers and bacon fat, Jesu. And swilling tea by the gallon.”
“Did he—”
“What,” flat. “Did he what.”
“Will he,” carefully, “be returning to the hotel, after the show?”
“How the devil should I know?” although Decca knows that he does, knows that she knows, as well. She and Rupert never discuss Jürgen Vidor except in business terms—his river of money first a bonus, now a lifeline for the Poppy as times grow darker and rumors escalate—but this is the heart of that business, the wizened byzantine heart of an aging man, aging out of everything but wealth and acid need so “Let it be,” Rupert says now, and “Yes,” she says. So much of what she wants to say, longs to say, can never be uttered, ever. Especially to him. “So, you breakfasted, then?”
“On fucking kippers, yes…. What about that other?” nodding upward, the merest motion of his chin, face a forced blank, as Decca shakes her head: “Tomorrow,” she says softly. “Let him bide for the evening, this day has trouble enough.”
Watching them both, seen by neither, is Jonathan, sheet music in hand, paused at the lobby door he has opened as he does everything, quietly. Thin shadow waiting until they separate, Rupert up to the parlor office, Decca down to the kitchens and the yard, making sure they have safely gone before he climbs the stairs himself, past receiving rooms empty in dim daylight, past Velma on her knees with a bucket, toward the half-open, beckoning door of the Cell.

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Under the Poppy 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Under the Poppy is a truly wonderful book, I got it from my library and I've barelyI been able to stop reading! Yes, it is a long book, but that just means you get more story. ;) I'll admit I haven't finished it yet (I'm only 78 pages in), but I'm already so madly in love with the characters and the story; it is beautiful and introduces you to a dark, compelling, magical world where anything can happen! On the back of the cover when it calls the Poppy a 'guilty pleasure' they weren't kidding~! And it's only shown the barest sparks of Rupert and Istvan's romance! I cannot wait to read what happens next! So far I love Under the Poppy, and I think you should give it a try. And who knows, maybe you'll love it too :3
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
but eventually got so slow I never finished it. It's a huge book.