Book Review: Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja

Set in 1870s Brussel on the eve of war, Under the Poppy (out now from Small Beer Press) is the story of an eccentric cast of characters who come together under the roof of the titular brothel. Run by Decca and Rupert, Under the Poppy specializes in unique—to say the least—entertainments for a discriminating clientele. 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.

Under the Poppy plays with the fantastical. Though the novel is rooted in historical fiction, its drug-fueled excess, multiple narrative voices, and labyrinthine plot twists lend it an almost surreal quality. Koja’s vivid descriptions and opulent setting create a richly detailed backdrop to the characters’ skulduggery.

The narrative moves rapidly between characters, creating a vivid pastiche that’s sometimes confusing but ultimately effective in conveying both a rich nineteenth-century glamor and a compelling sense of urgency. Koja has a ventriloquist’s skill when it comes to inhabiting the voices of her characters; her adeptness with voice is particularly impressive given none of the narrators are telling the whole truth at any given moment, and most of them are lying altogether. She deftly weaves a net of intrigue, offset by the antics of some very raunchy puppets (who are, ultimately, the only honest characters for all that they’re made out of wood).

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, Under the Poppy 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.

The Rejectionist is an anonymous assistant to a New York literary agent. She blogs at


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