Book Review: The Poppy War

Title: The Poppy War

Author:  R. F. Kuang

Series: The Poppy Wars trilogy #1

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Release Date: May 1, 2018

Rating: ★★★½

When Rin aced the Keju, the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies, it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard, the most elite military school in Nikan, was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

The Poppy War is definitely worth the hype it’s been getting. Not only does it present an interesting take on fantasy tropes, but matches it with engaging characters and a rich sense of history.

First of all, it is Adult. It reads like Adult and, yes, like grimdark. No question. The pacing is pretty much that of an SFF novel, with a heavy focus on worldbuilding. Before reading this, I’ll definitely recommend reading through the list of trigger warnings the author herself wrote. Yes, it is brutal and unflinching. A list of content warning can be found at Kuang’s blog.

The novel heavily borrows from modern Chinese history, and the extensive research shows. I don’t claim to know much about this period of time, but there is so much detail and care. History is never simple, cause and effect, for there are always many, many more factors at play and Kuang truly shows that. There are contradictions and different sides to the history the characters learn, things they must question to understand their present. I got the sense I was reading from someone who knows a lot about history itself and about this history. And of course, the fact that so much of the brutality is based on real-life events (mainly the Second Sino-Japanese War) makes reading about it all the more harrowing. Some of the images that Kuang evokes (Higlight to view spoiler:especially those in Chapter 21) are going to stay with me for a long time.

This rich world is brought to life, though, by virtue of its engaging, morally-complex characters. Rin is the kind of dark, ambitious character that female characters are often kept from being. She’s brutal and talented, but also endearing. Despite her often bad decisions, I always found myself rooting for things to go well for her. Although the cast of characters around her changes a lot, these secondary characters are always well characterized enough that you know who they are. Kuang thrives on effective characterization, and I’m looking forward to seeing more development to the Cike, now that Rin is in command. Special shoutout to my boy, Altan, who is not only an interesting foil to Rin but gets to shine on his own, despite his maaany flaws.

The plot is extricably tied to Rin’s character arc, which is actually really hard to do given that the novel deals with war. It makes the novel all the better. It’s not that the bigger forces are undermined or lessened, but that Kuang knows to focus on choices, on personal repercussions to keep the audience engaged. In a sense, this is a novel about individual agency in the face of human-made atrocities and violence. Many things happen to Rin or around her, yes, but the focus falls on how she chooses to react, which in turn makes for a truly engaging read.

The novel creates a rich mythology that opens way for interesting possibilities for books to come. There are several things left unanswered, and several choices that ought to have repercussions. Yet, the book completes its story so that its ending feels earned. It’s not an arbitrary cut off in a larger story, but an story onto itself. This is why I think Altan’s death is not only narratively called for but also fitting as an ending as much as it pains me. Rin’s character arc, though, is far from done and I’m interested to see where it will lead.

A few negatives… I felt that, besides our heroine, it was kind of male-centric as a whole. The mentors, soldiers, and even Rin’s friends were mostly male. There are some female characters in positions of authority which is always nice to see, and this first book does set up some female characters for larger roles in the future. There’s also an ableist comment (about death being preferable to living with a disability) that doesn’t get called out, but it also doesn’t play a larger role. The style was a bit plain for my liking (but that’s a matter of preference of course) and some of the dialogue felt jarringly modern and a bit American in the first half of the novel.
Stray Observations

  • Please give Altan some chocolate and wrap him in a blanket.
  • Kitay! That’s it. He’s the best.
  • Some speculation: Nezha has to be alive right? We never found out how he healed so quickly so perhaps he managed to survive the fog but is now a POW?
  • Rin is, like, one of the most Slytherin characters I’ve read recently.
  • I thought the foreshadowing could be a bit heavy handed at times, but at the same time many twists caught me by surprise.

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