The Poppy War (The Poppy War #1) by R. F. Kuang
Published by Harper Voyager
Adult, Grim Dark, Fantasy
Release Date : May 1st 2018
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.
“Children ceased to be children when you put a sword in their hands. When you taught them to fight a war, then you armed them and put them on the front lines, they were not children anymore. They were soldiers.”
TW : violence, drug abuse, genocide, torture, war, rape, mutilation
The Poppy War is a debut novel to a trilogy by an up and coming author Rebecca F. Kuang, this debut is also nominated for Best Novel at the 2019 World Fantasy Awards. Besides that, I’ve heard plenty of gushes from social media about how good this book is. I started reading only recently during the pandemic; during which, I’ve been recommended The Poppy War by everyone that loves SFF books. Normally, I would preserve the reading experience for such books by reading the physical copy and experience the jitters first hand, away from technology. I prefer it this way as it helps immerse me more into the story, but sadly I don’t have the physical copy of it and buying the book would take a month or maybe more to ship in. Finally, I decided to read the Ebook/Audiobook as it is available for free on Scribd (This is not an Ad)! Mind you, I went back and forth from eBook to Audiobook this will affect my enjoyment of the story. I’m still giving this book a good rating, but it could be a perfect score if I owned a copy of the book. It’s preference y’all.
Before reading, I’ve heard snippets about the book’s plot from people and the author. R. F. Kuang is a graduate student of Chinese studies specifically China’s wartime history during the World War II. I am an Indonesian citizen of Chinese descent. Because my family has lived in Indonesia for generations, I know very little of Chinese mainland culture and history. This is a good way to broaden my perspective of East Asian history as a whole. I admire the fact that the author, as a graduate student studying Chinese studies, blended these pieces of history and molded it into a phenomenal story. Just brilliant! Please do check the author’s note at the end of The Poppy War to find some nonfiction recommendations from the author if that interests you.
As an extra precaution, if you’re interested in reading this book, it contains various triggering moments (check trigger warning above). We associate coming-of-age stories with school, friends, and, of course, crushes. This book includes all of those things but is set during a war. It is a grim dark fantasy at its core and R. F. Kuang doesn’t hold back from describing the horrors of war and the tragedies that comes with it. These moments are well written, vivid, and raw, specifically in part III of the book. I was disturbed, not by the gore, but by knowing full well how these moments will affect the development of the characters and how it will affect their judgments. Choices were presented repeatedly to the main character and with it comes consequences. From a reader’s perspective I like seeing checks and balances between action and consequence. The author did so in a terrific manner, she is ruthless and pushes her characters to their limits.
Our main character, Fang Runin or Rin, is a war orphan from a small village of Tikany living with a family that runs an opium business. She is desperate to run away from her life in the village after her foster parents decide to marry her off with a man triple her age. Her solution is to sign up for a test that will admit her into the nation’s most prestigious military academy, Sinegard. She puts her blood, sweat, and tears to study for the test. She eventually gets accepted and begins her studies in Sinegard.
“Well, fuck the heavenly order of things. If getting married to a gross old man was her preordained role on this earth, then Rin was determined to rewrite it.”
This book may feel like a YA romance but it takes place in a military academy. Rin’s life in the academy is not easy and wholesome. It is brutal and the stakes are higher than the entry test itself. Rin has to fight for her position among the best of the best. At first, I thought she was hopeless. Damn! I felt hopeless for her. It’s mind boggling how the odds are stacked against her. She doesn’t come from a military family, she’s not rich or educated. She is constantly mocked for her darker complexion. Everyone underestimates her and they make a point to show her that she doesn’t belong. These predicaments make for development of one of the best female characters I have encountered.
Her development as a character is organically done. Her progress is realistic and her personality is fleshed out well. She’s strong, stubborn, highly driven, and a beast during combat. Let me remind you that Rin is in her teens in the book. She has to make hard decisions and face horrible realities that would traumatize even a full functioning adult (like me!). This shows how age doesn’t lead to growth, but growth leads to maturity. She wasn’t raised being spoon fed compliments and words of admiration. She grew up with pain. She used her pain as motivation to get into Sinegard, to be a soldier, and to save her country. This pain is also a double-edged sword, she doesn’t know how to love or be loved by someone. Throughout the story she is searching for validation, at first, from her teachers, then her master, and next from her commander. She struggles with her inner thoughts and it affects her decision making.
“Now she had nothing to do—her future was out of her hands, and knowing that made her feel far worse.”
The other characters in the book add to Rin’s growth. I admire the tutor figures like Jiang. He is like one of those master’s from old chinese movies that is a bit crazy but actually he is the most powerful. A trope that I recognize from watching a lot of kung fu movies when I was a child. I want to praise the author’s ability to give each character their own voices that are distinct. Each character has layers and complexities, reading the interaction between characters is very pleasing. R. F. Kuang’s characters are definitely rich in tonality. Seeing a certain character spiral into darkness is painful and yet that’s what makes this book so good. The emotions are so real you can’t help but feel for each of the characters. I personally felt a lot of emotions for Altan during his arc. The author wrote his arc beautifully, it’s like poetry.
Personally, I would like to shout out this beautiful art of Nezha by Nan Fe. I imagined Nezha to be handsome and dangerous just like his illustration. Nezha’s relationship with Rin turns from enemies to camaraderie during the Khurdalain arc. Nezha is like a whiff of familiarity for Rin as she is struggles with herself as she is under constant pressure through out the arc. He is also present with Rin during the battle in Sinegard. They form a bond that slowly buries all of the years of hate they have for each other. His time as an antagonist in the Sinegard arc is entertaining to read. He is spiteful and just plain evil. I still have not forgiven him because his character is difficult to trust. I want to see more Nezha in the future because the plot that involves him will surely be entertaining.
Following Rin’s story is one of the most frustratingly gripping rides I have experienced. The book is told from a third person perspective narrator but we can still follow everything from Rin’s perspective. We still know Rin’s every thought and feeling throughout the story. I personally never read anything told from this kind of perspective, the exception being this book. There are many moments where I feel like there are pauses during the first part of the book. These moments are used by the author to tell the readers about the world; it can be about the politics of the world or the history. Most of the time it would happen in the middle of a discussion between characters, just before something happens or during a certain narrative. I was not comfortable with the pausing because the author prefers to “tell” instead of “show”. But slowly I got used to the changes in the book’s rhythm; and as I read more, the pace starts to pick up again.
The authors writing style is captivating and engaging. I only needed one chapter to commit myself fully into the story. R. F. Kuang’s world building is magnificent: from the small village of Tikany, to the big city of Sinegard, and the port city of Khurdalain. The world the author created heavily contains both Chinese and Japanese influences. Nikan is a country that is divided into twelve provinces that represents the Chinese zodiac, with each province being ruled by a warlord. These warlords mimic the real world daimyos: Japanese feudal lords that govern territory during the Sengoku period in Japan. The book that Rin has to read in Sinegard is named after The Art of War by Sun Tzu. In the book, the author also makes reference to the legend of a monkey king that was trapped in a mountain, very reminiscent of one of the most beloved stories from my childhood, Journey to the West. There are many more of these tidbits of real world history that you will stumble upon while you read. As someone of Asian decent, these references are an absolute treat and are sprinkled throughout the book. People that use magic in this world are called Shamans. Shamans commune to the gods, presenting themselves so they can be granted godly powers. This is not far out from stories I grew up hearing about Shamans in Asian societies. I’m very impressed by the research that the author has done to include all these bits and pieces of Asian influences within the book. I can list them all one by one but I’m pretty sure I would be giving out spoilers. R. F. Kuang’s writing is very easy to process and I didn’t have much of a struggle reading the book.
The world building is intricate; the sheer magnitude of it is mind blowing, and it is well thought out. Another thing that I am impressed by is the politics of the world. We learn Nikan’s relationship with other countries like the Federation of Mugen and Hesperia. Nikan and the Federation have always been at odds with each other; which through the politics, depicts a conflict that is realistically portrayed. As a Bachelor of Law that studied international law and international relations, it was interesting to read about how the conflict between Nikara and the Federation escalated. Years of peace doesn’t always dictate a good relationship between two nations and a treaty certainly doesn’t matter once conflict ensues or one nation provokes the other into war. In this case, the instigator of conflict is either the new emperor of the Federation or the Empress of Nikara. Both parties have their own agendas that I anticipate will be further explored in the second book. Hesperia is the neutral state that lead to a treaty during the Second Poppy War. This state is an accurate representation of a third party state intervening a conflict between two countries. I will not mention any examples because I’m pretty sure you’re here to read a book review not read a paper about international relations and conflict.
The Poppy War is an amazing debut novel by R. F. Kuang. I highly recommend reading this book if you’re a fan of grim dark fantasy especially if you’re looking for an Asian influenced military fantasy. The action sequences are vivid, fast-paced, and badass. Whether its hand to hand martial arts, military warfare, or military tactics, this book does it all with finesse. It is gripping and intense, I was constantly at the edge of my seat, waiting to see what was the next big thing that was going to happen. At first I thought this book was a standalone just from the sheer amount of plot progress; additionally, the ending is satisfying just as is. I nearly ugly cried at work listening to the last chapters of this book.
This book offers a unique take on fantasy writing and after reading it I understand why it is such a meaningful series for the community. Knowing that an Asian-influenced grim dark fantasy exists that is written and done in a way that is near perfection is pretty cool. My verdict would be an easy five stars but I have to bump it down slightly to a 4.99 stars, because I didn’t have the opportunity to read the physical copy of this book. I enjoyed the experience nonetheless. I can promise you if I get my hands on a copy I will definitely do a reread. I’m planning to read both of the sequels: The Dragon Republic and the soon to be released The Burning God (November, 17th 2020). I can’t wait to see how Rin and the other characters will develop and to see how the big events that happened in The Poppy War will affect the characters in the long term.