The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang • Published May 1, 2018 by Harper Voyage • Hardcover • 530 pages • Fantasy • Book 1 in The Poppy War • Own copy
The Poppy War is a debut military fantasy novel inspired by modern Chinese history. I heard about this book a few weeks ago on Twitter because of some drama that unfolded around the targeted audience and content. That discussion plus the rave reviews piqued my interest and I started reading it right in the bookstore. After reading it, I can wholeheartedly say The Poppy War is worth the buzz it has received and unlike anything I’ve ever read. It’s well written, engaging, and incredibly layered. I can also tell you, this book is for an older audience because it’s brutal, graphic, and doesn’t pull its punches.
The story is about a 16 year-old war orphan, Fang Runin (Rin). When Rin’s foster parents decide to marry her off to further their opium smuggling business, she comes up with an ambitious plan to leave her life of servitude. This plan serves as the catalyst for the entire plot. She studies for two years and surprises everyone when she earns the highest score in her province on the Keju – an Empire-wide test. Her score earns her a spot at Sinegard, the most elite military academy in the Nikara Empire.
The Poppy War is divided into three acts. Part one is focused on Rin’s experiences at Sinegard where she is targeted by classmates (and instructors) because of her darker skin and background. Compared to her two years of studying, Rin’s classmates have been training for the academy since birth and come from privileged backgrounds, so they looked down on her. Basically, they’re a bunch of elitist and racist jerks. Parts two and three are centered on Rin’s unexpected supernatural power and the war.
“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”
The Poppy War is exceptionally written and Kuang does a wonderful job crafting the world and characters. The world is intricate, rich and descrptive. I loved the mythological elements and how detailed everything was. I thoroughly enjoyed the geopolitical aspects, the strategizing, and understanding how these characters made these complex decisions in times of war. The first few chapters are slower paced; however, the rest of the book was engaging and addictive. I often lost myself in the story as Kuang’s writing transports us from Tikany (Rin’s town) to Sinegard Academy and other settings in the Nikara Empire. I could easily see this book adapted on screen because the action scenes felt very cinematic.
One aspect of this book I really enjoyed was Rin’s characterization. I love that Kuang created such a determined and resilient character who studied and worked hard for everything. Rin worked hard to earn her spot at Sinegard and she refused to let anyone or anything (her menstrual cycle included) get in her way while there. The Poppy War felt more grounded because of that. Make no mistake though, Rin is a morally ambiguous character who makes a lot of questionable decisions. She’s compelling and driven, but she’s also desperate because of the war. The same can be said for most of the characters in The Poppy War. Somehow, I still loved Rin and kept hoping things would work out for her even when her desperation lead to decisions I vehemently disagreed with.
Even though the story is told from Rin’s POV, I thought Kuang did a phenomenal job writing layered side characters. I’ll admit that I wasn’t crazy about Altan for most of the book. It wasn’t until part three that I really understood his motivations, the things he endured, and just how tragic and horrifying his past was. Because of the complexity of his character, he went from someone I disliked to a character I sympathized with. Kitay was one of my favorite characters in the book. I loved his friendship with Rin and loved that he was always honest with her. His characterization was consistent and he was a breath of fresh air. I absolutely HATED Nezha in part one. He embodied everything I hate in real life. However, his development was beautifully done and I loved him by the end. I also loved the new characters introduced in part three. They weren’t mentioned as much, but they were really interesting and unique.
I loved The Poppy War, but aside from Rin, the story is very male-centric. Given the context, I understand that gender equality wasn’t a reality; however I would love to see more women in significant roles in the rest of the series. As expected, the Nikara Empire and surrounding empires are racist as hell. I wasn’t shocked by that because…history. Their ideologies mirrored that of white supremacists who believed blacks were innately inferior and used that to justify colonialism, racism, slavery and a bunch of other atrocious acts. The book uses the fantastical elements to explain an atrocious act that wiped out an entire population. I would love to see the rest of the series challenge that and have that uncomfortable conversation about colonialism and racism.
At it’s core, The Poppy War is about war and morality. This books explores dark human emotions and decisions during warfare in a raw and honest way. Even with the fantasy elements, this book felt very close to real life. It was thought-provoking and there were times I couldn’t help but think of modern global issues. This book is dark, but it forces us to remember the women and children who pay the price of war. Kuang is intentional in depicting these brutalities and it’s devastating to read.
⚠️ ⚠️ ⚠️ If you’re thinking about reading The Poppy War, I recommend reading the author’s content warnings here. The book is inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War, specifically, the Nanjing Massacre and Unit 731. I researched these two things prior to reading The Poppy War because I wanted to learn about it, but you don’t have to do that. As I mentioned, the writing is very detailed and brutal. Chapter 21 includes the most triggering content, so look up the content warnings first.
This book left me with so many lingering questions about the story, mythology, and characters. I can’t wait to for the sequel because the climax felt a little rushed, but I’m hoping the sequel will tackle the aftermath. If you’re in the mood for a thought-provoking epic fantasy with exceptional world-building, memorable characters, and Chinese mythology, you’ll enjoy this.
Trigger warnings: Rape, infanticide, genocide, mutilation, suicide, drug use, racism