Let’s Talk About The Poppy War
There are 2 wolves inside of me. One says to rate The Poppy War 5 stars, the other snarls and says 3.
The rational human in me says let’s settle it at 4 stars. Both wolves slowly back away at this, but neither are sated. Ah well, when are we humans not upsetting the balance of nature? On to the review!
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang is, as many wise people have said before me, epic. This adult fantasy is packed with plot, making it hard to summise in a way that does it justice, but here’s the gist:
Our protagonist Rin is a peasant and war orphan with the utmost determination to change her circumstances. She knows that if she doesn’t do something quick, she’ll be kept in the clutches of her unloving family and forced into an unhappy marriage that serves their cruel whims. She decides then that against all odds, she’ll pass the Keju- a gruelling test conducted across the Empire, made to find the smartest students to study at its prestigious academies.
Rin works, boy does she work, and her test scores are so good that she is accepted into Sinegard, the most elite military academy. Only the wealthiest and most powerful are supposed to be able to make it, and so this ruffles some feathers. I absolutely loved Rin’s fire and drive shown at the beginning, it really sets you up to support her through the book. Because the Keju is far from the hardest challenge Rin that has to face.
Whilst at the academy, it’s clear that the peace currently enjoyed by the Empire is a frail thing indeed. War is on the horizon, and Rin learns and prepares all she can. More notably, she learns that (take a deep breath now) the gods are real and that she can access their power and she might have abilities beyond anyone’s comprehension..?
Yeh. It’s a lot.
Before starting The Poppy War, I’d heard a common complaint that people didn’t like how it changes pace in the middle of the story, right from classroom to warzone. That’s a fair concern, because the first half reads more like a YA with a barrel full of swearing, whereas the second half is thick with the gore and tragedies of battle, as well as exploring the weight of a genocide. It’s not worth proceeding with if you don’t feel comfortable reading that type of content, and there are plenty of trigger warnings to be mindful of.
I personally enjoyed the structure and pace of the book. I think R. F. Kuang changes her setting at a clever time, because she did want to write a story about war, so why beat around the bush? For me, there was definitely enough build up and foreshadowing to warrant such a reorientation. Furthermore, readers won’t have to deal with that awkward sequel feeling (you know, when everything has changed in the second book and you just want the first book back? that whole thing is nipped in the bud). Maybe partly because of this, I constantly had the thought throughout reading The Poppy War, that wow, Kuang’s whole structure didn’t feel formulaic at all. And that’s no small feat.
The 5 star wolf is yapping excitedly at my heels now, so I guess it’s time to mention that I LOVED the characters. I mentioned previously how much I liked Rin, but it’s worth reiterating that I so respected her work ethic, intelligence, and how she set her mind to fight for herself. But also, she’s just a cracking girl. At one moment in the book, she has the delight of getting her period for the first time, and her horrified reaction is just priceless. Just little things like that, and you grow with Rin.
My favourite character however, probably has to be Master Jiang. He’s an oddity at Sinegard, hardly ever turning up to teach lessons, but often seen annoying other staff members, and then waltzing away with a song on his lips. He has his funny moments, but he stands out because this light-heartedness is paired with such depth. You’re frequently given the impression that he might just be the only one who knows anything of worth, and you will him to let you in on his secrets.
I’d go on, but the 3 star wolf is getting agitated, and I can’t stand the growling. So… what could be wrong with this perfect book?
Just before we get there, it’s just plain wrong to talk about The Poppy War without mentioning its world building. It’s like no other book I’ve read, it’s stuffed with history and culture, and it can get dense. I was grateful for my kindle’s ability to recall where names had been mentioned previously, and it didn’t spoil my enjoyment at all. Much of it is inspired by real events and I’ll step aside for the author to explain:
“This is, as I’ve always conceived it, a war story. It draws heavily on the Second Sino-Japanese war which – if you know anything about Asia – was one of the darkest and bloodiest moments in Chinese history. It grapples with the Rape of Nanjing. It deals heavily with opium and drug use.”
Whilst I loved the level of world building, I mention this here because I’ve seen a lot of own-voice reviewers have issues with the way the aforementioned tragedies were used in the book. The criticism is that such matters should not be used for entertainment purposes. I can’t really comment on whether it was right or not to incorporate this real level of suffering into a fantasy novel, as I’m not Chinese. But I think it is worth highlighting this debate, because I did think the novel’s changes in tone could be somewhat jarring. For example, you’ll have a character say something equivalent to ‘let’s go kick everyone’s asses!1!!!’ and turn into a monkey or something, and then the following chapter will detail a character going through a horrific circumstance that was a reality for so many people in the past.
On the other hand, it would be remiss not to highlight that R. F Kuang is Chinese – American herself, and she must have felt it important to raise these important topics and talk about her history. I don’t think there’s a clear answer here, but I wanted to mention this concern.
I had other minor niggles whilst reading, but mainly, I just didn’t love the ending of this book. To explain simply without spoilers, our protagonist gets some revenge. Usually I’m all for a badass female character getting her justice (shoutout to Adelina Amouteru, if you know you know) but this was enacted in such a way that I felt left void everything she had learnt in the book. I’d be interested to hear from someone who liked the ending, but for me, it just felt like a bit too much, it wasn’t really justified, and I was disappointed.
With all this in mind, however, I’m more than excited, hungry maybe, to read the sequel The Dragon Republic (only 99p on kindle!!). The fact that the first was flawed, in my opinion, makes the second installment all the more tantalising. I don’t feel like I’ll be disappointed by it, and I’m eager for some wrongs to be righted.
So, quick update on my wolves- they’re sleeping now. I’ve said what I wanted to say. To summise, The Poppy War is insanely good and mind boggling as a debut, and it also has it’s fair share of faults. These things happen. If you’ve not been turned off, and you like political intrigue and fancy some strategising shamans, then this is a must read.
Let me know your thoughts on The Poppy War if you’ve read it, or whether it’s made it onto your TBR.
Happy Reading 😊📖