The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
Publication date: 03 May 2018
Genre: Adult fantasy
Page count: 544 pages
Format: Digital ARC/physical copy
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I alternated between this copy and the finished copy I purchased for myself. This is a spoiler-free review.
Despite people saying this is a YA book it is absolutely not, please don’t be fooled by the YA-esque beginning.
I had been hearing so much about The Poppy War via social media and knew I had to try for a copy on NetGalley. I began reading my digital ARC, made it a few chapters in, and bought the book. I can confidently say that this is one of the best books I’ve read this year.
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.
I’m not really sure where to start with this book, and I mean that in the best way possible. Kuang has written what is easily the best fantasy debut of the year so far, and I don’t see how other authors will be able to take that crown from her. The Poppy War is a brutal look at history through the lens of grimdark fantasy, and it is not for the faint of heart. Here are the content warnings that the author has provided:
- Violent rape (off-screen, but described by a victim)
- Sexual assault
- Substance abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Physical abuse
- Relationship abuse
- Human experimentation
- Chemical warfare
Like I said, not for the faint of heart. However, Kuang does not glorify this content, which is something I’ve spotted grimdark authors doing in the past. You all may or may not know that the use of rape in fantasy is one of my major problems with the genre because it’s gratuitous and overused, so believe me when I say that every single choice she makes to include this content makes sense with the story. Kuang bases much of the book on the Second Sino-Japanese War, and notable chapters include scenes inspired by the Rape of Nanking and Unit 731. Her drawing on real events adds to the gravity of the wartime atrocities committed in the book — these things can happen, and have happened, in real life. I went into The Poppy War knowing that such things were in the book, and I still struggled to read the notorious Chapter 21. I say all of this early on in my review because I think I would have really struggled if I didn’t know about the content beforehand, and I wanted to give a heads-up to other readers.
In terms of world building, Kuang does a great job of adding detail to the world without slowing down the narrative. At 544 pages, The Poppy War is quite the tome and there just isn’t room for dumping information about the world and culture on the reader. Because the book is based so heavily on China and Chinese history, the reader can fill in some of the gaps themselves, which is a smart way of handling world building and one of the reasons I love historically based fantasy. The magic system makes sense, is well thought out, and is compelling. I really loved that magic doesn’t dominate the story, and when it comes into play it is more of a fact of the world than some mysterious force. I can’t say too much here without spoilers, but I loved the fact that magic use is difficult, doesn’t come easily to users, and has consequences.
Now, onto our girl Rin. I absolutely loved Rin as a character — talk about a breath of fresh air. The first thing of note about Rin is the fact that she is exactly what Kuang says she is. So often in fantasy we get characters we’re told are clever, or strong, or badass, but they don’t turn out that way. Rin is smart, fierce, determined, stubborn, sarcastic, and angry. This translates into the incredibly badass heroine that we are promised. However, things don’t come easily to her and I think this is one of the best aspects of her characterisation — she easily could have been a Mary Sue-esque character and its a testament to Kuang’s writing that she is not. She works her ass off to achieve her goals and I absolutely love her for it. She’s not necessarily someone I’d like to know in real life, but I loved reading about her and she’s one of my new favourite characters. I wish more authors would create incredible women like Rin.
I could seriously go on and on about this book, but I’ll cut it short here. It is dark, it is brutal, but it is also well-crafted and a pleasure to read. If you’re interested in historical or military fantasy, strong female characters, books with minimal to no romance, strong friendships between characters (regardless of gender), or interesting magic systems, then I urge you to give The Poppy War a try. Don’t miss out on one of the best books of 2018.
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