Book Review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
By Jacob P. Torres
Find my spoiler-free review of The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang.
Cover Description: “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.”
What is the book about?
We follow the life of Runin (Rin) Fang, a war orphan from the southern provinces of Nikara. As the book begins, Rin works for her adoptive parents as part of their opium trade. She’s told that she’ll be married off to a trade official that would benefit the Fangs but in no way be helpful to Rin. As a compromise she gets permission from her step parents to take the standardized test from hell to see if she can be accepted into any of the imperial academies. But Rin can’t just pass the test, she has to ace it, because the only academy that will take in students for free is the Military Academy in the capital. Rin has to go from being an unwanted outsider with her family, to an unwanted outsider at the Academy. She struggles with her teachers and classmates to prove that she has a place among them, and just as she seems like she might actually, maybe, be getting to a point where she is accepted by her peers, war breaks out.
The rest of the book deals with the conflict between Nikara and Mugen. And it is messy, brutal, and unforgiving. But Rin discovered something about herself at the Academy, she has powers and a connection to a wrathful deity that may be the difference in ending the war.
What Did I Like About the Book?
Everything? This book was incredible in a whole lot of ways. I’ve seen this book described as a historical fantasy in multiple places, and while it’s true that you can see broad strokes or specific moments of actual Chinese history, I think calling this a historical fantasy does it a disservice. Most Historical Fantasy is one that’s like oh, here’s the real event with Napoleon, also everyone is wizards now. The world of Runin Fang and her friends and enemies is a fully realized one. It has depth and character and draws you in completely. In a way I’d compare it more to Lord of the Rings, that book was heavily influenced by World War I, but we wouldn’t call that a Historical Fantasy.
The historical elements that are in there build up the story rather distract from it. Even though I’m not well-versed, at all, in Chinese history, even I could pick up on several elements as they showed up. Especially towards the end of the book and during the progression of the war with the Mugen Empire. But like I said, the influences were there, but they never felt forced or ingenuine. The references in there don’t only reference Chinese History but it’s folklore and Sun Tzu’s Art of War. It was also amazingly refreshing to pick up a fantasy book that didn’t recycle western myths and legends. China has such an amazing sets of myths and legends and history that I’d love to see more books that were inspired in that way.
Given the ending of the first book, I think it’s clear that the inevitable sequel might rely less on historical inspiration and more on the world from Kuang’s imagination. A lot will be said about this book and how dark it is. And at times it is very, unrelentingly dark, especially when Kuang uses moments inspired by the second Sino-Japanese War (which is, let’s be honest, dark af all on its own). But there is also often a sense of wonder and joy through the lens of Rin that may be easily overlooked if all you focus on is the violence of war. Rin is an orphan, and her first reactions to the capital, to meeting the pantheon of gods, to visiting a privileged friend’s home are all heartwarming.
Who was my Favorite Character?
Runin Fang. The story is told almost exclusively from her point of view and really benefits from it. There was a real danger of this character falling into a trope trap and never coming out, but Kuang avoided that by miles. Rin Fang is a fully realized and completely relatable character. Even when you think she’s doing something foolish or stupid you can empathize with her choices. She is full of raw pain and loss but she is no one’s damsel.
What Did I Not Like?
I’ve had to sit and think long and hard about what, if anything, I was going to put in this section. The pacing seemed to ebb and flow a little in a way that I noticed but didn’t make me put the book down. I’ll also say that because Rin really doesn’t explore the supernatural elements until like halfway through the book, which is also when the war really starts in earnest, it can feel a bit like two different books. Finally, most of the time the historical references were a great strength to the story, but for me knowing that things like the Nanjing Massacre or Japan’s Unit 731 might be coming added a tension to the story that I can’t really decide if I like or not. Like, it added suspense, but it wasn’t a surprise. A debate between whether suspense or surprise is better is a whole thing already. I suppose it’s possible that most Americans have little to no idea about any of that that it is going to come off as shocking. So… Also, read a history book America.
5.0 out of 5 cups of tea. This book is unrelentingly gripping from the first sentence to the last word I read it in a single 24-hour period and only didn’t manage it without a sleep break because I was travelling for work. Saying that it is a brilliant debut undersells the book quite a lot. The quality of work is that of someone who has been writing for ages, and while there are some first novel struggles, they are overshadowed by the magic of this book. Reading this book was addictive (sorry/not sorry for the pun) and the withdrawal I’m going to go through waiting for book two will be rough, but R.F. Kuang has found a reader for life in me. It’s only May but this may end up being my book of the year.
|Final Verdict: 5.0 out of 5 cups of tea. This book is unrelentingly gripping from the first sentence to the last word. Reading this book was addictive and the withdrawal I’m going to go through waiting for book two will be rough. It’s only May but this may end up being my book of the year.|
|+ Used Chinese myths and history to help create a fully realized and amazing world.||– Some minor pacing issues, but none that distracted from the book.|
|+ You can’t help but root for the main protagonist even when you wished she made other choices.||– Knowing some of the history Kuang referenced let you predict a couple of possible things.|
|+ Characters are amazingly well drawn out even if we didn’t get to spend much time with anyone but Rin Fang.||– The division in the book between before war and after war starts is noticeable.|