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Review: The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

“You called a god, and the god answered.”

The Poppy War may actually be the adult fantasy debut of the year. Everyone and their mother is raving about it, five-star reviews are littering Goodreads. And though I may not have ended up quite as obsessed as the rest of the bookish community, I was still immensely impressed.

If you’re a fan of Chinese-inspired high fantasy, pay attention. The Poppy War draws from the culture in so many different ways, ways that make it stand out from other books in the genre. It draws from the rich folklore of course, but touches more on lesser known legends, creatures of nightmare and notably DEITIES. There are copious martial arts here, if you’re into that, but most importantly, the story itself is based on true Chinese history (and a very interesting history, at that.) Author R. F. Kuang sums it up perfectly:

“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. (Opium was a source of Chinese weakness. This book asks what would have happened if opium were instead a source of shamanic power.) This book is primarily about military strategy, collapsing empires, mad gods, and the human ability to make awful, ruthless decisions. It’s about how dictators are made.”

I was enjoying myself from the very first page. Rin Fang is our protagonist: a lonely war-orphan, fostered by an unloving and criminal family, and a very likeable character. Not that any characters in the book agree with my assessment.

“In Tikany, an unmarried girl like Rin was worth less than a gay rooster.”

Rin works as a shop-assistant-slash-opium-runner for her foster parents, who don’t appreciate her help at all. They’re just waiting for her to come of age so they can marry her off to some middle-aged gent with a tad of money. Rin’s less than happy at this arrangement, as you can imagine. She promises herself she’ll find a way out of this mess, but what can she do as a young teenager without a penny to her name? Her salvation lies in education: if Rin manages to pass the Keju – an elite written test – she qualifies to enter a school of her choosing. But the only school that offers free tutelage is the military Sinegard Academy, the absolute hardest to get into. She knows she doesn’t stand a chance – she’d be competing against nobles, kids from money who’ve been training their whole lives. But she has to try.

As you can probably guess, Rin succeeds.

The city of Sinegard is not the beautiful, safe haven Rin had come to expect. It’s a harsh, bustling city, no friendly faces or second chances. Rin is completely out of her element in this cruel city.

“You cripple a child, you pay a disabilities fine for their entire life. But if you kill them, you pay the funeral fee once. And that’s only if you’re caught. If you hit someone, better make sure they’re dead.”

The Academy is just as bad. Not only does Rin have to compete physically and intellectually against noble children, she also faces tough classist and racist discrimination from every angle. But Rin is awesome, and more than capable. Together, she and the reader navigate her first year learning more about the world, the history, the lore and the martial arts as Rin learns what it takes to be a solider. These early sections of the book are slower and ‘world-buildier‘ and really help set the scene for what’s to come. It is a very military book, with many chapters dedicated to war history, strategy, fighting and, eventually, actual war. Though that’s npt massively my thing, it was still interesting and enjoyable, and there were enough other things going on to break up the military-ness. I grew to love Rin so much as a flawed and hot-headed character, who has a darkness in her that I just crave to see more of. I related to her struggles: her rivalries, her discrimination, her teenage woes. I loved the characters she interacted with, her friends and enemies and especially her hilarious mentor Jiang.

“I heard he got drunk on rice wine last week and pissed into Jun’s window,” Kitay chipped in. “He sounds awesome.”

The first half of the book is a nice, slow introduction. It sets the scene and eases you in. Then comes the darkness.

War comes to Sinegard. Rin discovers what she’s made of. I don’t want to give too much away. But there’s bloodshed, there’s treachery, there’s magic. And Rin just keeps getting better.

I loved the darkness in this story. Not so much the blood and the gore and the horrors of war; I’ve seen other reviewers describe this book as brutal. It’s not. It’s a war story, and you can imagine the kind of content it throws at you, but there are far harsher novels out there. But the darkness of the characters were excellently portrayed, and for me that was the appeal. That was what I loved. And since this is only the first instalment in a trilogy, I’m expecting things to get a lot darker. And hopefully, even I’ll be pulling out the word ‘brutal’.

I’m so excited to see where this series is going to go, and I recommend it highly. Yes, it’s a large tome. Yes, it has its dull moments, but they are few and far between. It may be a brick of a book but it’s not one to be scared of, it’s one to embrace. It’s brilliantly written, so many layers of awesome and so different from other books in the genre. Trust me, this is not one you want to miss.


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