Book Review: The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

The Poppy War

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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.

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TW: Brutal descriptions of war and its aftermath, torture, rape, substance abuse, self harm, genocide, racism, bullying

I have held back from reading this book for almost an year despite the rave reviews because grimdark is so not my thing, and this story seemed brutal. Finally, my dearest friends from the Stars and Sorcery book club gave me no choice when they selected this book as our September BOTM and I decided I had to give it a try. And what an experience this was. I literally started and finished this monster of a book on the same day because I couldn’t put it down for a second. But to be honest, any review I write will not be able to do justice to this book.

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As you all are already aware, I’m always skeptical about adult fantasy because I have this feeling that they’ll be too complicated for me, but this book had no such issues. The author’s writing is just so easy and straightforward, very clear on what she wants to tell us, and I really appreciated that. This world which she created inspired by the early 20th century China is very detailed and the history and culture of this land felt like something very real and familiar. And a for a book that is majorly a historical military fantasy, I thought the author did a brilliant job incorporating the magical elements (shamanism). I particularly liked the allusion to Buddhism when describing about spiritual realms and the importance of meditation when navigating out of the mortal plane.

The book is divided into three parts – military training, learning about shamanism and finally the war – and I was amazed by how brilliantly the author was able to write each of these parts, though they are far different from each other. She never minces her words and every terrifying truth is laid bare for the characters (as well as us) and we are left feeling extremely uncomfortable and introspective in its wake.

This is not an action packed novel (though there are some brilliant strategy as well as fight scenes) but there is a steady pace throughout, and the size of the book gives room for the characters and the plot to breathe, and develop in their own time. This book is not exactly full of twists and turns in the usual sense, but lot of unpredictable things do happen – it’s just that I never felt shocked by them, they all felt inevitable. I had a similar reaction to many of the character deaths too – maybe the extremely brutal nature of this story numbed me and I couldn’t comprehend the devastation that was happening on the pages.

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While there are a whole host of characters in this book, we get to exclusively follow the journey of Rin. She is ill treated by her foster parents, bullied by her fellow students and even teachers and told repeatedly that she doesn’t deserve to be among them, but it’s through her sheer will and determination that she succeeds at whatever she sets her mind to. She burns with rage at every slight and hones her anger to be used at the right time, wants to achieve all the power that she can so that no one will ever get to control her again – but she is also afraid of losing control to that lust of power. She is mostly ruthless in her ambition and quest for vengeance which makes her not a very typical fantasy heroine, but nonetheless we root for her even if we completely hate the decisions that she is making. Even when she utterly frustrated me, I couldn’t stop marveling at the author’s prowess in creating this very realistic, raw and gritty female character.

There are also many many side characters and while I can’t talk about all of them, I can promise you that every single one of them is excellently developed and we get to deeply understand each one of their desires and motivations. Master Jiang is one of my favorites because he is the eccentric mentor who sees promise in Rin but also the darkness she can succumb to, and tries very hard to impart wisdom to her. Kitay is probably the only witty character here, a privileged kid with eidetic memory who uses humor to get through horrible circumstances – and the only person who ever treats Rin like a friend. Altan is her second mentor, and it is by being with him that Rin realizes the extent of the brutalities that have happened in the past to her people and what she might have to do to get her justice. There is also an unlikely gang of other shamans whom Rin works along with, and it was lovely seeing their fascinating group dynamics.

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As the primary inspiration for this book is the second Sino-Japanese war and the Nanjing massacre, it was inevitable that the depiction of the aftermath of war is brutal. But it never feels gratuitous or unnecessary, just something that’s very much integral to the story and the character development. We also see how continuous wars and brutal killings shape the minds of generations of people, resulting only in more destruction. Through the characters, we too get to question why the war was necessary, did it need to be so brutal, and what kind of retribution is justified. The author brings to life the fact that seeking vengeance only creates a circle of never ending violence and not everlasting peace or safety.

The other important theme which I found fascinating was the discussion about religion and myth – how much of the lore we know is really true and how much is just born out of human imagination, is all the history we are taught true or have we been manipulated to believe in things that are convenient for the powers to be. There are also other important elements like finding one’s purpose in life and the importance of friends and found family, but the grim reality of war is the main underlying theme throughout the story and there’s no way to escape it.

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What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said. Despite whatever frustrations I had with the main character, this book is near perfect and deserves all the accolades it has received. I’m definitely late to the party but if you haven’t read this book yet, and love the grimdark genre or historical/military fantasy, then it can’t get better than this. If you love Asian inspired fantasy novels, then this one is just the right pick for you. Just be prepared for the brutality, and maybe consume it in low doses to fully appreciate it.

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35 thoughts on “Book Review: The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

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  1. Ooof Sahi. What a review! After all that I’ve heard about this book, I think your review does it justice. Did you take notes while you read? How did you manage to tackle your thoughts and feelings so coherently into an opinion because I know PW was probably a really intense and not so easy read. (It’s why I’m hiding from it).

    Btw love did it have a very Kurukshetra war feel to it? With the plenty characters and brutal war and destruction?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much babe 🥰🥰🥰
      I’ve actually tried taking notes before but it just doesn’t work for me.. I don’t like stopping in between to notedown anything.. disrupts my flow.. so just have to remember it all.. And that’s why I have to write reviews immediately after reading or else I’ll forget it all 😂😂😂

      I think our Mahabharata books don’t depict the brutality as much as this book did.. our books still have the epic/mythology/spiritual feel to them…TPW is raw and extremely brutal …

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Same!!! I just have to keep at it while I’m reading. It’s why I also need to put my review down before long. But I’ve noticed I’m forgetting things sometimes. I’m going to try out note taking. Wish me luck.

        Ahh. Yes. I get it. Was TPW hard to read at times?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’ve realized I remember better when I’m reading ebooks.. it’s harder to retain through physical books but I have no clue why… and if it’s an ebook, I can always highlight quotes and go back to them to remember stuff…

          It was definitely hard… I think I really became numb after a while … but it’s so well written that you won’t wanna put it down…

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Oooh interesting perspective. I highlight like a madwoman.

            Yeah? That’s an interesting but conflicting situation. I think the closest I can think to the last book where it was a bit difficult but rather gripping was the hunger games.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Ohh yes.. Hunger Games is actually a good comparison because that’s equally brutal… so something on similar lines, but more adult and more war… and it might also make you prepared if you read a bit about the historical war on which the story is based..

            Liked by 1 person

          3. Awwww. I never realised how much I always ask you questions. I really trust upper opinions and they’re so well thought out and nuanced that it’s a joy to discuss and hear them with/from you.

            Liked by 1 person

          4. And I love discussing with you because there are hardly ppl irl who want to know my thoughts on anything, not just books… And I hope you like talking to me too and I’m not just forceful in my opinions 😜😜

            Liked by 1 person

          5. I was also going to say the same thing!!! That there’s hardly anyone who likes to have passionate discussions about books like this and I love that you do!! That you like being questioned on your opinions and discussing them. I feel super lucky and I love it. No force at all.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Rin is one of the best-written characters I’ve ever come across. She’s power-hungry, she makes choices you don’t agree with, but you can’t stop watching her. She keeps evolving in Dragon Republic, hope you enjoy that one! (Is “enjoy” the write word for this series?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know right… I always think twice before using the word “enjoy” for this series 😂😂 but I don’t know what else to say either.. Rin is definitely very well written, whether we end up liking her or not.. I’m very excited to read the sequel and just waiting for my library copy 😊😊

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is such a well planned and impactful review. I have also postponed reading this book due to the trigger warnings; however, I know I will love it. Thank you for digging deep and pulling out all of the themes. I really want to read it now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much 😊😊 I love your reviews so much, so it actually feels very nice to see that you like my review ☺️☺️☺️
      And its really a bit of a tough read, so definitely read it at the right time… I’ve been putting off the sequel now because apparently it’s darker…

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much 😊😊😊 I have the second one at the library waitlist too but I’m glad it’s gonna take a while, coz I definitely want some gap between the two …
      I hope you’ll enjoy the two as well 👍👍

      Like

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