Book Reviews

Review: The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

The Poppy War is one of my most anticipated 2018 release. Because hello? Have you read a summary? Don’t worry I can help persuade you.

Summary

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.

Summary

book review The Poppy War by RF Kuang(TW: self harm. CW: violence, genocide, rape, opium, drug use)

Initially, I was attracted to The Poppy War just for it’s world building and premise. But what I actually loved is that this book took it’s time. Kuang knows how to get into each of these cracks, to really sink into events. That’s not to say this book is slow, there’s plenty of action, but each element seems carefully considered. And what ended up actually propelling me through the book is Rin – our main character.

The World Building

So let’s delve into what attracted me. There’s no denying that Kuang has done the research to back this up – Kuang is a scholar and immigrated from Guangzhou, China in 2000. In that respect, the world building was really well done and I expected no less. I feel like I’ve been coming down harsh recently on books with fragile world building, but that is not the case with The Poppy War. It feels entirely immersive and rich in a way that kind of sucks you in – like Jumanji.

The Main Characters (and others)

But what really captured me was Rin and specifically her character development. What I loved about Rin is that she seems to be constantly growing – crawling towards some greater destiny, towards the next milestone, the next hurdle. I simultaneously saw myself in her dedication and ambition, while also being absolutely terrified of her intensity.

She’s also trapped in this world that is unjust. It has intense social stratification, and this illusion of meritocracy. At the same time, our side characters encourage all these conversations about privilege. We explore wealth, gender, and also racism. Rin seems to be disadvantaged majorly and she is constantly underestimated. But in these moments, she grows and takes up space in a world that denies her just that. Rin is resilient in a system that is trying to actively push her down and she has this passionate single minded determination.

The side characters are pretty cool – because there’s this mystery about them. It doesn’t seem vague, it seems unhurried – like we have yet to see all of them in the light.

Questions We Are Asked

At the same time, there’s this great exploration of themes too!

  • One of the biggest questions we are asked is what to do with power. Just because we have access to power do we have to use it? When is such displays of power necessary?
  • Is it worth sacrificing ourselves to achieve our goals? For power? For victory? How do we stop ourselves from becoming the very monsters we have set out to kill?
  • Another is how we are turned into weapons. When do we lose our sense of ‘humanity’ or our sense of human life? There’s a great example in the book because Rin is trained like a soldier, but she meets others who have really lost their sense of humanity and really view their victims as not even human.
  • The loss of respect for the arts. Rin goes to a special school that trains soldiers and everyone thinks lore is a joke. No one pledges it and no one even cares about the class. It’s especially important because typically the arts are paired against the sciences, but also the ‘rational’. But often looking at the humanities, and history, requires a more abstract approach that often twists in unusual ways – and how is that (under) valued by a militaristic setting? Lore is about looking within and daring to believe that more is possible. It’s about not accepting just what we are given, but to ask why and how.
  • How do we actually even go about ending a war? Often we just embroil ourselves in a never ending cycle of misery, revenge, and blood shed. What will it take to break out of this?
  • Do we influence our fate or do the gods?

Overall,

There was just so much to this book. It provides a great foundation for the series. It’s a treasure trove. And unlike most dragons, I’m willing to share. Check out The Poppy War on Goodreads.

Discussion

What was the last book you knew you were going to love and did?


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

  1. As you know I started this last night & I’m super excited about it; but I didn’t realise there was self-harm in it so thanks for the warning! Fab review as always lovely x

  2. This book explores so many powerful human themes. I don’t think it’s a book for me, but I’ll definitely keep it in mind when someone is looking for a book like this.

  3. The last book I knew I’d love & did? Easy! Definitely Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millenium Series’. Granted I’d seen the Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo first (much better than the English version – sorry Daniel Craig!) and have always had a grá (Irish for deep love, pronounced ‘graw’) for Nordic crime drama but even so … I was a bit worried when David Lagercrantz took over Lisbeth’s story after the death of Larsson but thankfully, while the writing style is different, the actual content of his two novels is true to that of the original trilogy.

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