Title: The Poppy War
Author: R. F. Kuang
Rating: 5/5 Stars
Series? Yes, 1 of 3
The Poppy War is a searing and blood-soaked military fantasy that will carve itself into the reader with every word. Deftly blending historical events and Chinese mythology, the novel imagines a vivid new world and uses this alternate universe to process living generational trauma. Between the endless actions and warfare, among the figures of gods and monsters, readers will also find a human story about war and the lasting impact it has on the individuals and nations involved.
At the heart of The Poppy War is Fang ‘Rin’ Runin, an ambitious Nikaran war orphan raised by a pair of opium smugglers. To escape a life of robbed of agency and an arranged marriage, Rin plotted and blackmailed her way into sitting the Imperial Keju examination, subsequently gaining access to Sinegard – Nikara’s leading military and combat academy. In Sinegard, Rin contends with students from privilege backgrounds and instructors who underestimate her worth. What I love about Rin is her drive and ambition, the way she refuses to let anyone else take control of her life’s narrative. In a fantasy genre filled with Chosen Ones with preordained destiny, Rin stands out by using sheer grit and determination to dictate her own fate.
Aside from Rin, there is a host of intriguing characters populating The Poppy War. I love the ‘easter eggs’ hidden for readers familiar with Chinese folklore and classic texts, such as Su Daji and Jiang Ziya, or Nezha and the members of Cike – these figures are simultaneously familiar and recognisable yet stand on their own merits as complex and unique characters. As the book documents a period of several years, we are privy to the development of several characters throughout their Sinegard schooling and beyond. There are characters I wanted to punch at the beginning of the book, only for them to become one of my favourites by the end (although I would still like to punch them). While I may not always agree with the decisions of certain characters, I could sympathise with them as their choices are always grounded in realistic and complex motivations.
The book is inspired by modern Chinese history, particularly touching on the Second Sino-Japanese war and the Nanjing Massacre. Its use of fantastical and fictional elements to directly commentate on the wounds left by war and the ghost of memories is nothing short of brilliant. The Poppy War exemplifies why SFF as a genre excel at starting difficult conversations about the issues in our world. The dialogue that The Poppy War begins is uncomfortable but necessary, and its execution was raw and honest – I can see this as a book that would haunt its readers and be discussed for years to come.
There is a lot of darkness within this book, and several difficult and triggering scenes which mirror horrific events in real life. These scenes are harrowing to read, and I felt physically ill at one point – so I highly recommend that all readers take care before diving into the novel. I thought the unflinching inclusion of these brutalities in the story was necessary, and would highly recommend you read the author’s own take on it.
Here’s a list of content warnings: self-harm and suicide, violent rape including the rape of minors, sexual assault, murder, genocide, massacres, torture, mutilation, brutalisation, drug abuse and addiction, emotional abuse, physical abuse, relationship abuse, human experimentation.
Chapter 21 is the most graphic and triggering chapter in the book, if you want to read The Poppy War but want to skip over chapter 21, I have a summary of the chapter here. The summary still contains mentions of these triggers (specifically: death, violence, torture, massacre, rape, physical and mental abuse, drug use and abuse), but not in the detail that they are described in the chapter.
If you’ve seen my activity across social media in the past weeks, it’s no secret that The Poppy War is one of my favourite books of 2018. However, there are a couple of things I would love to see explored in future books. Firstly, the ableism in one scene – where someone comments that a character would be better off dead than disabled. Secondly, while there are many women within positions of power within the novel, aside from Rin, they all play a minor role to the men in the current narrative. I believe the antagonist set up for the subsequent novels will change that, but I would love to see more women in prominent roles for the rest of the series.
I am still left reeling by this book, the fate of its characters, the scope of its world. The Poppy War 2 is already my most anticipated novel of 2019, and I can’t wait for the day I get to pick it up and have my heart destroyed once more.