Book review · novel

Book review: The Poppy War

The Poppy War (#1), by R.F. Kuang

the poppy war coverDescription: (from Harper Collins)

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.

Pulication: May 1st 2018
A review copy (eARC) of this book was provided by the publisher through Netgalley. Some things might change in the final copy.

I’ve been excited for The Poppy War ever since I first heard about it on twitter, a grimdark military fantasy inspired by historical events and Chinese mythology sounds exactly what I’d love to give a shot to.

I don’t think any grimdark I’ve read slapped me like this before, with such force, and I even welcomed it. Thanks to the author’s presence on twitter and her care to warn people of the extremely violent parts of her debut novel, I knew what I was getting into and was prepared for what was to come.

This book is graphic, this book is violent, this book doesn’t shy away from some horrific things that actually happened in history, but this isn’t all done only for the shock value. None of it is gratuitous, none of it is written carelessly. The author took care to look at history straight in the face, and make the reader do it as well. Some parts left me in shock, but I do think it is necessary.

“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”

The Poppy War has been compared to Avatar: The Last Airbender because of the fire abilities the main character learns to master and of the apparent presence of ancient gods. Kuang even does not make it a secret that Azula is an inspiration for her main protagonist. For those who are not familiar with her, she is a skilled strategist and obsessed with power, something we do not see often enough regarding female characters, especially younger ones.

“She knew the risks, and she had weighed them and concluded that she didn’t care.”

Runin (Rin for short) is all of this and more. Driven and ready to do whatever it takes to escape the future that would await her, she decides to do everything she can to join the military instead. Rin has to work really hard, push herself in even unhealthy ways to get what she wants and needs. Some parts really resonated with me as a university student, and I can imagine it comes from experience, seeing as the author is a scholar as well, open about her work on her master thesis on twitter.

Another thing I loved about this book was the found family theme found in the later part of the novel, after Rin’s time at the Academy. This novel has basically everything I like in fantasy novels: from the school setting, to the unlikely friendship, with magic and special mentor, found family and epic battles, but also historical and social commentary.

“Jun can teach you how to be a decent soldier. But I can teach you the key to the universe,” Jiang said grandly, before bumping his head on a low-hanging branch.

Morally grey characters, unexpected choices, grief and anger, compassion and disenchantment, vengeance and raw power… This book has it all and Kuang deals masterfully with everything, which is why this is a book I recommend highly, but also that I would be careful to not recommend to everyone because of its very triggering content.

Other cool stuff  about it:

  • talks about periods
  • back to back fighting a la Rey&Kylo
  • squad of magical assassins
  • character development, both for main and secondary characters
  • laugh out loud moments / horror-stricken moments
  • gods, monsters, so much magic
  • so many amazing quotes

Greatly recommend Aentee’s review and author interview.

Trigger warnings: ableist language (not addressed), racism and colourism, self harm, suicidal ideation, war, torture, genocide, graphic descriptions, rapes, infanticide, drug use and addiction, mass killing, mutilation, animal cruelty, emotional abuse, physical abuse, relationship abuse, human experimentation
The chapter 21 alludes to the Nanjing Massacre and chapter 24 to Unit 731.

Here is the artist’s website, that’s where I took the picture for the banner of this post! And you can see the whole dustcover which is gorgeous.

5 thoughts on “Book review: The Poppy War

  1. Great, *great* review, Lucille. You pretty much nailed everything I loved about it. I do sometimes feel a little weird calling it grimdark because, like you said, the story’s not grimdark for the sake of being grimdark–it’s an actual historical event wrapped around in some fantastical elements.

    Anyhow, I’m glad you enjoyed it! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awwww thank you so much Kathy!!
      I see what you mean! I saw pretty often called like that on Twitter and the author likes so much that someone called her “grimdark darkest daughter” that she put it in her bio so 😅
      But yeah 😍

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay! I love finding out other people loved a book when I found one so powerful. I’d feel weird if someone told me they found it bad, like I’d understand someone finding it’s not for them, but gotta admit it’s still brilliant 👌


  2. Ta critique m’a convaincue de me lancer dans le bouquin. J’ai beaucoup d’attentes haha, donc je compte sur Kuang pour ne pas me décevoir 😀
    (J’ai déjà commencé à détester des personnages au tout début (mention spéciale à la tante de Rin), donc on va dire que c’est un démarrage sous de bons auspices !)


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