The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Posted On 3 May 2018

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poppyThe Poppy War was probably one of my biggest reading surprises so far this year.  Don’t get me wrong, I had expectations for this one.  I loved the description and the cover certainly caught my eye.  What made it a surprise was not in reading a compelling story, well written with a winning combination of strong characters, fascinating world and wonderful plot – but, to discover it was a debut.  It’s not like I’ve not read good debuts before but this just has such scope and depth.  Reading this was like Christmas came early.  I loved it and was riveted to the page.  Consequently, my review will more than likely be a shambles of gushing and rambling which I will apologise for in advance.

The Poppy War is one of those amazing books that grips you immediately, primarily because the main character is so intriguing to read about.  She’s a great protagonist and somebody who drives the plot forward with her relentless determination.  Rin is an orphan whose guardians are not lovable to say the least.  They run an illegal drug business and use Rin as cheap labour.  They’ve arranged a marriage for her that suits their own aims but Rin has different ideas.  Her one chance to escape the drudgery of this life and avoid a loveless marriage is to take the academy test and enter military school.  Of course, being a peasant, penniless and with few prospects to boot, Rin has not had the luxury of years of study like her peers.  But, the exam is open to all and Rin is highly motivated.  She has two years in which to prepare, so, striking a bargain with a local tutor, she starts her schooling in earnest – of course she has to do her work first.  These are a gruelling two years but they pay off.  Rin passes with flying colours and achieves a place at the most prestigious and sought after academy – Sinegard – which is just as well because anything less and she would have been unable to take up the position due to financial issues.  Sinegard is the only academy where Rin won’t have to pay fees.

Be careful what you wish for is a phrase that is often bandied about, usually with good reason.  When Rin arrives at the Academy she finds herself disliked by the majority of the other students who see her placement there as little more than a token gesture and expect her to fail at the first obstacle.  They make fun of her accent and her darker skin.  She is unsophisticated and has no training in martial arts.  And, yet, she isn’t daunted.  Unlike the other students Rin doesn’t have a loving family waiting to welcome her back home with open arms, she has no money and frankly no alternative.  Failure isn’t an option, she got what she wished for and it might not be perfect but she still wants it, more than anything.

I don’t really want to go further into the plot.  The clue is in the title.  There will be war.  We learn something of the history of the Nikara Empire through Rin’s study and it soon becomes obvious that the current peace is a tentative one only.  The Federation of Mugen have twice warred with Nikara and it seems that a third war is inevitable.

So, let’s talk about other things.  I’m sure that events in this book have borrowed from Asian history, however, I’m not an expert in that area and so I’m not going to discuss that aspect at all because at the end of the day, firstly, I can’t speak with any authority on the subject, and secondly, this is a work of fantasy so although it may use real events as inspiration it’s also a work of fiction.  To be honest I’m not even totally sure what era this is depicting, the world itself feels old and yet some of the revelations later in the book almost felt like the WWII period.  So – as you can see, I’m not an expert and I’ll leave such explanations of this area to others who are more knowledgeable than I am.

I loved the world building in Poppy War.  It’s rich with information and yet it flows in a natural way that doesn’t hinder the read.  There’s so much that I could mention, the history, the regions and the way they’re named, details about the warlords, just simple things such as eating, clothing or the bustling life in Sinegard and the way it differs from the rural life Rin had previously experienced.  We see these things as Rin does and it lends the experience one of wonder.  The school is also a great setting.  Certainly it’s a well used trope but again in this story, and reading it from Rin’s POV it felt like it had been given a new lease of life.

Rin is the main character but there are others that also jump off the page.  I loved Jiang – Master of Lore.  And equally Altan.  Altan is one of those characters who seems destined to make a difference.  He’s the star of the Academy and he plays a large role in the war.  Interestingly Jiang and Altan are opposed in their ways of thinking and this really helps to highlight the conflict in Rin to do the right thing – even though she’s not really sure just what that is.  Then we have Nezha, he hated Rin at the Academy and yet things change, as they both find out, and the battlefield is no place for petty squabbles.  There are other characters but I’m conscious that this review is shortly going to turn into an essay so I’ll leave it at that.

I feel I must point out that this book is not YA.  The last maybe third/quarter of the book is all out war.  In fact initially I found the jump from school endeavours to all out fighting quite unexpected and abrupt – there’s no gradual build up here.  The country goes to war and within a few pages you’re very aware of that fact.  I admit that at first I was shocked, I think I’d been lulled into a false sense of security along the way and had almost forgotten that war was coming.  Consequently, I think I felt the same sort of head spinning confusion that the characters experienced as they scrambled into action and tried to put up defences – I’d like to think that was the author’s intention and if so it really was an excellent ploy.

My next thoughts are a bit of a muddle.  I’m not sure whether or not to describe this as grimdark because the book doesn’t really have that type of feel to me.  Plus, I’m wary of putting a whole swathe of readers off who don’t like the idea of the violence, blood and viscera that is sometimes associated with such a definition.  But, at the same time, this is war, it’s not pretty, there’s a lot of death and with this particular war, where the aim of the aggressor seems to be genocide then, as you can imagine, atrocities take place.  I think that what stops this from becoming an unpalatable bloodfest, in spite of the horrors, is that we don’t read about the violence, torture, etc, as it takes place but rather come across it after the fact. More importantly, it doesn’t feel like the things described are there to shock you but more to simply report what took place and to give a foundation for future events in the book.  To be honest I think the scenes described are fundamental to both the story and character arc.  But please be aware of trigger warnings for rape, torture, large scale death, drug abuse.

I hope that hasn’t discouraged potential readers.  Personally, I was thoroughly gripped by this book and my main aim is to encourage others to pick it up.  It’s full of magical elements that left me unable to put it down other than for sleep.  Shamans, Gods, Demigods, late night stealth attacks against the odds, warfare, military strategy and an absolutely excellent protagonist.

A very impressive debut that I imagine will be one of my favourite books this year.

I received a copy courtesy of the publisher, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.

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21 Responses to “The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang”

  1. Book Club Mom

    Wow, to be able to write a book like this and have it be a debut, that’s a real feat. This sounds very original – I like to see books that are far from the regular trend!

    • @lynnsbooks

      It’s a really impressive feat. Definitely far from the trend but excellent reading.
      Lynn 😀

  2. cupcakesandmachetes

    I’ve been seeing this book pop up everywhere. After this review, I think I’m going to need to add it to my TBR list. 😉

  3. Tammy

    I’m kicking myself for not requesting this, after reading your review and also Mogsy’s! I had no idea it was going to get such glowing reviews. Definitely a purchase for me, although I don’t have time to read it at the moment😁

    • @lynnsbooks

      Yeah, I requested this quite a while ago. I just liked the cover – but wow, what a read.
      Lynn 😀

  4. Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum

    Great review, Lynn! I like how you put an emphasis on the characters, because while I wanted to talk more about them, I also didn’t need my review to be like a thousand words longer, lol 😀 I also agree with you that I wouldn’t exactly put this in grimdark. Yes, it can be brutal, but I think the whole point of the book is that there is hope and always a reason to fight on, and Rin is a good person with good intentions even if she’s made a right chaotic mess of things! I liked your summary of the story too, in a way, the part where you mentioned how Rin had no one to welcome her back with open arms reminded me of one of the principles they always talked about in the book, i.e. how the enemy will fight tooth and nail if you don’t give them a way out, because that’s pretty much how she made it through Sinegard!

    • @lynnsbooks

      I guess you could say she had incentives for succeeding. I struggled with the whole grimdark thing – it just feels different to me somehow and I like what you said about there being a feeling of hope.
      Lynn 😀

  5. Nadine - todaysechoes

    Fantastic review! I’m even more excited to read it now 😀

  6. maddalena@spaceandsorcery

    Oh my! This is the second review for this book I’ve read in the past half hour, and it just convinced me to throw my reading queue to the four winds, grab a copy of the novel and start reading! And on top of all this, there’s a very intriguing magic system that simply begs to be explored…
    Thanks for sharing!! 🙂

    • @lynnsbooks

      Do it – throw your reading queue to the four winds – this is so good. I loved it and would be keen to see what you think.
      Lynn 😀

  7. sjhigbee

    I love the sound of this one! Thank you for a wonderful, impassioned review which is convincing me that I ought to get hold of this one:)

    • @lynnsbooks

      I loved this. It’s one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.
      Lynn 😀

  8. Zezee

    😀 I wanna read this! I’ve wanted to read it ever since I saw it in a book haul post. It was probably on the Bibliosanctum blog. I loved your overview of the plot. Makes me very excited for it.

    • @lynnsbooks

      It was so good. I was so gripped when I was reading it that it made me genuinely smile to be reading something so fine.
      Lynn 😀

      • Zezee

        That’s awesome. I love it when I’m that hooked on a book.

  9. Lisa (@TenaciousReader)

    I’m reading this right and loving it!!

  10. jessicabookworm

    Great to hear you enjoyed this so much! 😀

    • @lynnsbooks

      It was one of my favourite reads so far this year.
      Lynn 😀

  11. TTT: Good reads 2018 | Books and travelling with Lynn

    […] The Poppy War by R F Kuang […]

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