THE POPPY WAR by R.F. Kuang
2018, Harper Voyager
Well, this exceeded all of my expectations and then some. Despite a childhood love of Harry Potter which has persevered into adulthood, I very rarely get excited about fantasy. Even my ‘favorite’ fantasy novels tend to fall under the category of ‘it was objectively very good even if it wasn’t really my cup of tea.’ But with absolutely zero reservations, I loved this.
It helps that it’s a very ‘me’ kind of book. It’s darker than dark, it features an utterly merciless antiheroine who’s sympathetic enough to root for, it fuses fantastical elements with Chinese history and culture – especially drawing from the Second Sino-Japanese War – in a positively brilliant way (I’ve always had a thing for Chinese historical fiction which is what drew me to this book to begin with), it features a magical military academy and so much political strategy, and it’s so firmly rooted in compelling characters that the worldbuilding never overwhelms. In short: just about everything I could ever ask for.
The Poppy War follows Rin, a war orphan determined to get out of an arranged marriage, who tests into Sinegard, the most prestigious military academy in her country of Nikan. It turns out acing the challenging test was the least of her worries; now Rin is mercilessly antagonized by her peers and some of her teachers for her dark skin and for the fact that she comes from one of the country’s poorest provinces. Things finally start to turn around for Rin under the tutelage of her one of the school’s more eccentric masters, but soon the students at Sinegard are thrown headfirst into a war that’s ravaging Nikan.
I didn’t even feel like I was reading fantasy for the first couple of chapters; the fantastical elements are slowly introduced as you’re drawn further and further into this nuanced magical system that Kuang has invented, which involves gods and shamans and a spirit world. I hate when a book is filled with fascinating concepts but they aren’t presented in an approachable way: that is certainly not the case here. This is every bit as readable and engaging as it is complex and intelligent.
But this isn’t a perfect book. Others have mentioned the drastic tonal shift between the first and second halves, and I have to agree that it’s rather dissonant. The first half feels a bit Harry Potter meets Chinese history, and admittedly the half of the novel that took place at Sinegard was the half I preferred. Then this book gets brutal – just about every trigger warning imaginable can be applied here – and while I was fully on board for that and understood how the violence depicted ultimately did serve the narrative, I don’t blame others for being a bit taken aback.
So it’s more of a 4.5, but I’m rounding up because I really adored this – I found it so engaging that I dropped everything else I was reading this week so I could focus on this (which I rarely do – I usually jump around between multiple books when I read). But this is just a stunning and stimulating piece of fantasy that asks difficult questions about religion, power, imperialism, war, and violence, and takes the reader on such an unexpectedly dark and compelling journey, I just can’t help but to love it. As someone who almost exclusively reads standalone novels I can’t remember the last time I said this, but I cannot wait for the sequel!