book review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

35068705

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!

27 thoughts on “book review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

  1. Ahhhh omg I wish I could go home and keep reading this, I’m only about 5 chapters in and I need a good free day to just devote to it. But WOW I knew this book was violent but that sounds……intense. I’m ready though.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I am so glad you liked this! It is such a great start for a series. Weirdly enough I actually prefered the second half – the first half reads very very standard fantasy fare – the similarities to The Name of the Wind are .. undeniable, but I thought that worked really well to lull the reader into a false sense of security that she then just destroys, utterly.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The second half was certainly more inventive and probably stronger on a narrative level – the reason I preferred the first half slightly was because I am weak for anything that gives me a Harry Potter vibe and the whole magical boarding school teenage rivalry thing is a trope I am ALWAYS here for. But I was still on board for the tonal shift and cannot wait to see what the next book has in store.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fair. Harry Potter vibes are always a win for me as well. It might have been because I struggled with The Name of The Wind so much – and everything that reminds me of that fights an uphill battle.
        The next book will surely break my heart.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t read The Name of the Wind but I haven’t heard very many good things from people whose opinions I trust so I’ll probably skip it. I’m glad the HP influence was the only thing that jumped out at me.

        I’m very excited for the inevitable pain that Kuang will inflict on us.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve heard nothing but great things about this book! Glad that you like it! I can’t wait to get my hands on this one! Amazing review 💕

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I kinda have been going back and forth with this one, to read or not to read. I have read some spoiler free reviews and along with yours, they all say that there are triggers and while I don’t mind reading books like these….I am also kinda uneasy.

    Ugh. However I am glad that you loved the book! Also, great review.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s totally fair! Sometimes you’ve gotta just pass on a great book and look after your mental health. For the most part The Poppy War isn’t that bad, but chapter 21 is an EXTREMELY graphic account of an event that’s essentially the Rape of Nanjing, and it was one of the most brutal things I’ve ever read. So definitely proceed with caution with that chapter in particular if you decide to read.

      And thank you!

      Like

    • Thank you! I make a point of reading across a lot of different genres despite always being drawn back to literary fiction, so I’m always SO happy when I find genre fiction I love this much.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s