Author: R F Kiang
Publisher: Harper Voyager
(Content/Trigger Warning is at the bottom of the review.)
I’d heard alot about the Poppy War and those who love it seem to really love it. So I was surprised about the mixed reviews. I personally really enjoyed it, despite a few elements that weren’t to my personal taste.
The Poppy War felt quite unique and novel to me in a number of ways. I really enjoyed the fantasy-Chinese setting and along with my recent read of We Ride the Storm, I’m really appreciating and beginning to find a taste for Asian inspired fantasy.
The story is told through the viewpoint of Rin, a young war orphan who dreams of bigger and greater things than to grow up helping her foster parents, the Fangs, with their drug running and being married off at their convenience. I enjoyed her as a protagonist because she isn’t the selfless, heroic and moral main character we are so often introduced to (though she does have her share of heroic qualities) – neither does she have the air of condescension and arrogance that can be off-putting when being stuck with one character for over 500 pages.
I mentioned that this book has a novel feel, and another of those reasons is the structure. The book is split into 3 parts, and while I won’t spoil things and talk too much about parts 2 and 3, part one is about her experiences at Sinegard, the military school for gifted young people. This comes against a backdrop of a past war between the empire of Nikara (the empire Sinegard represents) and the Federation of Mugen, a nation Nikarans are preparing for an inevitable confrontation with. Part 1 absolutely flew by and in many respects it had a real Name of the Wind feel to it. The academy setting and the lessons being taught were really intriguing, the book showing no real signs of being as dark as some had warned me about.
Part 2 cranks things up a few notches and you start to realise this isn’t some feel good coming of age fantasy adventure. A couple of chapters in to Part 3 and you realise that in actual fact, some of it really is disturbing.
It may be that I chose to read this book at a time when myself and most others are feeling a little anxious and apprehensive and comfort reads are the go to books. It may also be the fact that this is one of the first Grimdark books I’ve read since becoming a parent, which has softened me a little, but some elements of the story weren’t my personal cup of tea. For some other readers these elements won’t be an issue at all (and they aren’t an issue for me; I just didn’t really enjoy these parts and prefer some darker things implied or left to the imagination rather than described). I felt a bit uncomfortable that none of the characters in the book had any compassion for animals, even the characters we are supposed to like, despite a couple of half-hearted concerns from Rin. This may just be a device to show us the harsh world in which Rin has to navigate. I suspect aswell that the disturbing descriptions mentioned above are important in both showing us the brutal, harsh reality of war and creating an instant hatred of the people committing the acts, a hatred that is difficult to develop in a reader without introducing some heinous crimes. The distaste for reading about these things in a story is as I say only personal preference and others may not be phased.
The reason that The Poppy War is such a good read though is that it is just so readable. The prose flows nicely, there are enough questions always left with the answers just out of reach, and Kuang expertly crafts an exciting world with history and events that feel momentous. Incredibly, she was only 21 when she wrote this book.
We also have beneath the surface Rin’s self conflict and the closing off of past crossroads as she chooses each path, empowered or cursed by her decisions (or both). The fantasy aspect of the novel comes pretty much solely through the power of the Gods. We are given glimpses of a handful of the apparent 64 deities that inhabit the Pantheon, each counterbalanced against another, with their own traits and abilities. This isn’t massively explored but is an intriguing element that holds potential for the future novels in the series.
This is a fast paced and exciting story that pulls no punches, with changes of setting and direction keeping you on your toes. None of the brutal realities of war are glossed over and you’ll find you might not always support the decisions of the main character, and infact will probably be concerned with the road she travels further and further down. There is also a nice helping of military strategy whilst keeping plenty of fantasy elements all the way through the book.
I’ve rarely read a 500+ page book and have none of it feeling like a slog in places. This is testament to R F Kuang’s storytelling and another reason I recommend it highly. It’s made me eager to pick up book 2, The Dragon Republic, but maybe after a few more gentler reads first. Scroll down for content warnings. Thanks again for reading!
Of all the trigger warnings I now include in reviews, basically all of them are in this book. So below, a none exhaustive list includes:
- Animal cruelty
- Chemical warfare
- General warfare
- Child deaths
If you have any triggers that aren’t on the list and want to ask me about the content further, or would like more information on the nature of the content warnings above, please do contact me and I will be more than happy to discuss before you read the book. Thanks for reading.