The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
Published by Harper Voyager on May 1st, 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
“I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible. Was she now a goddess or a monster? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.”
You know I love something when I add it to my “Favourites” shelf on Goodreads!
I can’t believe it took me this long to read The Poppy War. It has everything I love in a fantasy novel: intriguing plot, detailed characterization that leads to unforgettable characters, epic fantasy with roots in history, and fight scenes that move the story forward.
This is the first book I read for #AsianReadathon in honor of Asian Heritage Month. The Poppy War satisfied Challenge #1: Read any book by an Asian author.
The Poppy War follows Rin, a peasant girl from the south, who aces the empire-wide test to study at the most elite military school in Nikan. She is immediately bullied by her classmates for her skin colour, status, and gender. But she discovers that she possesses a lethal and other worldly power for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. It connects her to gods who were thought to be long dead, but who are very much alive and getting stronger.
While she struggles to understand her new power and its meaning, the Nikara Empire is about to face an uprising from the Federation of Mugen. And Rin’s shamanic powers might be the only way to save her people, but is it worth it? Winning the war may cost her humanity as she learns more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix.
This book had me from the very beginning. I’m such a sucker for a school setting especially when it involves an orphan finally having access to a whole new world through education. *cough* Harry Potter *cough* For the first 200 pages or so, the book is fairly lighthearted. Rin is adjusting to her new surroundings and struggling to keep up with the classmates who grew up with everything and had it much easier than her.
But don’t let that fool you. This book explores very dark themes and should be read with caution. There are several mentions of war, drug use and addiction, sexism, ableism, self-harm, torture, rape, racism, and genocide. Some scenes are very difficult to read.
Ultimately, this book is about war. Nothing about it is sugar-coated or glossed over. You quickly realize that the title means more than a series of wars. The “poppy” refers to opium, which is a huge part of this book. And the shocking effects of being addicted to it. It’s a fantasy, but the book draws heavily from the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Rape of Nanking, which makes it all the more horrifying.
But this book demands to be read. It drags you in and makes you sit on the edge of your seat. You fall in love with these characters and spend the rest of the book hoping that they survive.
The first part is easy to read even though the subject matter can still be upsetting to read. Rin has to suffer through bullies, teachers who look down on her, and the growing pains of being a teenager. But it’s in this section that the carefully-crafted characters and the strong world-building pay off when the action kicks in and things get very dark.
Fantasy novels tend to have several mindless action scenes just for the sake of having them. And it usually makes me want to skip ahead. But The Poppy War had my attention through every fight and battle. I grew to care so much about the characters that I was so anxious about them making it to the other side!
This book is the perfect mix of action, well-developed characters, enticing setting, and a look at humanity reduced to its worst.
I have to say, I really appreciated that there wasn’t a romantic subplot. I was bracing myself the whole time waiting for it to happen, but it never did. Instead, we got a look at wonderful enemies-to-friends relationships. Nothing felt forced and throughout the book it was great to see relationships evolve through the different circumstances.
I’d recommend this to anyone who’s been disappointed with fantasy recently and who want a book more rooted in history. For a debut novel, Kuang hit it out of the park. I’m so glad we get to see more of these characters, since she’s announced that it’s going to be a trilogy!