Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Pages: 544 pages
Release Date: May 1, 2018
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Rating: 5/5 🌟
“No matter what they say, you deserve to be here.”
I have never read (or even seen) quite a novel like The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. Figuring out its exact “genre” is difficult because the protagonist, Rin, at the start of the story is about fifteen or sixteen years old, but the content and the nature of the novel is definitely mature. I have included the content warnings that Kuang compiled (other lists are floating around Twitter):
Content Warnings —
- Violent rape
- Sexual assault
- Substance abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Physical abuse
- Relationship abuse
- Human experimentation
- Chemical warfare
I will briefly discuss my reaction to Chapter 21, but this chapter and Chapter 24 are particularly triggering and tough to read.
If you would like to read more on why Kuang wrote of this kind of brutality, she details it in a blog post on her website here. Also, if you do decide to read The Poppy War, please be aware of what you can and cannot read. We want everyone to be safe❤️.
Now, we can get into the good stuff: why I ABSOLUTELY LOVED AND NEEDED THIS BOOK.
First of all, I would like to mention that I am Chinese-American. I was born in China but raised in the United States, so the U.S. is basically all that I know. You may also know that I am History and Art History double major in school. Most of my interests within these areas, however, revolve around western culture, particularly Europe. I do not know much about Asia or China, although I am hoping to remedy that. R.F. Kuang’s novel opened my eyes to a completely different side of the (little bit of) China that I knew. I remember finishing the book and having to just sit and think. It has hit me over and over again that while The Poppy War is fantastical, Kuang draws heavily on history-a reality and history that most do not know of–which means that it is part of my history. It is a history I can not ignore. I am actually enrolled in a Modern China course at my college, and I am very excited because it is a history that I am a direct descendant of. It is incredible to think of it that way and to realize that I needed The Poppy War to open my eyes to what my history is and also to alert me of how very very little I know about China.
Onto discussing the actual novel:
SYNOPSIS (from Goodreads)
When Rin aced the Keju, the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies, it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard, the most elite military school in Nikan, was even more surprising.
But surprises aren’t always good.
Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.
For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .
Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.
Rin is an interesting character. She is not your average fierce heroine that everyone loves because she is just so pure. In fact, besides the fierce description, Rin is very much so a complex and morally gray character and not so much aligned with the typical characteristics of a “hero.” Kuang writes Rin as fiercely human: Rin wants power, and she will do anything to ensure that she gets that power. For me, while I did not particularly respect that desire, it struck me as very human. Rin is flawed, but that is because she is human with human wants and an ambition that she has to satisfy above all else.
“Jian was a faculty member of the Academy, even if all he did was wander around and annoy the other masters.”
This quote sums up Jiang–the teacher of Lore–pretty well, although there is definitely more to his character. I cannot say much more about him (there is a lot more to the story than the synopsis reveals).
- The Plot
The Poppy War takes place in the Nikara Empire which is based off of 20th-century China. The synopsis given does not give a lot away. In fact, the synopsis barely covers the first half of the novel.
“If there was one thing Rin had learned about her country’s history, it was that the only permanent thing about the Nikara Empire was war.”
The novel possesses a steady storytelling pace that focuses on developing the characters, but there are some awful twists and turns (thanks R.F. Kuang) and keeps the reader on their toes. The Poppy War has a nice blend of absolutely heartbreaking moments, funny moments (usually somehow connected to Jiang), and moments when I all I had in my notes was “dang, Rin” (she has some A+ lines).
What I especially loved about The Poppy War was Kuang’s commentary on the past and today’s world because her fantastical world reflected the real world.
“We believe it is through competition that those with talent will make themselves known.”
“Power dictates acceptability.”
If R.F. Kuang’s genius was not already obvious, she also weaves high stakes politics flawlessly into The Poppy War, which, of course, is not complete without betrayal👀. The backstory of the Trifecta and the heightening tension and the competition between the dfferent Warlords added a new element into the dangerous world that is the Nikara Empire.
- Chapter 21
I did not cry while reading this, but I did honestly feel like throwing up (it did not help that I was eating at the same time…why, past Sara, why?). Kuang weaves her words so that readers get a clear illustration of what has happened. I could picture the destruction almost too well. It was horrifying and eye-opening at the same time. It is something I will never forget. In this chapter, Kuang illustrates the expanse of human cruelty and the horrific ramifications that occur when one stops caring about or stops noticing this kind of torture.
“If you were the victim, what could you say to make your tormentor recognize you as human?”
- The Ending
Kuang wraps up The Poppy War in the perfect way that makes them realize this novel is the “Before” of a larger arc. We get a slight glimpse into the “After,” but it is just a hint. I definitely want more, and luckily for me, there are more books coming! I am excited to see how Rin’s character develops and where exactly this new (and unexpected) twist of political intrigue will take the story next!
Have you read The Poppy War? If you have, what are your thoughts?
Until next time,
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