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The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

book cover of The Poppy War

This was not really a novel I looked forward to reading more of each day, but in the end, wow, it packed a punch. Even though it was long, it covered so much ground that a different author could easily have made it twice the length. I liked the world-building, which drew heavily on Chinese history, and I really liked the fantasy elements, where magical power can be drawn at high cost from capricious gods.

The novel does feature a big tonal shift which some might find jarring. For the first ~40% of the book, you follow Rin, an impoverished orphan from an outlying southern province, as she struggles to prove herself at the elite military academy that she tested into but where nobody really feels like she belongs. Then the war – a conflict based heavily on the 1937–45 Sino-Japanese War – breaks out, and the novel rapidly turns much darker and gorier. In all seriousness, if you are someone who wants content warnings then consider this book to have one for just about everything you could possibly imagine. This book is an incredibly thorough elaboration of the adage “war is hell”.

As a military fantasy the book is rather heavy on military strategy and theory, which for me was more something to be endured than an actual drawcard of the book, although I'm sure there are some people who will love the strategy side of it. I did think the Mugenese, as opponents, were extremely one-dimensional in their brutality, but then again they were based on Imperial Japan so that's just kind of accurate. Plot-wise I understand why we couldn't see individual Mugenese being complex individuals the way we saw the Nikara characters be, but it did feel kind of unsatisfying that the enemy lacked any nuance when the protagonists' side had loads. Another thing I had to endure sometimes was Rin's attitude, especially during the middle part of the book; while I liked that she was hotheaded and contrarian, it did not seem realistic when it was at the point that she was defying and talking back to her commanding officer and completely getting away with it.

But the ending was thrilling and brilliant, and reading it made me reconsider Rin's character and find her so much more compelling. In the early part of the book, her mentor Jiang (my fave character in the book just fyi) is always urging her to be temperate, patient, not to succumb to anger or cravings for power or anything else. Rin grumbles about this but complies. Throw her into a war situation, though, and her true nature shines through. I don't want to spoil anything, but I enjoyed that she was not really a hero, or at least not unambiguously a hero. She's an ordinary, flawed person in a dire situation and she responds in such understandable ways, but that shouldn't absolve her of the harm she does. Indeed, by the end I was thinking of her as more of a villain-protagonist, but such a compelling one.

I rated this three stars because while I enjoyed it, I found it hard to get through. Nonetheless I'm intrigued, and I'll probably be back to read the sequel.

Books in the Poppy War series

  1. The Poppy War (you are here)
  2. The Dragon Republic
  3. The Burning God

★★★

photo of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.