The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang | Book Review

Sunday 9 August 2020

Any fans of the fantasy genre know there are certain books that are must reads for any fan. You don’t have to like them, but they’re still considered quintessential. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Wheel of Time, Mistborn, Pern, The Inheritance Trilogy, and more are easy suggestions for anyone wanting to get into the genre. When a new quintessential fantasy book comes out it makes big enough waves that it’s hard to ignore. The Poppy War by R F Kuang was one of those books. It was published in 2018 and I finally got around to reading it, what did I think? Here’s my review.

As always, let’s start with the premise in my own words. Rin is a war orphan raised in a podunk little village in the Nikara Empire. She wants nothing more than to escape the opium dealers that raised her and the only way is to ace the Keju, a nationwide test that, if aced, would allow her into the prestigious Sinegard military academy. She does so but finds that being a dark skinned girl from a poor village marks her as easy prey for bullies. Rin catches the eye of the reclusive Lore teacher and learns that she has the potential to wield the powers of a shaman. But with war threatening to break out with the neighboring country of Mugen, everything she has and hasn’t learned, may be put to the test.

Before you pick up this book you should know a couple things. The first is that this is labeled as a “grimdark” fantasy. That means that… well… things are grim and dark. And boy do things get dark. I don’t generally believe in trigger warnings but I’m going to make an exception for this book because at one point, things got so dark that I just felt wrong. I felt like I had to take a shower. So consider this your trigger warning for rape, torture, murder, and violence in general. Just think of stuff that would make Jigsaw shudder and you'll have an idea of the kind of shit that happens at a few points in this book. See? Grimdark.

Kuang borrows heavily from history and it shows. But what also shows is her imagination and talent as a writer. While Kuang does borrow her world’s back story from the Sino-Japanese war (during WWII) with added touches from the Opium Wars and China’s Song Dynasty, she does make them her own. With books like this, an author can borrow all they want but it won’t make the story interesting. Lucky for the reader, Kuang does make it interesting. The world is rich and though it’s based on ancient China, it becomes its own creature. In the beginning some of the characters easily fell into tropes but later blossomed into something more.

A lot of people raved about this book and while there is plenty to rave over, there’s also plenty to be critical about. The most pressing issues is the pacing of the book. The first half of the story was slowly paced and after the war broke out it ramped up and while one could argue that it was honest in terms of the tides of war, as a reader it comes across as a little jarring. Also, the first half of the book felt a little like a Harry Potter fanfiction with Rin as Harry, Nezha as Malfoy, Kitay as Ron, Jun as Snape, and Jiang as Dumbledore.

Another low point of the book was Rin's outstanding stupidity. Before anyone says anything. I get it. She's a kid, she basically had to raise herself, and none of her masters can answer a question with a straight answer to save their lives, but all the dumb decisions she made got old. Even though I did really like this book, her final bad decision just made me shake my head and realize that I sorely missed my favorite character who died half a book ago.

I want to finish up on a high note but one more thing that bothered me was the overly violent things that happened. They only happened a couple times and I do get it, war is horrible, but come on. I didn't need some of the graphic and bloody descriptions. I'm already on Nikara's side. I don't need to hear about all the crimes against humanity Mugen committed too.

So like I said, let's try to end this on a happy note. I did like this book. It's not a modern masterpiece as some fans of the book would have you believe. But it's a solid and enjoyable novel that brings an interesting new world and magic system into our lives. While the ending didn't put me off reading the sequel, it did push the sequel farther down my TBR than it originally was. I have no need to pick it up right away, but some time this year I'll read it.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang gets a 7 out of 11

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