Review: The Poppy War, by R. F. Kuang

I’m late posting this Friday’s review, because I really wanted to finish this book, so I didn’t allow myself to read anything else. I swear this book has been in the background of every picture taken in my apartment throughout lockdown… I’ve had it since October at least (last time the libraries were open) and I procrastinated because 1) It’s massive and 2) I knew I’d be in for a lot of pain and, well, a lot’s been going on that made it so I was not in the mood for that kind of reading. But I did it! I finished it!

The Story

She is a peasant.
She is a student.
She is a soldier.
She is a goddess.

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to study 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 always thought they’d be able to marry Rin off to further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was now 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 the Nikara Empire—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Rin is targeted from the outset by rival classmates because of her color, poverty, and gender. Driven to desperation, she 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 her powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For even though the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied the Nikara Empire for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people in the Empire would rather forget their painful history, 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 who has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her her humanity.

And it may already be too late.

The Review

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is not a spoiler free review but I tried not to give away anything major either.

Trigger warnings: graphic descriptions of genocide, murder, torture, rape, dismemberment, child death, animal death, medical experimentation, drug abuse

So yeah… that’s a long list of triggers, and I’m probably missing some, if we’re being quite honest. And that makes it a very difficult book to review. It’s infuriating in a lot of ways, and most of it has to do with the horrors of war. And I don’t say infuriating as in I hate this book, I say it as in, what happens in it is so messed up. And Kuang writes it very well.

I loved the heroine most of the time, I hated who she hated, I empathized with her, I could understand her decisions, and YET I still can’t stand her in the last few chapters of this book because of how Fucked Up some of her decisions are. And this was true of a lot of the characters, I actually hated Nezha at first and grew to really like him. I had very mixed to negative feelings towards Altan for a good chunk of the book but still could sympathize with his plight…

I also really enjoyed figuring things out riiiiight before it was pretty much given away (though sometimes Rin did not find out herself until a while later). It’s satisfying while giving you the feeling that the author pretty much was in control the whole time and wanted you to figure that out, and it’s one of the most annoying and satisfying feelings at the same time.

I heard so much good about this book that I fully expected it to blow my mind, and at the same time I’d managed to be fully spoiler-free… I’d also read a review that said it was pretty much an alternate real-world with nothing much different, none of the magic and such of “normal fantasy” and… did we read the same book? I actually really enjoyed the way the magic, if we can call it that, in the book worked, and how there is clearly a structure to it and rules, even if Rin doesn’t seem to be grasping them entirely. It is very much similar to our world in that it parallels the history of Japan and China in the second world war in a lot of ways, and notably the Nanjing massacre – in very graphic details. So that’s something to be aware of when reading it.

I don’t think I can say I liked this book. It made me think a lot, I stayed with it, it made me feel a lot of feelings, and at the same time I can tell it’s not really for me. And it’ll probably stay with me for a while anyways…

The Links

Amazon* | Barnes & Noble | Waterstones | or listen to it on Scribd*

*these are affiliate links, I may receive a small commission (or a free month on Scribd) for purchases made through these links, at no extra cost to you

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