The Poppy War is R. F Kuang’s debut novel and it’s been making some waves.
Rin is a war orphan, trapped in a family who want to marry her off for their own advantage. Her only chance of escape is to get into a highly prestigious military academy; her chances are slim at best.
She’s catapulted into an entirely new world she couldn’t have begun to imagine. Can she survive? Because with every step forward she takes, there is no going back.
Trying to organise my thoughts into a coherent review is proving difficult. There was much about this book that I loved, but moments where I struggled a little.
Kuang creates a world for the setting of her story, but it’s very clearly influenced by China and its turbulent history with Japan and opium. Her world building is beautifully rich; in depth without being too flowery, immersive without being distracting. Her depiction of the culture was fascinating to read; the hierarchies and how social relationships play out, the effect these have on a person’s motivations and actions was very interesting and a world away from what I’m used to reading in “Western” fantasy.
I particularly loved reading Rin’s exploits in the military academy, her difficulties adjusting to a new life and the layers of prejudice she encounters and rises against. Her levels of dedication throughout this first part of the book were inspirational; which all come down to Kuang’s incredible character craftsmanship. I found myself truly caring about Rin right from the start, feeling frustrated and pained for her with every new obstacle thrown in her path.
I became confused a little during the second part. I guess I was mostly frustrated by a lack of action on Rin’s part; I felt like she had been built up throughout the first part of the book and now she was robbed of everything she had learned. A friend (fellow blogger I Should Read That) pointed out, however, that this was the difference between living a sheltered school life and applying those lessons in a war. The take-away message here is nothing can prepare you for war. And it’s naive to think you can. So I was mollified. However I still had one or two problems with this part, it didn’t feel as well balanced and had some minor inconsistencies (disappearing characters for example).
I think the biggest problem many people seem to have had is the violence portrayed in the second and third parts. I’m not sure what this says about me, but I found it commendable. I thought Kuang incredibly brave to write with such open honesty and starkness of such horrific war crimes. If you were upset reading these then good. You absolutely should be. Because this is where the line between historical fiction and fantasy was at its thinnest. This is not your typical “Grim-dark glorification” of war and violence.
A contested figure of between 200 and 300 thousand Chinese were massacred by the Japanese in Nanking in 1937.
Kuang’s commentary on human nature during war, the way she holds a mirror up to the atrocities that have been committed when one group of people dehumanise another, left me speechless. The Poppy War is a beautiful and well written book but it’s this very commentary that pushes it into the realms of being an important book.
Finally, I think my favourite aspect of this book was its protagonist who does the unexpected. So many books will tell you revenge is unhealthy, and we usually see characters learn this the hard way but ultimately adhere to it. Its rare to see a protagonist revel in it and accept it to the level Rin does. She flies in the face of reader expectations and this, for me, is what really cements this book in the Grim-dark subgenre. Give me a morally-grey anti-hero any day of the week.
This book won’t be for everyone, as it truly does not hold back. If you do get upset by extreme violence then it may be not for you (please pay attention to the many trigger warnings).