The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang is one of the most intense books I have ever read. I finished this book a month ago and yet I still cannot stop thinking about it.
Please keep in mind that this is adult fantasy and very dark adult fantasy at that. Trigger warnings for everything. If this is something that affects you, please proceed with caution. In particular, you may wish to skim or skip chapter 21.
The beginning of this book reads like any number of YA fantasy stories. Our main character, Rin, is an orphan being grudgingly raised by drug dealers. They work her to the bone and are planning on marrying her off to forward their business. To escape this fate she takes a test and ends up getting into the most prestigious military academy. Once there, she is definitely the underdog. The school is filled by the children of the nobility who have been training for years. She faces racism and classism.
Then, about halfway through the book, stuff starts to happen. More precisely, a war starts. I really liked this sudden shift. In the first part, Rin is learning about warfare in a sanitized abstract setting — then she gets disillusioned with the reality.
This book is heavily influenced by Chinese culture and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Particular battles and incidents are reimagined including the Rape of Nanking. Kuang does not shy away from showing the atrocities of war. I’m ashamed to say that I had to look up both the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Rape of Nanking, while I had heard the terms before I really knew nothing about them. This bothers me. I studied World War II in school and the Asian theatre was barely touched on. this needs to change.
As a person fortunate enough never to experience war first hand, what really struck me was the “us” and “them” mentality. This is one thing I’ve always had a hard time getting my head around about war or genocide or slavery. It’s not the leaders or the instigators, I can understand that there are psychopaths and evil in the world. What about the standard soldiers who commit these heinous acts? How does the average person look at another human being, who is slightly different than them in some way, and not see another human being? Since a majority of the characters in this story are the rank and file, it was a very thought-provoking and unique perspective.
“They were monsters!” Rin shrieked. “They were not human!”
“Have you ever considered,” he said slowly “that that was exactly what they thought of us?”
Rin is a great protagonist. She is a perfect example of how good intentions do not always lead to good decisions. I didn’t agree with a lot of her actions, but she is an endearing and solid character anyway. The supporting cast is equally well fleshed out.
Refreshingly, there is no romance in this book. There is the possibility of it in future volumes (I understand this is planned as a series of four) but within The Poppy War –nothing.
Now let’s talk magic. The magic system in this book is based on a sort of shamanism. According to lore, at one time everyone could commune with the gods. Now only a select few have the ability. A person forms an alliance with a particular god and becomes godlike themselves. In the process, they often lose their humanity and mortality. The question often raised — is the power worth the price? They also often have to ingest hallucinogenic drugs, which leads to a whole other conversation.
Overall, I thought this was epic fantasy at it’s finest. Amazingly, this is the author’s debut novel. Wow! It is also an important novel — shining a light on aspects of history not often looked at. I rated this book 5/5 stars and eagerly await R.F. Kuang’s next adventure. As for recommending the book, I do so but with caution.