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

Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Series: The Poppy War, #1
Pages: 544
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: May 1st 2018

TW: graphic violence, rape, torture, drug use

      “A brilliantly imaginative talent makes her exciting debut with this epic historical military fantasy, inspired by the bloody history of China’s twentieth century and filled with treachery and magic, in the tradition of Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.
      When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn 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 believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was 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 Nikan—was even more surprising.
      But surprises aren’t always good.
      Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin 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 those powers could mean more than just surviving school.
      For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, 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 that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.”

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      “Children ceased to be children when you put a sword in their hands. When you taught them to fight a war, then you armed them and put them on the front lines, they were not children anymore. They were soldiers.”

  • Rin – Rin is a special kind of character. The Poppy War takes places over the span of several years. We see Rin as a child, defined by her orphan status. Her foster family is more interested in marrying her off than providing a stable home. We see her as a teen, determined to find a way out of her circumstances and nothing will stand in her way. As a student at Sinegard Academy, Rin is forced once again to push herself, to stretch herself thin in order to succeed. And yet she never breaks. When the Nikara Empire is thrust into another war with the Federation of Mugen, Rin is again pushed to her limits. So much of who she is and who she is becoming is tied to her ability to take things like pain and use them as a means to mold herself into something stronger.
  • School setting – There are a lot of interesting settings in The Poppy War, but readers spend a substantial amount of time at the Sinegard Academy with Rin. The most prestigious academy in the Empire is meant to produce generals and future leaders within the military. It is cut-throat and students are more likely to fail than to succeed. This setting works well on many fronts. On one hand it gives us a glimpse at Rin as a student. We see her grow and face both academic and personal obstacles. It also introduces several key characters who will play important roles going forward. But one of my favorite things about Kuang’s use of this setting is we as readers learn alongside Rin. We are taught Nikara’s history and lore. This method of world-building gives the reader a broader understanding of this universe without feeling like they are getting a huge info dump.
  • History and lore collide – Speaking of history and lore, one of the most exciting things about this world is how history and mythology are so intricately woven together. Rin uncovers a power within herself that indicates that the more fantastical stories of shamans and gods are in fact real. And these folk heroes and villains are not in the past, but are major players in present day.
  • The trauma of warfare – I knew going into the novel that I shouldn’t expect a lighthearted novel, but I wasn’t prepared for how somber this one ended up being. Rin is a war orphan and has suffered many things. But her pain is only the tip of the iceberg. TWs above apply to this section. There is torture, experimentation, genocide, rape. Kuang makes it very clear that there are no victors in war, only survivors. No one is untouched by war and it has not only changed their world, but changed who they were meant to become. Soft characters are few and far between because not many can afford to be in such a harsh world.
  • Power – One of the major themes of The Poppy War is power. Who has it. Who wants it. And how far are they willing to get it. This often ties back to how certain characters experienced the trauma of war. Rin desires power because for so much of her life, she’s been powerless. There are characters who have been bred for war, who’ve been taught power is what makes them worthy of praise. When you combine this with years of pent up anger and justifiable hatred, the result is extremely volatile.

Nothing specific.

The Poppy War is appropriately horrendous and shocking, whose ending left me emotional exhausted. Kuang’s characters are flawed and broken and though you may question their choices, as a reader you understand them.

★ ★ ★ ★

5 thoughts on “Snapshot Review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

  1. This is one of those books where it’s hard to say you “enjoyed” it given the subject matter, but it is SO GOOD. And it really lures you into “hey, it’s another fantasy school trope book” until everything gets chucked out the window halfway through. Glad you survived the experience!


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