The Poppy War by R.F Kuang – A Review

Hi! I’m back with yet another book review and this one’s a positive one. Let’s get into it.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
  • Publication date: May 1st 2018
  • Publisher: Harper Voyager
  • Genre: Fantasy

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.

The Poppy War was probably the most hyped book of 2018, at least as far as I can remember. Everyone talked about it, and so as a fantasy lover I hastily added it to my tbr. I only got to it now, though, because with every glowing review I’ve seen about it I became more and more apprehensive. What if it doesn’t live up to my expectations? Spoiler alert – it did!

I think The Poppy War is a fantastic debut novel. It’s not without faults, obviously, but it makes for an exciting read. The plot is fast paced and the world building intricate and interesting. I’m no expert on the subject but it is clearly rooted in Chinese history, which for some might feel unimaginative, but personally I really enjoyed it.

The story follows Rin, an orphan raised by her aunt, who wants to marry her off to secure her own opium smuggling business. To escape the fate of an arranged marriage Rin trains to pass exams to get to an elite military school – Sinegard.

I’ll tell you right off the bat – the characters were the novel’s weakest point. Rin is not likeable, nor is she relatable, but not as a character one loves to hate, either. She’s whiny and annoying for the most part of the story, and too head strong for her own good. It changes slightly at the end of the book, and I much prefer the Rin turned villain from the last couple of chapters, as it adds depth to her character. The side characters started off great in the first part of the book, just to fall off the face of the Earth in the later parts and reappear as a plot device. This could be due to the novel being very much plot driven, or maybe it’s just not Kuang’s strongest point and something she’ll improve on with time.

The world building and the magic system were both rich and compelling. Some would say the story was a tad bit info dumpy, but I enjoyed every single history lesson we got. It made the story more interesting, and the military aspect a lot more digestible. I found the magic to be unique in the way opium was used to control it. I’m looking forward to learning more about it in the next two books, as there’s still some gaps that need to be filled in.

The pacing and tone of the 3 parts felt quite disjointed to me. I know it was done intentionally, and with every event the book was becoming darker, but I wish there was more connection between all three. Looking back, the start of the book felt like a completely different story – much in the vein of The Name of the Wind, and quite typical and tropey with Rin attending the academy, learning and excelling at everything, just to flip on its head and get incredibly grim and dark some pages later. It’s not something that bothered me greatly, though.

Overall, I’m really glad I picked up The Poppy War and after that ending, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy. I think despite it being Kunag’s first novel, she already found her voice and writing style and I’m curious as to what she is going to come out with next.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Have you read The Poppy War? What did you think about it?

Thank you for reading!

11 thoughts on “The Poppy War by R.F Kuang – A Review

  1. Great review! I was literally just looking at the cover of this last night and wondering if I should pick this one up, or “Red Sister”. I don’t know why those two exist in the same space in my mind. But maybe I’ll pick this one up this month also in honor of women’s month. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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