For once… a regular book review?
I truly never post reviews on my blog of books that aren’t ARCs (and therefore had to post). The last time I did this was literally the year I started blogging, since everyone knows reviews get low engagement and I’m sad when people don’t talk to me!
But today I’m making history!! Because 1) I have absolutely zero blog post ideas anymore, and 2) I need to officially recognize my love for The Poppy War on my blog with a review.
Before I get into the very long review, I want to note that I picked this book for an English project, so I’m more analytical than usual since I had to look at the book in a more critical lens. It reads more like an essay than my other reviews, because I actually had to write an essay!
RF Kuang || May 1, 2018
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.
What I should be thinking: The Poppy War explores themes of power, ambition, and humanity with a skill that is thoroughly inspiring for an author only 21 years old at the time of publishing, and Kuang expertly develops Rin into a character you hate yet also, somehow, adore. The book snakes its way through your brain, subtly becoming an obsession that only grows as time passes, and each day you find yourself thinking about how perfect of a book it is.
What I’m actually thinking: Fang Runin please step on me.
She would not die like this. She would not die without vengeance.
It feels like my life has been split into two eras: Before The Poppy War, and After The Poppy War.
There is no way to write a review that encompasses both my love for and the literary excellence of this book, and there are already some brilliant reviews out there. But my feelings about this book have grown to become an irritating cramp in my side, constantly pestering me: I genuinely cannot stop thinking about it every day. There is a burgeoning need in me to get something written down before I spontaneously combust.
The Poppy War follows a girl named Rin, a dark-skinned poor orphan who, to everyone’s surprise, manages to get into Nikan’s prestigious military academy Sinegard. There, she is relentlessly bullied for her skin color, gender, and economic status, yet she works tirelessly and climbs to the top of her class. But war is looming, and soon, with the dangerous, destructive shamanic powers she accidentally accessed, she shifts from student to soldier and is forced to make difficult decisions to save her country.
“I thought you just wanted to be a good soldier.”
“I do,” she said.
But more than that, she wanted power.
I think my favorite thing about the entire book—which is a grand statement to make considering how excellent it is in every aspect—is Rin. Her character development is phenomenal, and not only in terms of who she becomes in the story, but also just Kuang’s ability to craft a character so well. It’s made clear from the very start that whether or not you like Rin is up for you to decide, and this idea only grows as Rin begins to make questionable choices.
But god, if you don’t find yourself rooting for her, at least in the beginning, I’m not sure you get the point at all: Rin is a girl who, throughout her entire life, has fought against every person who tells her she is a burden and she is lesser, every obstacle that represents how her very own existence is an inferiority. And she never stops fighting.
Everything Rin does is a pushback against her oppressors: gaining power, becoming a top student, turning into the perfect warrior and soldier (or… mostly perfect), and most of all using her anger and desire for vengeance as a motivation. Many of her actions are morally ambiguous or downright villainous, but you always understand the reasoning behind them, and whether or not you like her or agree with what she does, you still can’t help but feel a keen sense of both compassion and sadness for her.
(I love her so much. I love her so, so much.)
Also: I just read an interview, where Kuang talks about wanting to explore a character inspired by Mao Zedong and says, “A young, dark skinned woman of color in a patriarchal, racist, classist society: what happens when she gets power?” and god if that isn’t my exact sexuality. (She also said that she thinks The Poppy War was the worst thing she’s ever written and. I had to take a moment there.)
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.
Kuang also writes other characters just as complex as Rin, most notably Altan. He is the sole survivor of a massacre that destroyed his race, and his life has only consisted of suffering and trauma. Now he’s seen only as a weapon to use to the Nikara military’s advantage. And it’s heartbreaking to see his rage fester, because it’s the one thing he’s ever known, and this hatred and desire for vengeance against Nikan was brought upon themselves for the things they did to his race.
Rin and Altan share many characteristics—Altan is her commander and role model—a large one being that neither of them are seen as human. I will never stop losing my mind and being desperately sad over how they are seen as risky yet powerful weapons but disposable once used, and how this view of them is exactly what shaped them into who they are now, is exactly why they do the things they do. Their complex relationship is written so masterfully, especially in the sequel The Dragon Republic, and I feel like I could wail about them forever. I may not love Altan, but I still appreciate the way that Kuang makes me mind-blown over his development.
I also don’t want to forget Kitay and Nezha, who are some of Rin’s classmates that I love a lot. They’re both assholes, in all honesty, but it’s part of their charm! I feel like they are more developed in The Dragon Republic, as this installment seems to focus more on Altan, but they still have important roles in Rin’s life, as the only friend she had in Sinegard and her bully-turned-friend(-turned-LOVER?), respectively.
(I guess my one complaint for the entire book is that there are some side characters, specifically the members of the Cike, who are not that developed. But that’s my only critique and it’s so minor that it is practically irrelevant! I also didn’t care that much because, if it isn’t obvious, I pretty much just care about Rin.)
“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”
On top of the excellent character work, Kuang succeeds in many other areas of the book as well. The way war is depicted stands out the most: She does not shy back, and I didn’t want her to. It’s brutal and graphic and most definitely difficult to read (content warnings at the end), but the way it viscerally tears at you is unforgettable and that’s the exact kind of effect it should have.
It’s a harsh reminder of how viciously cruel humans can be, especially when you realize that what happens in the book is based on real-life historical events. You question over and over again, What lets humans do this to one another? How can such wicked violence be justified? How can people commit atrocities and not feel an ounce of remorse? And at what point does your response to these atrocities become morally unacceptable? and if that isn’t the lovely, jarring reading experience I want!!
A good fantasy must have good worldbuilding, and The Poppy War doesn’t disappoint in this aspect either. I’m not usually one to notice worldbuilding unless it stands out, either in a really good or really bad way, and Kuang’s worldbuilding is definitely on the really good side of the spectrum. Shamanism, gods, and magic are among the fantastical elements of the worldbuilding. The concept you usually see in fantasy of “magic is glorious and practicing it makes you healthier” is subverted into “magic can destroy you and you risk insanity each time you call upon the gods” and I adored it, especially when looking at it through the lens of how it furthered Rin’s character development. (Again, if it’s not clear yet, I! love!! Rin!!!)
Just the geographic worldbuilding was enjoyable to me as well—the explorations of colonialism and imperialism are so well-done. The way it mirrors our world, with China, Japan, and the West, is also something I really adore, because it depicts the horrific war crimes that Japan has committed while also painting the West as, dare I say it, the larger evil. (This is developed more in book 2 than in book 1, but I think it’s still worth mentioning.)
She was no victim of destiny. She was […] a shaman who called the gods to do her bidding.
And she would call the gods to do such terrible things.
The final cherry on top, though, is Kuang’s prose and ability to write everything in a deeply compelling way. It’s simple and lovely and engaging, and it fits perfectly with the heavy content. This book is one that I chose to read for an English project, and for one of my assignments I talked about how there aren’t too many details in her writing, yet somehow I can imagine everything clearly and her words still have a strong emotional impact. (This assignment was a video that ended up being over 20 minutes long because, clearly, I cannot shut up about this book.)
It’s also worth noting that I struggle a lot to get through long adult fantasy novels, but this one was an exception. If you’re looking for an easier to read adult fantasy in terms of dense or heavy writing, I definitely recommend this one. I kept reading 100 pages in one sitting before realizing I had to stop reading, and everything seemed to fly by so quickly. It’s a wonder how 500+ pages can feel like nothing, yet I think back on this book and feel a strange flurry of excitement at the prospect of rereading it all within a day.
I’ve been writing this review for around three hours now (even though it feels like no time has passed because I could go on and on about this book). There is truly so much more I could say to display how this book is absolute perfection. I don’t know if there’s someone out there who still hasn’t read this yet, but if there is, imagine me on my knees begging you to read it and experience the masterpiece that is The Poppy War for yourself. Rin will forever remain one of my favorite characters, and I won’t be getting over this book for a long time. It’s genuinely one of the best I’ve ever read, both subjectively and objectively, and I cannot recommend it enough!
:: rep :: Asian-inspired (mainly Chinese-) cast
:: content warnings :: war themes (violence, murder, etc.), drug use, substance addiction, self-harm, racism, colorism, misogyny, genocide, bullying, abandonment, abuse, animal death, animal cruelty, brutal/graphic torture, killing & rape, mutilation, human experimentation
have you read this book and did you like it? or are you planning to? have you read any books this year that will be forever favorites? any new favorite characters?
p.s. there are officially only TWO WEEKS left to nominate bloggers for the 2020 Book Blogger Awards, so make sure to get your nominations in!!