Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Year Published: 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction, Military, Chinese Fantasy
Format: Hardcover | Page Count: 527
“You will be offered power beyond your imagination. But I warn you little warrior. The price of power is pain.”
I was debating whether or not I wanted to post a review for this because I feel like there are so many better written ones out there right now, especially by #ownvoices reviewers. But with the sequel, The Dragon Republic, coming out on August 6, 2019, I thought I may as well so I can boost this book’s visibility. I actually started this book in summer of last year and read it on and off until this year. The reason I took so long is because I was taking a lot of notes and trying to absorb the material in-depth. I’m completely out of my element when it comes to most Asian history or lore and didn’t want to take the details for granted.
The Poppy War, the first book in a trilogy, has been a nominee for multiple literary awards. What’s even more impressive is that author published it when she was only 22, meaning she worked on the manuscript at an even younger age. R.F. Kuang’s debut is based on the Second Sino-Japanese War, and also a period of history known as The Rape of Nanking. This was an extremely brutal conflict that occurred in 1937 in which the Japanese army invaded a Chinese city and murdered and raped 300,000 citizens. I’m not surprised that The Rape of Nanking is also known as “The Forgotten Holocaust” because this definitely a period of history that got swept under the rug.
“The familiar burn was back in her veins, the burn that demanded blood and ashes.”
Despite dealing with heavy themes and incorporating discussion on military strategy, The Poppy War is not hard to grasp at all. R.F. Kuang has a direct style of story telling that I appreciate. Sometimes authors like to throw in random subplots or misdirect readers with unnecessary conflicts for the sake of drama. It’s arguable that the material can feel like info-dumping if you’re looking for a story packed with entertainment and political intrigue, but I personally never felt like any of the information presented wasn’t there to help the reader have a grasp on what they were getting into. She’s aware there are pieces of history and Chinese culture that may not be understood universally and did not want the readers to feel unprepared. These pockets of information work with this style and tone of writing.
The book itself is told in three parts. Part I focuses on our protagonist Rin, a sixteen-year-old war orphan, who takes and passes a test to get into the rigorous Sinegard Academy that trains it’s students for warfare. Part II focuses on Rin advancing to her second year after pledging to study under Master Jiang. Without spoiling too much, the student’s exams and tests suddenly come to a halt and there’s a moment where the students realize they are no longer students. Part III is where sh*t hits the fan hard and that’s still putting things lightly.
If you’ve seen this book around, chances are you’ve seen the content warnings tagged on. Nearly every review written about this book includes them. Chapter 21, which is in Part III, is the most disturbing and is not for the faint of heart. This is not for entertainment. This is not for shock value. The scenes written are pulled from real events from history.
“I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible. Was she now a goddess or a monster? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.”
I don’t really have any issue with this book except minor things that didn’t take away for my overall enjoyment or experience: Firstly, the pacing: The middle part felt the most drawn out but still very much relevant. Secondly, the supporting characters: Rin as a character is great, but the side characters leave something to be desired. They all have colorful personalities, but didn’t feel rounded out enough and the other female characters remain in the background. My least favorite character is Nezha—Rin’s bully at the academy. He’s particularly nasty and I felt like he gets a redemption arc he didn’t earn. I will say that I thought the most interesting characters were Master Jiang and Altan and I hope they are explored in even more depth in the next installment.
While I gave this a 4 out of 5 stars, I still consider this book a masterful exploration of a horrific time in history. The Poppy War is one of the most fascinating yet bleak reads I’ve read in a very long time. suggest seeking out interviews with the author and doing some preliminary research if you’re completely new to Chinese history and lore.
Overall Rating: ★★★★
Content Warnings: strong language, heavy themes, self-harm, racism, genocide, torture, violence, gore, drug addiction, sexual assault, physical abuse.
R.F. Kuang: Writing Through Difficult Scenes on 88 Cups of Tea (Podcast)
Summary of Chapter 21 provided by Aentee @ Readatmidnight
The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang (Further Reading)