The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. ★★★★★
TW: self harm, sexual violence, war crimes
I loved this book. I cannot get over how amazing it is. The best comparison I can think of is N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, which really says something, doesn’t it?
Rin is an orphaned peasant girl in the backwater Rooster Province, but despite all the odds, she aces the national exam and gets into the country’s most elite military academy, Sinegard. But Rin’s struggles are not over, and she still faces discrimination for her class, her skin color, and her gender. As hard as she worked for the exam, she will need to work even harder to succeed at Sinegard. Beyond the limits of her studies, other conflicts lurk. Ancient gods are not dead, myths are realities, and a war with the Federation of Mugen is on the horizon.
The Poppy War is inspired by Chinese history in the first half of the 20th century. Specifically, the book draws on World War II with Rin’s homeland of the Nikara Empire paralleling China and the Federation of Mugen paralleling Japan. And The Poppy War reflects the brutality of its source material. It’s incredibly well written but dives deeply into the horrible things humans can do to each other. The most difficult parts of the novel were those inspired by Nanking and Unit 731. I would guess that there were other historical parallels in The Poppy War that I’m just not well enough educated to guess.
While the main inspiration might be World War II, the culture and society of Rin’s world has earlier historical influences, with technology level being more similar to medieval China. Although I do enjoy fantasy novels that bring in more modern tech, I think with The Poppy War it helped make the world feel more unique and fantastical and less like purely historical fiction. Of course, there’s also magic! At Sinegard, Rin learns that there are actual gods and that humans can channel their powers, even if they risk madness while doing so.
Central to The Poppy War is power: who has it, who doesn’t, who wants it, and what they’re willing to do to get it. For much of her life, Rin has had no power whatsoever. Her adopted family took her on begrudgingly and planned to sell her in marriage to a much older man. Even when she escapes that fate, she still finds herself in a low and precarious position at Sinegard. At first, Rin might have been motivated simply by a desire to escape the arranged marriage, but she soon starts to desire power for herself. It’s still unusual to see a female protagonist who is this ambitious and anti-heroic. Too often female characters still run up against the demand that they must be “likable,” to the detriment of complexity. If Rin is anything, she’s complex. Her world is brutal, and she becomes brutal in turn. I love monstrous women, and Rin is a female character who at times grapples with her own monstrosity.
The beginning of The Poppy War risks falling into the common formula of “magical school stories.” I’m sure you’ve read them. The protagonist is a young person, probably a teenager or pre-teen, who arrives at a school and learns magic is real. These stories are usually young adult, although not always. I’m sure you’ve read some (Harry Potter, anyone?). To a certain extant, The Poppy War follows this familiar pattern in the first half of the novel. However, the story is so well written and compelling that it never bothered me. And, of course, The Poppy War throws this pattern out the window during the second half of the novel when it starts getting deeper into its historical source material.
For that first half, I thought The Poppy War might work well as a young adult crossover. Rin’s a teenager, her voice is clear, and the pacing is quick. But while I do think young adult literature can deal with difficult subject matter, I found the brutality of the second half to move it of potential cross-over range. At certain points, I had to take a step away from The Poppy War and return to it with a clearer head.
I love The Poppy War, but it is not an easy book to read. If you’re at a place in your life where you think you can handle darkness, then I recommend you do read The Poppy War. It might not be an easy book, but it is well worth it.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.