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REVIEW: The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang

October 10, 2018
REVIEW: The Poppy War, by R.F. KuangThe Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
Published by HarperCollins on May 1, 2018
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Historical, Epic, Cultural Heritage
Pages: 544
Amazon // The Book Depository

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 is a chinese-inspired fantasy and everyone is high.

TPW tigger warnings: self-harm, suicide, violent rape, sexual assault, murder, massacres, brutalization, mutilation, torture, substance abuse, abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, relationship abuse, human experimentation, chemical warfare, genocide

i heard a lot of amazing things about The Poppy War, but i was still wary of starting it because high!! fantasy!! i decided to read/listen to the audiobook instead of “actually” reading the hardcover i had; mostly because i wasn’t sure if i was ready for it, and also because audiobooks are great. and BOY i am so glad i picked it up. it’s probably one of my favorite books of this year.

HIGH KEY CHINESE FANTASY. i didn’t know i needed this, but i needed this. what’s crazier is that rebecca kuang based it on true facts (the second sino japanese war, to be specific). which means the horribly grotesque war scenes are well, true. the sad thing is, as a chineseamerican, i didn’t even know of this war until after reading the book. it’s supposed to be part of my history, but i never learned this in any history classes in school. i recall my parents mentioning as to why certain friends/relatives were bitter towards japanese people, but i really didn’t understand why. because of this book, i feel motivated to learn more about my culture’s history and in turn, connect to my chinese ancestry on a deeper level. because of this book, i actually asked my parents about their immigrant story and my grandparent’s immigrant story. (like WHOA)

War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.

however, it was a little hard to get into the book. some historical references to their world aren’t directly explained and you’re left to fend for yourself. i found it hard to remember who was who, and what was what. it all makes sense later in the story, but in the beginning, it’s a little overwhelming. i definitely feel like it would be more enjoyable to reread and know what’s going on in their world/story.

aside from the confusing historical references, the writing is so wonderful. i can’t believe rebeccakuang is 1) only two years older than me, 2) wrote this in her gap year, 3) and did everything while still juggling school. the way the story is told makes it feel timely and polished. uGHi’m in awe. 

I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible. Was she now a goddess or a monster? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.

the characters are also incredibly complex. our main character, rin, goes through so much trauma and change and i LOVED her. she’s slytherin to the core and works so so hard to get what she wants (even if some of what she wants isn’t morally good, per say). the romance – if you even want to call it that – is weird though. it’s almost non-existent (which is fine and great), but it was peppered in in ways that made me question if it was platonic or romantic. 

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all in all, The Poppy War is amazing. it’s intensity may not sit well with some, but it made me love it even more. what struck me most was how the “worst” (aka most uncomfortable and grotesque) scenes were true to history itself. it reminded me how important it is to remember the past, and weaved it in a way that’s creative in its own storytelling. now i can’t wait for the second book’s release!

side note: lily’s goodreads review has a ton of cultural references to the plot of TPW and i scREAM. 

Rating Report
Overall: 4.4

Alexandra Ling

alexandra is a twenty-year-old content creator and avid reader. when she's not on the internet or hiding behind pages, you can find her training to be a professional ballet dancer or practicing yoga. she currently resides in los angeles, california.