The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang || Book Review

There has been so much hype for The Poppy War online since the time it released. I added it to my list and was waiting for the paperback’s price to go down so I can own it as a physical copy. Sadly, it never went down.*

I finally caved and got the ebook just in time to participate in the Autumn is for Asia read-a-long happening on Instagram. The Poppy War is the buddy read book for September, and it gave me the motivation to finally read this tome.

*it’s quite expensive

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. 

Content warnings: Self-harm, suicidal ideations, suicide, rape, Sexual assault, Murder, Massacres, torture, gore, Substance abuse, Emotional abuse, Physical abuse, Relationship abuse, Human experimentation, Chemical warfare, Genocide, racism, colorism, fatphobia, bullying, ableism

This book is HUGE. It’s a literal tome. I am glad that I read it as an ebook because I don’t think I would have been able to read as fast with the physical book, especially since I wouldn’t be able to carry it everywhere.

Since it is big, it obviously a LOT of content inside. There’s so much that happens in the book. I procrastinated writing this review because there is SO MUCH to talk about. This one book contains THREE DIFFERENT PHASES of Rin’s life.

She never wanted to think about Tikany. She wanted to pretend that she’d never lived there—no, that it had never existed. Because if she could just erase her past, then she could write herself into whoever she wanted to be in the present. Student. Scholar. Soldier. Anything except who she used to be.

I will not lie, this book was hard to read. There’s gore, graphic descriptions of death, massacres, sexual assault/rape, and drug addiction. At times it was so hard to read through it that I closed the book and picked up a lighter book to give myself relief. My heart ached. The author doesn’t shy away from writing the true horrors of war, down to detail. That’s brilliant in writing but hard to read.

The pacing of the book didn’t feel right. I was super into it in the beginning when things were happening in real-time, and in the middle of the book it suddenly slowed down a lot. It not only slowed but somehow we skipped YEARS in a few paragraphs. For a long time, I thought Rin was around 17 but turns out that she was 19. Her growth and change of time weren’t shown, it was just addressed in a few short sentences in relation to her growth in shamanism.

Being a really big book, with a lot to cover, I understand that not everything can be shown plainly. But I would have appreciated it because I was left confused a few times. Maybe it’s because I usually don’t read adult fantasy books like this one. It was weird that some pointless times were given more coverage than some really important things which were left out as “obvious”.

I really liked reading about Rin. She’s our main character who is determined to make something of herself and be important. She has big dreams and works tirelessly to make them come true. Rin is an underdog but works VERY hard to come up, especially in university.

The best part about Rin is that she’s very flawed. She’s not a perfect character with perfect beliefs and morality. She can be clueless, hard-headed, afraid and even disbelieving sometimes. But she pushes through because she has to move forward. The one thing that drives her is to be best, and she does ANYTHING to get there.

She had to make her memory perfect. She stopped sleeping.

A majority of the book takes place when Rin is at the Sinegard university. The most interesting part was when Rin trained in shamanism. She had to question her beliefs, everything she’s heard and been told, and rewire it to believe in gods and their powers. I especially liked the debate about gods, which was given quite a bit of attention. Considering that I’m agnostic and I question the exact things, it was wonderful to read.

Jiang reconfigured Rin’s perception of what was real. Through demonstrations of impossible acts, he recalibrated the way she approached the material universe.

It was easier because she was so willing to believe. She fit these challenges to her conceptions of reality into her mind without too much trauma from adjustment.

The phase of Rin’s life which took up most of the book is during the war. Rin joins the Cike, a group of assassins who work for the Empress. Initially, she’s insulted and embarrassed for joining “a group of crazies”, but eventually she finds her place.

This is the part of the book which was the hardest to read, for me. There’s so much gore, and there are several detailed descriptions of the horrors of war. I liked that it’s realistic, in terms of how bad war is, but I also found it very hard to read with a straight mind. I had to take multiple pauses.

Through the book, the author also makes several on-point observations on war and questions the nature of it. I found these things very interesting to read because I never truly thought about war and all that it is associated with. We the readers come to all these realizations about war through Rin, as she begins to truly open her eyes and understand the causes and consequences of war. I definitely would have not thought of this quickly if it wasn’t directly written in the book.

Warfare was about absolutes. Us or them. Victory or defeat. There was no middle way. There was no mercy. No surrender.

It was, simply, what happened when one race decided that the other was insignificant. The Federation had massacred Golyn Niis for the simple reason that they did not think of the Nikara as human.

The one thing that I did not like in the book was the underdevelopment of multiple characters. The book showcases and develops the few characters in the spotlight but almost completely ignores the side characters. I get to know Rin and other spotlighted characters a lot but I barely know anything about the supporting characters.

“Great danger is always associated with great power. The difference between the great and the mediocre is that the great are willing to take that risk.”

Overall, The Poppy War is a book that you should take your time reading. It’s not a fast-paced book with many interesting twists, but it’s a damn impressive book about war and an underdog character who rises.

The author has BRILLIANTLY weaved a full-fledged world inspired by Chinese history. The book is definitely worth the read.