Title: The Poppy War
Author: R. F. Kuang
Published by: Harper Voyager
Genre: Asian, Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Content Warning: Rape, death of children, substance abuse, death, graphic war scenes
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“We aren’t here to be sophisticated. We’re here to fuck people up.”
Note: This review was written a year before posted but all opinions are still the same.
This was exactly what I needed after not completely enjoying what I’d been picking up for the previous two months. If I rated this purely on enjoyment, I would have given it 5 stars. The writing was accessible and fast-paced, the dialogue was witty and often times hilarious, and the action was flashy and exciting. Unfortunately, there were a couple of problems I couldn’t get over.
The Poppy War is an Asian inspired military fantasy that is basically 2 books in 1. First, it’s about Rin who works hard to make it into Sinegard, the most prestigious military academy in Nikan. Because she is a dark-skinned war orphan, she is not welcomed at the academy which is full of rich heirs and high ranking military officers. Rin’s experience at the academy is my favorite part of the book. When I think of the military academy, I think of Hogwarts but darker and military focused rather than magic focused. Each class is run by an expert in a subject of war. There is strategy, lore, martial arts, and more. The purpose of each first-year student is to learn and study hard for the end of the year exam and martial arts tournament. Marks on the exam are the basis in which each teacher will send invitations to join as their scribe. First years who don’t get a bid are kicked out of the academy. During this time, Rin is hardworking, tough, and sometimes unlikable. This is understandable since the cards are against her and her lowly beginnings. Her biggest rival is Nezha a fierce martial artist and the heir to the Dragon clan. She does, however, becomes friends with Kitay an aspiring military strategist.
In the second half of the book, Rin is stationed to a special military unit called the Cike. This half feels completely different from the first half in that it is more magical and darker. Members of the Cike are able to harness the power of the gods by consuming their choice of drugs, and because it is now set during wartime, we witness the many brutal horrors of war. We are also introduced to new characters and new sides of characters we already know.
Again, I am definitely a fan. It was exactly was I was craving, but like I said, there were issues that I couldn’t get over. First, the book needed to be longer. One of the major themes of The Poppy War is propriety versus reality. For example, in the first half of the book, students are made to learn and question strategic military decisions and outcomes made in past wars. The public was made to think one way, but the students learned the harsh realities.
I think the differences between the first and second half are meant to show this theme and to make readers question and challenge their world views. I think the first half shows the propriety and the second half shows the gritty reality; however, the end of the second half felt rushed so I didn’t buy the reasoning behind certain characters’ actions. Some characters’ storylines needed to be developed more, and that could have taken at least another 100 pages.
My other complaint again takes place in the second half. Whereas Rin’s trials and adventures were at the forefront in the first half of the book, the consequences of her time at Sinegard lead to the second half focusing less on her. She was still the main point of view but it felt a lot like a Great Gatsby situation where the narrator was a spectator for another character. Unfortunately, this didn’t work here because Rin was supposed to be a part of her group’s trials. Because of her failures, it felt like Rin didn’t need to be in the Cike’s group at all.
All in all, I liked this book, I am eagerly awaiting the sequel, but there is definitely room for improvement.
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