“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”
Holy cow. This book was damn near perfect.
I needed a few days after concluding R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War to organize my thoughts. If you like books about adventure, warfare, ancient gods, and morally-dubious characters, this is the book for you.
The Poppy War, R. F. Kuang’s incredible debut novel, is the story of Runin Fang – Rin for short – and her journey to master the mythical art of shamanism as she attends the prestigious military academy, Sinegard, and ultimately graduates into a fully-fledged war.
There is so much to love about this book – I scarcely know where to begin. At the beginning, readers are introduced to Rin, a war orphan whose foster parents want to marry her off to the village’s import inspector to further their opium trade. Faced with the prospect of marriage to a man three times her age, Rin seizes the only escape route available to her: she studies, hoping to attend Sinegard military academy. Rin is likable from the outset, determined, hard-working, and plucky. There are times when she verges into the territory of too good (I’m not fond of the term “Mary Sue” because sexism), but her transformation from naïve shop girl to ruthless soldier made for a compelling personal story amidst the greater conflict.
Which brings me to another interesting aspect of this book – the war. As Rin attends Sinegard, tensions between the Nikara Empire and the Federation of Mugen build, finally erupting into war as she graduates. This war is modeled after the Second Sino-Japanese War, with a particular focus on the Nanking Massacre. As a white American with scant knowledge of Chinese or Japanese history, The Poppy War provided a wake-up call to the brutality of that conflict. (Side note: thanks for nothing, U.S. schooling system.)
In addition to the war, other aspects of this book sparked my interest in Chinese culture, including shamanism and the pantheon of gods. Few plot devices are so intriguing as getting high and channeling the power of gods. The Poppy War’s source of inspiration for its fictional setting evokes an interest in East Asian history, mythology, and culture.
The Poppy War is populated by several endearing characters, including Rin’s opium-addled mentor, Jiang, her rival-turned-kind-of-friend, Nezha (pronounced ‘Naja’ in the audiobook), and the vengeful Altan. One minor complaint I have is that, aside from Rin, there is a dearth of female characters who aren’t a) throwaways, b) dead, or c) villainous. I’m hopeful that this will change in the next book.
Lastly – because, while I feel I haven’t scratched the surface of this fantastic book, I’m self-aware enough to know when I’m ranting – The Poppy War is just a damn good story. The age-old struggle of an underdog carving out a place for herself is set on the backdrop of a brutal, bloody war. As she claws for power and vengeance, this underdog discovers the power to drag gods down from the heavens and bend their power to her will.
Honestly – if war and fantasy are your poison of choice – how could this premise fail to compel you?