The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang is a fantastic military fantasy debut, and I’m honestly kicking myself for taking so long to pick it up. The Poppy War effortlessly blends historical events and Chinese mythology to create a fantastical world used to process living generational trauma and explore the complexities of war.
The Poppy War is told in three parts, each becoming more and more dark than the last. At the center of this book is Rin, a poor war orphan raised by a pair of opium smugglers. To escape the marriage her foster parents arranged, Rin decides to take the Kuji, a national test that places the top scoring students to be trained and educated at the military academy Sinegard. After two years of grueling study, Rin places at the top of her province and gets accepted into Sinegard. Upon arrival to Sinegard, Rin discovers that keeping a spot in this school is much harder than she anticipated, and the first part of this book follows her trials and tribulations in trying to stay there.
Something I really admired in Rin’s character was her ambition. Whilst at Sinegard, Rin is up against students from much more privileged backgrounds than she is, and she is consistently underestimated by not only her peers but also her mentors. Furthermore, Rin experiences colourism, sexism and classism whilst at Sinegard, and whilst it was hard and frustrating at times to read what Rin was going through, I loved that she used these experiences as motivation to become stronger and better than the people who put her down.
I’m very impressed with Kuang’s ability to make us feel for her characters. Right from the beginning we immediately sympathize with Rin and I was entirely invested in her journey and growth. Even more impressive, however, is Kuang’s ability to make you feel for a character you once hated. When Nehza was first introduced, I hated him. But as the story progressed and we got into the second part of the novel, I found that he quickly became one of my favourite characters. It’s a very rare occasion that a writer has the capacity to make me do a 180 on my feelings towards a character like that, so I was surprised by how masterfully Kuang achieved this.
The Poppy War takes a very drastic and jarring turn at the second part, and I need to mention that this book is not for the lighthearted. The second and third parts of this book are excellent explorations of the realities of war— its brutality, its victims, its consequences and the lasting impacts it has on both individuals and countries involved. Kuang does not at all shy away from portraying how brutal and gruesome war is, and I found myself physically flinching at some of the descriptions. I did not find these descriptions to be gratuitous— quite the opposite, actually. The Poppy War is based on and centered around the Second Sino-Japanese war and the 1937 Rape of Nanjing. Kuang wrote a blog post detailing why she chose to write so unflinchingly, and how it’s not possible to heal after events like these without stark analysis of the past. Chapter 21 is the most graphic and triggering chapter of the whole book as it very graphically alludes to the Rape of Nanjing. Chapter 24 is also potentially triggering as it alludes to Unit 731. (I will have a full list of trigger warnings at the end of the review).
Whilst I found there were slight pacing issues throughout the first and second parts of the book, the third part was where I struggled with the pacing the most. The writing is stilted and jarring, and the whole part altogether is much less coherent than the first two parts. Nonetheless, I found that it sort of got better towards the ending and I am so excited to see where the rest of the series goes. Kuang is an exceptional debut writer and I cannot wait to see what else she puts out in the future!