Book Review: The Poppy War

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

― R.F. Kuang, The Poppy War

War orphan Rin has grown up working for the Fangs, overworked and underappreciated. But when they decide to marry her off to an old man to make their opium smuggling easier she realises she has to take drastic action to maintain any kind of control over her own life. She studies day and night to pass the Keju (the test used to find the most talented students in the Empire) with flying colours, getting her into the most elite military school in Nikan. Unfortunately, this turns out not to be the end of Rin’s difficulties. On the contrary, it’s only the beginning.

The Poppy War seems to condense two or three books’ worth of story into one tight novel, whirling through its plot at a break-neck pace. Rin’s circumstances change rapidly and frequently, and she spends a huge amount of the story just trying to adapt to each new scenario and work out how to get what she wants out of it. And what she wants, incindentally, is to be the person in charge of her own life. Whatever other goals come and go, as she finds herself by turns fighting for her place in a highly competitive school, learning mysterious arts from a seemingly insane teacher and embroiled in vicious fights, Rin always wants first and foremost to be granted autonomy. And if nobody will allow that, she wants to become powerful enough that she can take it for herself.

For much of the story, Rin’s determination is single-minded, unwavering. When the conflicts she finds herself in become more complex, it’s clear she doesn’t know how to manage her own uncertainty, and Kuang explores this subtly and to great effect. I didn’t feel that all of the character work was so strong; while I enjoyed the supporting cast of characters, I felt many of them were poorly fleshed out, set up purely to be either allies or (more frequently) enemies.

Take for example the characters at Sinegard, the elite military school that Rin tests into against all the odds at the beginning of the story. All but a couple of her classmates (and a few of the teachers) immediately take against her due to her peasant background, in a way we’ve seen play out in innumerable fantasy schools or training grounds before. It’s nicely written, and entertaining despite the cliche, but the characters are just cookie-cutter prejudiced bullies. To her credit, Kuang takes us through the training sections of the story at the same whirlwind speed she applies to the rest of the plot, so even if you’re a little bored of reading about unpleasant rich kids at fantasy school (which, to be clear, I am emphatically not) you won’t have long to be unhappy about it.

There were a few characters I felt got more attention in the development stakes, namely Jiang and Altan, but even the ones I found a little two dimensional I enjoyed reading about. There was a lot of fun to be had in the interactions between characters, with snappy dialogue and playful banter aplenty. The book balances a light tone with some incredibly dark subject matter, especially in the first section, and I found myself laughing out loud several times while reading. At a certain point though the story takes a hard turn into the darkness, after which the humour, still present, takes on a much bleaker note.

I was warned when I bought the book that it was gory, and while for most of the book the graphic violence is used sparingly to underscore the shock of real combat, there were some truly harrowing scenes described towards the end of the book. While deeply unpleasant, and definitely not something I have the stomach for in the normal run of things, I don’t think it would be fair to call it gratuitous. This is a novel that grapples with genocide, the destructive power of the Gods and the depths of human evil. It was never going to be a pleasant read.

Despite the violence meaning I was sometimes reading at arm’s length, I could barely put this book down from the moment I started it. Its setting comes to life before your eyes, and the story moves along so smoothly that you can’t help but be swept along for the ride. Rin is a compelling main character; defiant and persistent but with an edge of self-doubt that makes it impossible not to relate to her.

The Poppy War is definitely unsuitable for younger readers, it contains explicit depictions of self-harm and extreme brutality, including some sexual violence. But the writing is frequently beautiful, the story is well constructed and it is truly epic. I would recommend this to readers who enjoyed Northern Lights, the Black Magician trilogy or who particularly appreciate the gritty realism of Game of Thrones.

Have you read The Poppy War? I want to know what you thought! Share your opinions in the comments.

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