Review: The Poppy War (The Poppy War #1) by R.F. Kuang

It is common knowledge that I am notoriously bad with Adult books. I’m not quite sure what it is, whether it’s that I simply cannot process or understand this umbrella genre of books or that the authors I keep trying are bad in general. So the fact that I finished an Adult book and actually came out on the other side immensely enjoying it is a victory in itself meriting 5 stars. Unfortunately, I cannot give The Poppy War all of those stars but can still award it a well respected 4 star rating. There was so much about this book that was simply good and it wasn’t because of jaw dropping twists, which is typically what can make a book good, but it’s mostly because of how much thought and purpose was found throughout the story. There was intention in every part, in every chapter, and with every character and all of that came together to craft such a mesmerizingly good story.

I cannot predict how good this particular review will be since it’s been about a couple of weeks since I actually finished the book but let’s see how this goes.

I think my favourite thing about The Poppy War is how there are so many strong thematic elements to it, particularly the idea of choice and free will. The thing with majority of Fantasy books is that the main protagonist is always this Chosen One archetype and the journey they embark on is something that’s either fated or founded in a prophecy or there are gods/some kind of higher being pulling the strings to put the hero where they’re supposed to be. But with The Poppy War, everything about Rin’s story and her journey is all because of her own choices. There’s a particular conversation near the end of the book, with a character I will not spoil, that really highlights this theme and shows her how her entire life is based on choice. She chose to study for the academy test, she chose to train at Sinegard, she chose to train under Jiang, and she chose to follow her commander. No one told her what to do or influenced her to take certain paths; everything Rin does in this book is because she alone made that choice. And I absolutely love seeing this discussion of choice and free will and being able to reflect on the book and understand how much of Rin’s hero journey is rooted in the idea of choice. I find this to be the most fascinating aspect of the book and I really think that’s what not only separates it from YA Fantasy, for example, but majority of Fantasy books in general.

Something I usually find with Adult books is that the writing is the hardest part for me to get over because you either have authors that are trying too hard to be Adult, what with throwing a swear word in every other sentence or shoving gratuitous sex in unnecessarily mixed with extremely detailed gore for little reason, but I felt that R.F. Kuang had such a strongly unique prose that made it such an easy book to find myself invested in. Simply put: I vibe with her writing. Never once did I feel like Kuang was trying too hard to get me to take her seriously as an Adult author because she wrote in such a way that spoke for itself. It felt like a mature story but there were times here and there where you’d find sarcastic or witty remarks, bringing some well needed humour and light to a relatively heavy story, again all without trying too hard. It flowed and felt completely natural, especially the dialogue, which was mostly my favourite part about Kuang’s writing. But the best example I have of this is how you have a character like Jiang, who is essentially an eccentric character and looked down on for being just that, will go on a tangent of being able to teach Rin how to be strong and how to fight and essentially be powerful, and just when you start taking him seriously he ends up bonking his head on a low tree branch. It’s seriousness with humour, meaningful conversations yet staying true to characters, and being able to get the story’s point across without being too pretentious. There is also such a strong presence of historical influence and, as we know, I love stories that are influenced by history and being able to pinpoint what Kuang is pulling from, whether it was from the Western influence on East Asia or the Opium Wars or even the relations between state and religion. I feel like it makes a reader want to go look up the history themselves and makes them want to learn, and that’s such a great takeaway from a book; Asian history is incredibly fascinating and this book proves it time and again. If this is how the first book goes, I cannot wait to see how the rest of it goes.

I think the last thing that makes this book great is its characters and how they all fit together in this big puzzle we’re all trying to figure out. Obviously we spend the most time with the protagonist, Rin, but it’s incredibly refreshing to see how incredibly flawed she is and isn’t the perfect Chosen One we often see in books. She’s not the smartest, not the fastest, and not the strongest, but she understands that enough to be able to make her surroundings work for her. She memorizes facts and answers to test well and she turns to using poppy seeds when meditations don’t work for her, and not once does she feel remorse for her loophole methods. I think it shows that, though incredibly flawed, Rin is resourceful and incredibly determined to reach her goals regardless of the path she takes. And much like Rin, majority of the characters are filled with flaws, even the ones who seem to be perfect and to have it all. I think that’s another theme that this book emphasizes, of how you never really know what’s beyond a person’s surface, and that’s showed sometimes with Rin but more so with Nezha and Altan. And that very fact is what helps someone like Nezha learn from mistakes and begin his character development, which I personally can’t wait to see more of. But with Altan, it makes you as the reader, and Rin, look beyond the surface and shows you that you may never really understand someone even if you think you do. I felt like Altan had such a complexity to his character and so many layers to his being and unfolding who he is was an incredible process.

Obviously since I gave this 4 stars, there’s something slightly wrong with it in my opinion. Not a blatant, “this is super bad” wrong but more of a personal nitpicking thing for me. Another thing we all know it that I am a stickler for structure and there was something that bothered me about the way this book was set up. Though there were three parts to this, the first part mostly emphasizing on Rin’s first year at the academy, the second part setting up the war and continuing the fight, and the third part ultimately introducing the next book, there was this weird lull with the first and second part that bothered me. In the last chapter of Part 1, we went through essentially two years of Rin’s life at the academy and while I don’t feel like her second year was all that important, I’m not a huge fan of how there was so much acceleration to get her past these two years. Should it have been bypassed completely? No because then I’d be more pissed. But should we either have a smaller part simply for those last two years rather than motoring through them in a single chapter? Perhaps. It just felt like there was a lot of accelerated timeline, which I personally hate, in this particular chapter and I wish there was either more of a division or more detail, I guess, because there was far too much going on for one single chapter. The second thing that bothered me was how in Part 2, we open up to a brand new character going through some kind of mission and then is killed by someone. I’m not going to spoil it but I didn’t like how we read about that and went through the rest of the book having that knowledge of what happened to that character while everyone continues to run around with this blind faith for that certain someone. It made me question my own judgement, not knowing if what happened actually happened, and while it didn’t quite feel like a traditional plot twist, it took away from any potential twist for the characters because as the reader you already knew about it. These are very Me problems that when I come across in any book I’m immediately and consistently bothered so while I don’t like it, someone else might be perfectly fine with it. It doesn’t make the book bad as a whole on its own merit but it’s simply why I need to decrease my personal rating.

All in all, this is one of the most fascinating Fantasy books I’ve read in the longest time and me being able to praise an Adult book is a true victory in itself. With such an intriguing plot that is embedded in moral greyness, constantly making the book stronger as it goes along, and writing that makes you want to continually read as opposed to forcing yourself through it, I can proudly say that I enjoyed The Poppy War so much. You can tell how much Kuang cares about this story as you read and that makes me want to care that much more. I’m a little scared to see how the rest of the trilogy plays out but am excited nonetheless.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
35887181
Hardcover, 530 pages
Published May 1st 2018 by Harper Voyager

Book Synopsis

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.

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