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

The Poppy War is a very strong beginning to a fantasy series. The main character and the cast of characters are fantastically realised. The world is a breath of fresh air in the genre, and the magic system is intriguing, but perhaps not totally original. If you like grimdark, then pick up this book.

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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. -Goodreads

My Review

My Rating: 4/5

SPOILER FREE

This book took me by surprise! I started the first couple of chapters thinking I’d read only a couple a day but ended up reading 40% in the first day. Two days later and I finished it.

Rin is our main character and from the beginning you have to love her. She’s living with the Fangs and is looking for a way out. Her drive is relentless and it’s amazing to follow her. Throughout the book, she learns and grows a huge amount, and her drive only increases.

The world itself took a while to be realised. Like with sci-fi books from the 80s, the plot seems to be the focus of the book. The difference, however, is that all of the characters are well realised and developed. The setting was different to the standard medieval-Europe-but-fantasy, and it was so refreshing! Even the little things like food lore and names were different, and they really made the story come to life.

This is certainly a grimdark fantasy novel. The first part of the book is pretty standard: there are some dark themes but nothing difficult to read. Parts 2 and 3 had some much gritter scenes, and a couple of horrific ones, so if you don’t want to see any graphic violence in your fantasy, I wouldn’t read this!

Overall, The Poppy War is a very strong beginning to a fantasy series (trilogy?). The main character and the cast of characters are fantastically realised. The world is a breath of fresh air in the genre, and the magic system is intriguing, but perhaps not totally original. If you like grimdark, then pick up this book.

(Possible) SPOILER SECTION

I was taken completely by surprise by Rin’s arc in this book! She began as the typical peasant/farmgirl sort of character, but soon grew powerful (both in mind and physically). The ending however, with her wiping out an entire country, was something I was convinced all the way through that she would never do, that she would find another way out of the situation, but when it happened I had to take a moment. I like characters to be neither good nor bad – but Rin’s final act could be seen as evil. I’m excited to see where her character arc will go in the next book. Perhaps she will have a redemption arc? Right now, I think she is going to die in the third book (coming out later this year) – that’s my theory, anyway.

The graphic descriptions of the city that was destroyed were horrific! I had bile in my throat when they were searching for survivors, but it was even worse when they found the rape victim. It really changed the tone of the book and I felt like I was reading a different book than I had started. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did pull me out of the book a little bit.

Finally, I just want to talk about the time jumps. In two paragraphs (approximately) we skipped two years of study. I can see why that happened as it meant Rin had completed her training (mostly) and we could get onto the war itself. This did, however, cause the story to change completely, yet again. This also reminded me of classic sci-fi, but I think it works with this book as it happens a lot.

I really enjoyed this first book and I’m looking forward to reading the second before the third comes out later this year.

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