Have you ever had a hard time reviewing a book? Have you ever read a book you can’t make up your mind about? The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang is that book for me.
The Poppy War is set in a world inspired by 20th century China and is based on the second Sino-Chinese war. We have a brilliantly flawed protagonist – Runin Fang aka Rin – who is also a war orphan. She lives with her opium-smuggling relatives who not only treat her poorly but also want to marry her off to an import inspector who of course is “a gross old man”. Her only way to rewrite this preordained role is to try and get into Sinegard – the most prestigious military academy in the empire of Nikara.
Now one might assume that her troubles would end there but once she is inside this prestigious institution she has to deal with a new set of challenges. For example, surviving amidst the students from ‘reputable’ families who have been preparing to be a part for this institution their entire lives. Being mocked and looked down upon for her dark skin color and her southern accent. Through her training and tribulations, she ends up developing shamanic traits and the final act of the story has her fighting the inevitable war.
The world-building is quite minimal and if you’re looking for one in terms of high fantasy then you will be disappointed. I felt that the world Kuang creates is too close to reality and you’ll find that the similarities are uncanny.
I really enjoyed Rin’s character build up but the supporting characters seemed unattended. The sudden killing of multiple characters was also disappointing, especially those that I came to like and would have loved to see more of. Mind you that’s coming from someone who watched Game of Thrones. But I guess maybe that’s what war is about, “War is never about who’s right, but rather about who is left”.
Now I really wanted to LOVE this book. I liked it. I even felt an adrenaline rush through most parts. But once finished reading it, I was left underwhelmed. I thought that maybe it was because of the hype around this book. On thinking some more, maybe this is how one feels after the end of a war, all you can do is salvage whatever’s left. But the main issue for me was that maybe this book wasn’t meant to be a fantasy but rather historical fiction. Even so, the story’s history-to-fiction ration was more in favour of the former.
Lastly the main character is flawed which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but I wish Rin wasn’t shown to be so apathetic and indecisive to the point of frustration. As I say all of this I am also thinking that maybe all these flaws have been depicted intentionally. Maybe this is how unsettling war is.
Also, since I still have two more books left in the trilogy and maybe the only take away is to highlight the atrocities of the past and the horrid side of humanity, to remind us like any war fiction does that war is never a good idea.
So you see, I can’t rate this book though I am reviewing it. I am hoping that I will get to see a more confident Rin in the next two books, that the world building will make more sense and that a few characters will return from the dead.
The main question: would I recommend this book? Without a second thought I’d say definitely yes, but I would also suggest that you go into it without any expectations. Remember that this book is full of triggers ranging from self-harm to genocide and save it for another time if you’re not in the frame of mind to pick up something heavy.