Review | The Poppy War by RF Kuang

The Poppy War is a new fantasy novel written by RF Kuang. This is the first book in, at time of publishing this post, a two-part series about a dark alternate world where magic and gods are real and a girl leaves home to study at a school only open for the best students in the realm.

SUMMARY

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 colour, 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.

MY HISTORY WITH FANTASY BOOKS

I think The Poppy War might be my favourite book of 2019. As of writing this post, it is also currently the only book I’ve read in 2019. Despite that, I think The Poppy War is still going to be quite high in my list of favourites. RF Kuang has written a fantasy book that I loved and wanted to keep reading and that’s really quite an achievement.

Cover of The Poppy War by RF Kuang

Sometime around 2016-17, I stopped reading fantasy books because I got bored with them. I had read a number of fantasy books and found them all to have the same cliches. Young person leaves home to save the world, there’s magic, usually some elves or dwarves.

It got to the point where I felt like I was reading the same story just with some different names and a slightly changed magic system. I wasn’t enjoying the fantasy books I did read because I felt like I had already read them. So I stopped reading fantasy books.

MY THOUGHTS ON THE POPPY WAR

The Poppy War is the first fantasy book I’ve read in two years. As you can guess this makes it a little special. The things which really intrigued me about the book was the setting. The world that The Poppy War is set in reminded me quite a bit of China.

RF Kuang is a Chinese-American so that explains the setting. The pacing was also very good in The Poppy War. The plot moves along at a good pace so you don’t have time to get bored. It always felt like there was something new and exciting happening which made me want to read more.

A good example of this was the first half of the book. The plot is a typical hero’s journey type tale. Rin takes an exam which gets her into the top school in the realm she lives in. The purpose of this school is to train students to go on and be battle commanders and fighters. The sorts of people who lead armies.

A little like Harry Potter?

The first half of The Poppy War book reminded me quite a bit of the Harry Potter series. But it was like the first half of the book contained Philosopher’s Stone all the way to Deathly Hallows. The second half was The Battle of Hogwarts. The Poppy War and Harry Potter have the same basic plot elements, but it was as it The Poppy War only showed you the really important bits and went straight to the big fight at the end.

I need to mention the magic system in The Poppy War because I found it really interesting. Rather than have magic appear from nowhere, in The Poppy War only certain people are able to perform magic.

They do this by travelling to another realm where they as to borrow powers from their gods. There is also quite a high price to pay for this ability, the magic users are affected by their communion with the other world. It was refreshing to see a magic system where action has consequences.

Rin the anti Mary-sue.

Rin’s characterisation in the story really interested me because she was almost an anti-Mary Sue. Rin would do something, I would think she was doing really well. Then someone more knowledgeable would come along and point out how terrible she was at that task.

It was a nice change to characters who are instantly brilliant at one specific task without and experience. Harry learning Quidditch in the first Potter book was a good example of this.

It was nice to have a character with faults, Rin makes mistakes and she ultimately pays for them. The book goes in depth on how Rin’s choices affect others and the world around them. I think this was really important with the mythology aspect of the story. Rin’s actions can’t be blamed on anyone but herself. No matter how much she tries anyway.

The one problem I did have with The Poppy War was the ending. I do have some theories about this ending but I would rather read The Dragon Republic before talking about them. Suffice to say, I thought the story ended in a strange place. It didn’t wrap up the plot.

The last 10 percent of the book was setting up the next story rather than finishing the one it was currently telling. At the moment I feel like The Poppy War is just one half of a longer story. It this does turn out to be the case I would have preferred a longer book. Rather than the plot ending in an awkward place.

FINALLY

The Poppy War is a really intriguing new fantasy novel. If you’re a fan of books like The Killing Moon by NK Jemisin and Sabriel by Garth Nix this is a must read. It was good enough to make me read a fantasy book for the first time in two years so that’s really saying something.

2 thoughts on “Review | The Poppy War by RF Kuang

  1. I’d be interested to read this, though when I saw the title I immediately thought it was a non-fiction book on the poppy war in China. Judging by the comment on the front it does draw somewhat from that but the fantasy element shifts it away somewhat. I think I’ll still add it to the wishlist though.
    I get what you mean about fantasy books as well. It’s finding the ones that stand out and that are also well written. Battle Mage was one I really enjoyed. It has an older protagonist in the first book and the book itself if really well written.

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