The Poppy War by R F Kuang
Book of the Month
I received an advanced reader copy of The Poppy War from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank R. F. Kuang and Harper Voyager for this opportunity.
Rin is a war orphan who works at her foster parents' shop and their main income is created by dealing drugs. Only just into her teenage years, Rin is offered a proposal to marry and bear children for an unattractive gentleman three times her age who has no redeeming qualities. She decides she needs to escape this presented and projected future and her only means of doing this is to study for the Keju - an examination where the top-50 students in the country that pass the test can train at the military educational establishment set in the empire's capital. Surprising everyone apart from herself she is successful and then whisked away by her tutor to the city and this is where Rin's adventure really starts.
Although the college sections are similar in design and structure to those depicted within novels such as The Name of the Wind and The Wizard of Earthsea, The Poppy War has a lot more in common with Anthony Ryan's Blood Song. This is a dark, brutal, gruesome and occasionally uncomfortable book to experience so readers should not think that because it features a school environment with best friends, bullies, and coming of age experiences that this is dumbed down like some fantasy adventures that feature such tropes.
The Poppy War is inspired by China's bloody 20th-century history and parallels between segments here and real events can be seen at certain points. The oriental take on fantasy is something that has intrigued me since I read Fonda Lee's - Jade City and similar to that tale Kuang's debut is complex, insightful, well-crafted and features certain characters who kick-ass at martial arts. The world building here is sublime, as is the depth of the nations history, religions and practices. There were many ways the author engineered the intricate details of her created world but my personal favourite was when the myths of the Trifecta were presented in the form of a shadow puppet show.
The characterisation and character development employed throughout this novel are exquisite. Written in the third person perspective, Rin is the only point of view character that we follow and to say that her character and personality change throughout the course of the narrative is an understatement. She is an excellent protagonist and shortly she may be mentioned alongside genre-defining characters such as Kvothe and Vaelin. There is quite a sizeable dramatis personae and too many standout characters to mention in this review. Notable mentions go to Jiang (the Lore master who might just be a little bit insane), Nezha (Rin's rival who is the beautiful son of a warlord and who should have a glorious military career), and Altan (the college's finest student who excels in all aspects and has never lost a fight). Also, the Cike are brilliant. They are almost like this worlds version of the X-Men.
Approximately the first half of the book is set in the school where students learn about five subjects including strategy, lore, and martial arts training. Three years later we reach the second half of The Poppy War which features skirmishes, battles, political indecision and some of the grimmest and most shocking scenes I've come across for a long time. One moment is particular stands out as being on par with the nightmare that was the hammer scene from Anna Stephen's Godblind. This story features plenty of deaths as well as torture, drug use, mutilation, implied rape, grotesque monsters and malevolent gods. The first third of the book doesn't really present this sort of darkness and despondency so I thought I'd make it clear in my review that this is a story that is very adult in nature. A good percentage of destruction, later on, is generated from this worlds magic where certain vessels can be assigned the power of the gods and wield it for their own means. As I'm sure you can imagine, this leads to ridiculously overpowered players that then can lead to complete madness.
2017's debut fantasy releases were some of the finest of recent years and it's great to know that Kuang has picked up the baton and is carrying on the trend and leading the charge in 2018. I can safely say that this will be the finest debut of 2018 and I'd be surprised if it isn't one of the top 3 books of the year full stop. Spectacular, masterclass, brilliant, awesome... All the complimentary buzzwords you can imagine don't quite do The Poppy War justice for how amazing it is. The only very minor criticism I have is that on the cover artwork Rin has a bow and I can't remember her using such a weapon in the book. That's my only negative. If you like dark adult fantasy then check out this masterpiece by grimdark's newest and perhaps darkest daughter.
9.4/10 - James Tivendale
R.F. Kuang’s “The Poppy War” is one of the most hardest-hitting and impressive debuts I’ve had the privilege of reading; it pulled me through an exhaustive range of emotion from which I haven’t yet recovered. The book explores the corruption of power, the lust for vengeance, and the darkest depths of humanity and savagery. It comments on the nature of war, religion, and social imbalance. It paints an all-too-real portrait of racial atrocities, drug dependence, and genocide. Yet it is compulsively readable and quietly educational as well. Kuang seems driven to shine a spotlight on humanity at its basest level, and what we find is unfortunately all too familiar.
These revelations are frightening for a fantasy novel, but even more disturbing when drawing comparisons to crises evident in our own recent history. This story has direct correlations with the first and second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, when the Japanese imperialists were responsible for the deaths of millions of civilians and POWs through deeds of human experimentation, starvation, chemical and biological warfare, and genocide. It was a horrifying and shameful period in human history, and it happened less than a century ago.
But don’t let these themes scare you away from picking this book up, as the story takes on a much less oppressive tone for the first two acts. The narrative follows Rin, a teenage war orphan who is assigned to live with adoptive parents who deal opium for a living. They plan to sell Rin to a man thrice her age who can pay her parents a large dowry, and Rin envisions a life of unhappiness and disgust unless she can somehow find a way out. She learns about a test that all students can take that would place them in universities across the country. Having no money, the only college that wouldn’t charge her tuition is the very best of the best: a military academy in Sinegard, the capital city of the Nikara empire. This poor, southern girl who is years behind in her education must sacrifice everything to gain a spot at this prestigious academy where only the sons and daughters of warlords and politicians attend. Although Rin passes the test, she quickly learns that her challenges are just getting started.
We spend the first half of the book following Rin’s progress and education in the studies of martial arts, lore, strategy, and other subjects that will prepare her for a high leadership role in the armed forces. But Rin is different than her peers; she has left her old life behind, and faces a homelessness and starvation if she doesn’t excel in her studies. She dedicates herself to learning as much as she can about the history of her empire, The First and Second Poppy Wars, and how an entire race of people were sacrificed just to gain allies in a conflict. She trains in a different form of combat than any of her other peers who have been fighting since they could stand. She starts to learn about the ancient art of shamanism, and how ingesting certain hallucinogens or opioids can help transcend her state of meditation towards communion with her gods.
Rin is an imperfect soul who is easy to root for, especially since it is plain to see how any one of us could make the same mistakes and errors of judgment in our own youth. She means well, and is not afraid to sacrifice anything for what she believes is right and just. This theme comes into play several times throughout the course of the book and helps to shape the type of person Rin feels she is fated to become. But the gods may scoff at ideas such as fate and destiny, and Rin and her peers are forced to make the most difficult decision of all: when faced with unspeakable horror, how far would you go to exact vengeance? Can acts of terror ever truly be justified?
Simply put, R.F. Kuang’s “The Poppy War” is a towering achievement of modern fantasy. Kuang writes in a descriptive and narrative style that presents many sides of an issue without trying to persuade the reader into thinking which path is the “correct” one, if one such exists. As the book descends into its bleak final act, the connection we’ve built with Rin and her companions is put to the test. It is a testament to Kuang’s skill as a writer to establish such a strong connection with her protagonists that the impact of the events in third act hit as hard as they do. There aren’t any real complaints I have about this book, which is wholly impressive considering how early it is in the author’s young career. This story weaves recent Chinese history into an emotionally chaotic, brilliantly-told grimdark fantasy that is impossible to forget. Read it.
9.3 / 10 - Adam Weller
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