One of my goals this year was to read more books by Asian authors (and just to read more in general), so when I heard about The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang, I knew it would be a great novel to add to my reading list.
To make this review easier to read, I’m going to try to say as much as I can without spoiling the ending (but I’ll put a little warning if I need to).
R.F. Kuang tells the story of war orphan Fang Runin, or Rin as she’s mostly referred to, in a war-torn country on the verge of another war. Rin was living with foster parents, who are opioid dealers, in the Rooster Province before testing into the top military academy in Nikan — Sinegard Academy — and leaving them to train. The students train to be selected into 12 divisions to work for the Empress as the military force.
In terms of genre, it’s a dark fantasy war novel. However, as someone who isn’t always drawn to those books, this was still a great read for the intensity of the story. I’m a big fan of dystopian novels, and I felt like I got a bit of that in this novel. The Poppy War had the description of a new world in combination with a sharp social divide, which is a common theme in dystopian novels. I loved the premise and this other world which is loosely based on the real-life Second Sino-Japanese War during World War II. It’s quite a dark story that is rooted in the war and the action that takes place during it — whether that be physical action and fighting or actions like opium use that can give shamanic powers.
The Poppy War is also a story about the divides along the lines of class, race, and gender. Rin’s main conflict when she gets to Sinegard is that she comes from a province of low-class and darker-skinned people, while the school is mostly wealthy, fairer-skinned Nikara. A lot of the students see her as lesser-than and unworthy to be at the school, which is a familiar concept in not only many works of media but also real life. Rin is also one of a few women at the academy, so she struggles to find friendship with others until later. While this parallel might seem overdone, I liked it in the book as a point of resiliency for her character because it was a stepping-off point for her finding out she has powers.
I also liked the elements of Chinese culture and any parallels to history, but knowing anything about the war the book is loosely based on is not necessary for following the storyline. It was interesting to see how the story pulls from the Chinese Zodiac for the province names and this nation that is modeled off of the East Asian region has some of the same problems that exist in the real world, such as the opioid trade and crisis.
My favorite character is probably Kitay or Rin. I don’t always like the main character of novels, but she has a fiery personality that I appreciate. Kitay becomes one of Rin’s closest friends because he doesn’t ridicule or bully her like many of the others do, and I liked his rationality and kindness.
Minor spoiler: the novel takes a turn about halfway through when the Federation attacks Nikan and we see the spark of another Poppy War while Rin comes into her powers to summon the Phoenix. With that, I appreciated that the entire novel was not just at the school, so the story did not become one about high school cliques. The action and fantasy elements also pick up in the second half, for the better, which kept me the most engaged and ready to read book two.