The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Title: The Poppy War

Series: The Poppy War #1

Author: R.F. Kuang

Genre: Fantasy

Year: 2018

You humans always think you’re destined for things, for tragedy or for greatness. Destiny is a myth. Destiny is the only myth. The gods choose nothing. You chose. […]
At every critical juncture you were given an option; you were given a way out. Yet you picked precisely the roads that led you here.

Rin is a war orphan. When she aces the Keju, the prestigious exams that the Empire uses to find talented youth to foster at the academies, she thinks her life is changing for the better.
She has no idea of what’s awaiting her at Sinegard, the most elite of the academies. Shunned by her fellow students, years behind on some of her studies, and with a war just waiting to explode, she is forced over and over again to make choices that will shape the kind of person she becomes – and the person she will never be – to save herself and her country.

A closer look

This book was so good. You’ve probably heard of it a million times already if you are a fantasy reader, and probably even if you aren’t. The Poppy War is considered one of the best debut novel of 2018, and for good reason.

Rin is a war orphan from the second Poppy War; living with guardians who traffic in drugs and are only waiting to marry her off to increase their revenue, she knows that she’ll have to work hard to change her future.
That’s why she makes a proposal to her auntie: she will keep working for them but at the same time she will study hard for the Keju, the empire-wide exams that find the most talented youth to send off to the Academies. If she passes, she will be free. If she doesn’t, she will do as her guardians wish and marry.

It’s a shock when Rin actually aces the Keju and is admitted to Sinegard, the most elite of the Academies. Her troubles aren’t over, though; as a dark-skinned peasant from the poorer province of the empire, she is shunned by the other students and realises she has a lot to catch up before she can reach the level of the other first years, who have been training for Sinegard since childhood.
Between fights, lessons, and sacrifices, Rin discovers that she has a rare ability with the help of a seemingly insane teacher, just in time for what looks like the beginning of the third Poppy War.

This is just a taste of what the book is about. I tried to be as vague as possible, while also hopefully giving you an idea of just how much is packed into the story. It is part coming of age story, part school story, part military story, all wrapped up in a beautifully written dark book.
The history of this world is heavily inspired by the second Sino-Japanese war, one of the darkest periods in Chinese modern history. If you want an inkling of what that was all about, there’s a pretty long Wikipedia page that might help you out.

The countries of this world, Nikan and Mugen, are clearly modelled after China and Japan. There are also nods and references to Chinese and East Asian culture in general sprinkled in the novel. I have studied East Asian history and some of the culture when I was in university, but I am by no means an expert; still, it was fun to be able to place the references when I came upon them, and I’m sure there are loads of things that went over my head.

Back to the story, the plot is fast paced with not a moment of lull throughout; there’s always something happening, or something being discovered, and the book really flew by. The fact that the writing style is absolutely amazing is just a plus.

The characters are also really well done. Despite being written in third person, the narrator is so close to Rin that most of the times it feels just like being in her head. She is a stubborn person, ready to do whatever it takes to reach her goals, but under the toughness and sharp edges she wants to be a good person. Pity that she was born in a period of instability and on the brink of a war and, together with the people she encounters, these things will have a lot of weight on the kind of person she is becoming.

Her arc throughout the story is top notch. The hope of a new life when she is accepted to the academy, the disillusionment that follows, and then the war all collide to transform what could have been an incredible person in an unstable bundle of contrasting emotions and thoughts, and by the end I was left wondering what could possibly happen in the next two books. This one already feels like she changed so much – and to such extent – that I can’t begin to imagine what’s awaiting her in the sequels. Which I have already ordered, of course.

The secondary characters are also really well executed. Never during the novel I felt like they were just filling up space.
Rin’s Lore teacher, Jiang, is certainly one of the most memorable, with his addictions and his goofiness; at the same time though there’s always an aura of mystery about him, as if he were more than what he looks. Which, spoiler, he totally is. And it’s kind of great.

Another really interesting character is Altan, even though we get to know him better only in second half of the book. The island he comes from was inhabited by a race of incredibly strong warriors, and because of this it was targeted and destroyed by the enemy during the Second Poppy War. He is the last survivor of his people, and his rage and thirst for revenge are what fuel him throughout the story. Despite this, as Rin learns to know him better, a different side of him comes to light. Once again, characters are not just what they look like, and that’s what makes them more than words on a page.

In conclusion, this is an excellent debut novel. R. F. Kuang doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war and its consequences, so if you’re thinking about reading this book, know that it’s going to be dark – but never gratuitous.
There is also no love story, which is pretty refreshing for a fantasy novel in general. And the book is enjoyable both as a standalone (in my opinion) and as the start to a series. I can say that by the end all of my hypothesis about the sequel had been knocked off one by one. Everything I thought might happen in future instalments has already happened in this one book, and that’s why I think it was so satisfying. There’s no real cliffhanger, but the question of what is going to happen next hangs in the air.

Yes, this part of the adventure is done, so what now? I truly can’t wait to find out.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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