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The Poppy War

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A brilliantly imaginative talent makes her exciting debut with this epic historical military fantasy, inspired by the bloody history of China’s twentieth century and filled with treachery and magic, in the tradition of Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.

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 color, 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.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

545 pages, ebook

First published May 1, 2018

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About the author

R.F. Kuang

15 books24.8k followers
Rebecca F. Kuang is a Marshall Scholar, translator, and award-winning, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Poppy War trilogy and Babel: An Arcane History, among others. She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford; she is now pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale. She is rarely here, except to leave occasional adoring reviews for books she really loved.

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Profile Image for Petrik.
654 reviews39.9k followers
August 1, 2020
ARC provided by the publisher—Harper Voyager—in exchange for an honest review.

I have no doubt this will end up being the best fantasy debut of the year. No no, scratch that understatement. Ladies and gentlemen, let me present to you a review for The Poppy War, a book that will go down as one of the best grimdark/military fantasy debuts of all time.

Once in a while, there comes a book that you just know will be a fantastic book just from the premise or the cover; this was one of those books for me. I’ve been eyeing this book ever since I stumbled upon the gorgeous attention-grabbing cover by Jung Shan. (Seriously, check out her artworks. They’re incredible.) Reading that the book is highly inspired by Second Sino-Japanese War also the Rape of Nanking—please look this up if you don't know about it so you’ll have an idea of how dark the book will get—sparked my interest even more. However, although I had a good feeling about this debut, I certainly didn’t expect it to be THIS incredible. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that this is literally THE best grimdark/military fantasy debut I've ever read; even better than The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie or Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher, and this author only turns 21 years old this year! How awesomely talented is she!?

Before I begin my long review, I will clarify that I’m an Asian and my review for this book will be affected by my experience growing up as one. Then, I need you to consider these two questions:

1. Do you enjoy or are you okay with reading books with a lot of violence? Because this book contains plenty of vividly brutal scenes. The author doesn’t pull any punches and the violence was handled splendidly, not only for the purpose of showing the horror and tragedy of war but also to let these scenes become a huge part of characters’ developments.

2. If the answer to question one is an absolute yes, I’ll ask you this: "are you ready for this book to go into your favorites of all time shelf?" because there’s an incredibly high chance that it WILL happen.

The Poppy War is a debut by R.F. Kuang and it's a coming-of-age grimdark military fantasy. It's a book about empires, drugs, shamanism, and gods, and it's highly inspired by Second Sino-Japanese War, which is one of the darkest and bloodiest periods in Chinese history. I grew up learning about this war and it gave me great satisfaction to read an epic fantasy book inspired by it; one that was written exceptionally well, too. Considering the root of inspiration for the book, it's obvious that there will be a lot of allusions to China and Japan (I’ll get into them more later) and that this will be a violent book. This is not a YA book; there are a lot of scenes that are definitely only appropriate for adults to read and there are tons of content warnings (I’ll list them at the end of my review) in part III. This is also not a happy-go-lucky story to read. Also, this is literally the first time I’ve read a fantasy book written by a female author that doesn’t feature ANY romance in it. (Thank God!)

“If there is a divine creator, some ultimate moral authority, then why do bad things happen to good people? And why would this deity create people at all, since people are such imperfect beings?”


As a Chinese myself, I have my own reasons for believing that The Poppy War is an Asian inspired coming-of-age grimdark military fantasy done absolutely right with finesse. Part I (roughly 40%) of the book may lead you to think this will be strictly an epic/high fantasy with a complete focus on learning, but this isn’t really true. Yes, the story does start with our main character, Fang Runin (Rin), learning tons of skills and forming friendships in a military academy called Sinegard. However, the storyline immediately took a different approach and became a complete grimdark/military fantasy in Part II and III. This won’t be a situation like Kvothe from The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss where after two installments he’s still in the University (I love this series so much though). Story structure wise, this book actually reminds me a lot of Blood Song by Anthony Ryan (another of my favorite debuts of all time), where the first half revolves around the character in a battle school and the second half revolves more around war and battles. This book alone feels like a trilogy in itself due to the sheer amount of monumental events that take place. Kuang did what a lot of authors try to do in the scope of a trilogy within the span of ONE book. Kuang’s prose was easy to read, simple, and most importantly, VERY engaging. Her writing never gets in the way of her story and it was truly compelling to read.

I need to give another reminder that part III in particular was filled with brutal scenes. These scenes are written exceptionally well; the author clearly shows the horrors of war and please do remember, like I said before, these scenes aren’t just there for the sake of making the book darker. The scenes are all there for the purpose of the story, characters development, and world building. In fact, this book just wouldn’t hold the same powerful impact without these scenes. The pacing was also brilliant. There wasn’t any chapter that bored me, none whatsoever. This is truly a story with a fine balance of heart, emotion, brutality, and action scenes that were only possible because of how magnificently written the author wrote all the characters, action sequences, and world-building.

“Children ceased to be children when you put a sword in their hands. When you taught them to fight a war, then you armed them and put them on the front lines, they were not children anymore. They were soldiers.”


Rin has seriously become one of the best female heroines I’ve ever had the chance to encounter. She’s a highly well-developed character, multi-faceted and simply kickass. Her rise from a mere peasant, oppressed and hated by everyone because of the color of her dark skin and her low status, to becoming what she has to be as the story progressed. This was one of the most well-written developments of a heroine or any character I’ve ever read. She makes brutally tough choices, she rises to any challenge that comes her way, and she never gives up. She’s fierce, she’s badass, and she demonstrates that being a strong woman character doesn’t only mean being physically powerful but mentally powerful, as well. Even though we see the story unfolds solely from Rin’s perspective in third person narration, the author does a fantastic job in making sure we’re really inside Rin’s head at all times. At one point, I actually forgot that I was reading the book in third person point of view as Rin’s character and personality were so well explored that I felt like her story was being told in first person POV. Besides that, all the other supporting characters' personalities were so well fleshed out because Part I was used VERY effectively to establish the characters’ introductions and world-building, making rooms for developments in the second half despite the story being in the middle of all the chaos. There’s always something new to discover on every page, and no words are wasted.

No military fantasy will ever reach greatness without intricate war tactics or extraordinary action scenes, and this book simply scored wonderfully on both counts. Every action sequence, whether it’s the martial arts battle or the magic system, was vividly written. The scale and scope of the action relentlessly escalate with each page turned. The magic users in this book are called Shaman—those who commune with the Gods to use their power—and Kuang did a terrific job researching Shamanism. Coincidentally, during my time reading this book, I received an email from one of my favorite artists, Noah Bradley, on his new art piece for Magic: the Gathering and somehow, it completely fits some of the action scenes in this book. Check out this picture below to give you an idea of how wildly the action scenes escalated.

Picture: Jaya’s Immolating Inferno by Noah Bradley



Lastly, I want to talk about the world-building. The history in the world of this book is filled with constant warfare, and this is also where the Asian influences really prevailed. There are TONS of Chinese and Asian influences in this book; I’m going to mention only a few of them here so you can experience the rest on your own:

-The provinces in this book are named after the twelve Chinese Zodiacs.
-The four cardinal mythological Gods are named exactly after the same Four Symbols of Chinese constellations creatures: the White Tiger of the West (Byakko), the Black Tortoise of the North (Genbu), the Azure Dragon of the East (Seiryu), and the Vermilion Bird of the South (Suzaku).
-The creator of the military tactics book named Principles of War in the story is called Sunzi, obviously named after the famous Sun Tzu and his Art of War.
-I’m a Buddhist (I think this is the first time I mention my religion in a review) and I’m pretty sure that Kuang used the name Bodhidharma intentionally to harken to Buddhism. In Buddhism, Bodhi means enlightenment and dharma means cosmic law. Considering the nature of Shamanism in this book, this naming and its meaning is very appropriate.
-Ki derives from Qi/Chi which means life force.
-Federation of Mugen, the name of the group of antagonists in this book, in Japanese means Infinite/Fantasy/Dream and they resembled the Japanese code of war where they are simply tools for the Emperor to use.
-Just one look at the map and you’ll also know that the world is based on China and Japan.
-Then there’s also talk of the legend of Monkey King from Journey to the West.

Believe me, I’m holding myself back here; I’m pretty sure I found almost all the Asian influences in this book and I could talk about them in detail but I want you to experience them for yourself too. I spent four hours writing this review and it has been long enough already. In fact, this is actually my second longest review of all time. I really wish I could talk about how amazing this book is but I have to make sure my review is spoiler-free enough for readers to experience this debut with maximum results. You simply have to read and experience this greatness for yourself.

The Poppy War is an astounding debut and one of the greatest starts to a series I’ve ever read. It’s a shining treasure of fantasy, literature, history, and culture. R.F. Kuang is truly a new author to watch. If this doesn’t become a one-hit wonder and she continues writing as her career, I have absolutely no doubt that her name will be up there with the likes of Robin Hobb and N.K. Jemisin, and maybe even better. I’m already waiting for the second book eagerly. I don’t even know how Kuang will top this debut; it’s a magnificently written debut that will stay in the heart of readers. By this point in my reviewing career, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to my followers that I’m quite stingy with giving a full five-star rating, but this book simply deserves a full five stars.

The Poppy War is a book truly worth every second of your time. It’s a profound blending of history into military fantasy. It’s a relentlessly tension-packed book. Rin will capture your heart, embrace it. The Poppy will make you high, accept it. The War will break you, face it. The Poppy War will most likely be included in your favorite books of all-time list, get it. Come May, buy and read this superlative page turner immediately. This is the beginning for a new queen of fantasy and you should consider yourself damn lucky to have the chance to witness it.

The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

Trigger Warnings: Rape, self-harm, drug abuse, genital mutilations, and many more. Basically, you name it and there's a chance it's here.

Official release date: May 1st, 2018 (US) and May 3rd, 2018 (UK).

You can pre-order the book HERE!

You can find this and the rest of my Adult Epic/High Fantasy & Sci-Fi reviews at BookNest
Profile Image for chai ♡.
321 reviews150k followers
August 11, 2022
The Poppy War is a historical military fantasy grounded in the bloody history of China’s 20th century in which Rin—a dark-skinned war orphan from the rural south—has fixed her heart on passing the Empire-wide placement test and attending the most prestigious military academy in Nikan, as a desperate lunge at the hope of escaping the gruesome inevitability of an arranged marriage.

A year at Sinegard of her rival classmates—all heirs of the Warlords and the wealthy and privileged—telling her to cease the folly of imagining herself their equal only gave Rin’s determination a more savage edge, and soon Rin learns, with the aid of her seemingly insane and much-disdained teacher, that she possesses a lethal aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism.

But the chain of wonders and horrors hadn’t ended with her discovery: the Nikans had lived with the certainty that sooner or later the Federation of Mugan would come and blood would flow, and when they did, Rin finds herself assigned to a company of the Cike—oddball misfits with shamanic powers—fighting for her country’s very survival. Through their shared heritage and a connection to a perilous divinity, Rin glimpses the world as her Commander—Altan—sees it: made simple by the righteousness and fury that were the legacy of their unjustly murdered people. And it made a good whetstone upon which to sharpen her own rage. Rin is determined to win this war and do whatever it takes to ensure that her country would never again be forced to its knees.

But just how many of those unavoidable choices will result in unforgivable consequences?

“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”

To be honest, summing up the plot of The Poppy War does it a huge disservice. For one thing, it unfurls into at least three books' worth of plot, but without ever feeling rushed or anything less than sure-footed and scrupulous in its exploration of character and setting. This is a dazzling debut painted by an inventive hand that takes hold and doesn’t let go. It’s full of imaginative flair, mad entombed gods, truths too heavy for the hearts, and a high-stakes quest for revenge—blending magical elements with a culturally vibrant cast of characters and creating a shadowy world dripping with blood and revenge, in which our fierce, head-strong heroine must claw her way to the top of a deadly pecking order. The author also created secondary characters that were just as richly crafted and multidimensional so that each one gives you a tinge of pain when they go.

This is not a book for the faint of heart. The Poppy War is a wide array of unpleasant possibilities. My mind was unwinding the tangled threads with tattered patience, following each thread from one end to another through a thicket. The author is so good at building tension and sitting tone and once the action gets going, she only delights in twisting the knife deeper and deeper. I never knew in which parts to be elated and terrified, and I continuously felt the caution of wondering whether everything was a trick, or another lie. My expectations were so uprooted and jumbled that I was constantly forced to sit rapt with attention just to get my bearings.

But what truly snagged at me the most is waking up to the gruesome horrified realization that the author’s depiction of the war between Nikan and Mugen was strongly influenced by the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s, and specifically the Nanjing Massacre (also known as the Rape of Nanking). There’s sadly nothing too far-fetched or too unbelievable about the horrors in this book and I just can't hold the reality of it all in my head without stirring a war in me between grief and utter disbelief.

“Children ceased to be children when you put a sword in their hands. When you taught them to fight a war, then you armed them and put them on the front lines, they were not children anymore. They were soldiers.”

Rin’s character radiated such an extraordinary vitality and her arc was nothing short of astounding—the years that stretched between the book’s beginning and its ending feeling impossibly vast. Everything Rin was, everything she’s become, grew out of the carnage of her people. Anger and indignation carved away everything else inside her—doubt, fear, embarrassment—leaving room for nothing else, and her will was a blade forged by the sight of her country being whittled down one small piece of itself at a time, despised and taken advantage of.

I felt her every sorrow and anger and disappointment and so much loss with a keenness that often forced me to exclamation, to stamping my feet or clutching my book to my chest. And then she meets Altan and together, their wrath ignited, impossible to quell—carving through their minds and pushing everything out of its way.

Altan’s life has been a sequence of monsters one after another tossing him about to suit their whims, and it all eventually twisted into wild distorted rage and thwarted fury. He and Rin were two hollowed-out halves of a whole, two allegiances doing battle but the one that has been sewn into their blood since birth winning out, because they would always be the last remaining survivors of their kind, and that has become a truth that both guarded and isolated them.

And as much as I tried to take heart from their scattered successes, it was precious little to take heart from when it’s matched by horror at its costs and the knowledge that they both had finally become the worst of what they had always had the potential to be. Especially when I still can't shake off the feeling that all the characters are merely pawns in a very treacherous game.

“But I warn you, little warrior. The price of power is pain.”

Equal parts heartbreaking, and thoroughly satisfying, The Poppy War is the fantasy novel I feel I've been waiting two lifetimes and a half for. So clear your schedule before picking it up—you won't want to put it down!
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,921 reviews290k followers
May 23, 2018
“But I warn you, little warrior. The price of power is pain.”

Holy hell, what did I just read??

➽ A fantasy military school
➽ A rich world based on modern Chinese history
➽ Shamans and gods
➽ Detailed characterization leading to unforgettable characters
➽ Adorable, opium-smoking mentors

That's a basic list, but this book is all of that and SO MUCH MORE. I know 100% that The Poppy War will be one of my best reads of 2018.

Isn't it just so great when you find one of those books that completely drags you in, makes you fall in love with the characters, and demands that you sit on the edge of your seat for every horrific, nail-biting moment of it? This is one of those books for me. And I must issue a serious content warning: this book explores some very dark themes. Proceed with caution (or not at all) if you are particularly sensitive to scenes of war, drug use and addiction, genocide, racism, sexism, ableism, self-harm, torture, and rape (off-page but extremely horrific).

Because, despite the fairly innocuous first 200 pages, the title speaks the truth: this is a book about war. All of its horrors and atrocities. It is not sugar-coated, and it is often graphic. The "poppy" aspect refers to opium, which is a big part of this book. It is a fantasy, but the book draws inspiration from the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Rape of Nanking.

It begins with one of my favourite things: a downtrodden orphan attends a fantasy boarding school. However, Rin doesn't get to attend her school by being "chosen" or "special". She works her ass off studying for the Keju test, which allows her to go to the prestigious Sinegard - the best military school in the country. I absolutely love the message this book sends about the merits of hard work and perseverance over genetics and natural specialness. Nothing is handed to Rin on a plate.

This first part is much lighter than the rest of the book, but I enjoyed it immensely. And there are still many challenges to be faced in these early chapters. Rin must go up against school bullies and racist teachers who don't want a backwater war orphan in their classes. But she also encounters friendship and delightfully quirky teachers who like to get high on opium. And secrets. Secrets like that of the shamans who can conjure gods and use their powers - but those are just a myth, right?

But there's trouble brewing outside the school's walls. War is coming and Rin and her classmates will be put to the test again and again.
If she went with him, she would help him to unleash monsters. Monsters worse than the chimei. Monsters worse than anything in the Emperor's Menagerie-- because these monsters were not beasts, mindless things that could be leashed and controlled, but warriors. Shamans. The gods walking in humans, with no regard for the mortal world.

This is where things get very dark. The strong world-building and carefully-crafted characters set us up to care even more when the action really kicks in and lives are threatened. It is the very opposite of the "mindless action scenes" I have been complaining about recently in fantasy novels. I cared so deeply about the characters that the action scenes were extremely tense and terrifying.

I feel like my heart was pounding for the majority of this fantastic story. I can hardly recall the last time I was this engrossed in a book, and I am so so glad there will be more books to come. It's just a perfect blend of action, memorable characters, vividly-imagined setting and a look at humanity at its very worst. There's no romance, but there is a wonderful enemies-to-friends relationship that I can't wait to read more about.

I am so very excited about this series and seeing where the author takes us next.

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Profile Image for Emma.
970 reviews956 followers
September 25, 2019
I'm not going to lie, I struggled with this one. Right up to about 45% in I was wondering how the hell anyone was giving this 5 stars - not only was it not grimdark, it was borderline/actual YA, and a rather blatant rip off of The Name of the Wind to boot, including but not limited to: super clever, good at EVERYTHING main character who gets a place at top university/college and proceeds to be trained/confused/challenged by quirky professor/lore master who is the only one who believes in/can do a specific type of magic etc etc. One of the first bits of magic he shows her is even how he can bend the air to his will. Hmmm. It's all school antics, with particular OTTness when one rude comment on the day of induction escalates a chance meeting into two characters becoming immediate mortal enemies. On top of that she nukes her womb because she has her first period- interesting choice, to make women useful only when we're neutered. Anyway, I'm not entirely knocking this part of the book, for all its faults it was the best bit.

Then you get book 2 and the violence/action levels go up a bit as the war hits and the school yard is left in the past. But Rin is hard to get on with, she's intensely childish and it's already clear that she wants power more for her own sake. She's jealous of her commander because he has more firepower than her and is even more dangerously reckless than Kvothe. She strops around for the entire book, increasingly losing any agency to emotional reactionary outbursts. The less said about book 3 the better, the stupidity of the decision making by Rin and her commander is on another level. The last two sections epitomise epic immaturity on the part of pretty much everyone, the only reason this isn't YA is because of the way violence is gratuitously used to up the levels. Sure, this is what happens in war, this is the kind of stuff that's happening now all over the world, but the levels of brutality do not fit the level of the rest of the story. Even in books where it's essentially a death arena (Red Rising/ Catching Fire), you didn't get the author lovingly describing (TRIGGER warning for extreme violence) . You also get a female character not seen since the first book brought back just so she can detail her repeated rape. It's the kind of stuff you get in horror, not fantasy and often not even in real grimdark. (This is not the novel to read for female empowerment despite having an apparently strong, female lead.) It feels more like someone wrote a coming of age/school story but wanted a bit more publicity so used the savagery to spice it up a bit. War is brutal, and yes use it so you can make people aware of just how sadistic and monstrous people can be when normal rules are destroyed, but you have to make it fit your narrative....It started all Harry Potter and ended with Saw.

The one thing that made the book for me was the incredible worldbuilding, it was excellent to have a Chinese and Japanese basis for the terrain as well as the historical and mythical past. If it didn't have that, I'm not sure it would even have got the two stars. I won't be reading any more.


ARC via Netgalley
Profile Image for Rick Riordan.
Author 312 books397k followers
January 20, 2020
You think I torture my characters? Pffft. I am a rank amateur compared to R.F. Kuang! Set in an alternate Asia and inspired by the Opium Wars and 19th Century colonialism in China, The Poppy War is the story of Rin, a small-town orphan whose only chance to escape poverty and an oppressive arranged marriage is to score top marks on the government’s exams and earn a place at Sinegard Academy, where the Nikara Empire’s best and brightest are trained for leadership. Imagine a combination of West Point, Oxford and Hogwarts, and if that sounds intriguing, it is! Just don’t get too attached to the place, because Rin’s training at Sinegard is only the beginning of our story. Nikara (think Qing dynasty China), a vast but disorganized empire with out-of-date technology and many warring internal factions, is on the verge of war with its old nemesis the Mugen Federation (think Imperialist Japan). Rin and a few other ragtag misfits with an aptitude for shamanist magic may be the only secret weapon that can stop Mugen from completely destroying their homeland. The problem is the type of magic Rin summons cannot easily be controlled. It could drive her crazy, take her over completely, or, you know, possibly start Armageddon. But other than that, I’m sure everything will be fine!

Not really. Though the beginning of the book may read like the fantasy narrative we all know and love — obscure girl goes through training to discover she is the Chosen One — Kuang subverts that narrative and quickly turns our expectations upside-down. She shows us how sinister a training academy can be, how it can be used for nefarious purposes, and how easily the teacher-student relationship can turn abusive and traumatizing. Who are the good guys here? Are there any? Kuang gives us no easy answers, but she lets us feel sympathy for our young protagonist Rin and her comrades. The cruelty and horror of war are vividly described, so be prepared for violence — graphic and awful, but entirely appropriate to the narrative. The big question becomes what Rin will choose. Is victory worth the price of her soul? No one is spared in this book. Everyone is beat up, orphaned, traumatized, killed, gravely injured, driven insane, dehumanized, abused and/or tortured. I loved it! I mean . . . I didn’t love the horrors described, or the vast amount of suffering, but the stakes were real, the story was grimly compelling, and the characters stayed with me long after I finished the book. Highly recommended. Now I am going to take a deep cleansing breath and prepare myself for more painful enjoyment (enjoyable pain?) in Kuang’s two sequels!
Profile Image for R.F. Kuang.
Author 15 books24.8k followers
February 24, 2018
Hi, there!

THE POPPY WAR is my book, so I'm obviously a bit biased. I wrote it over three months during the winter of 2015, signed with an agent in February 2016, and sold the book to Harper Voyager during my birthday weekend in May 2016. It's been nearly two years since then, so I'm terribly excited for it to finally go out in the world!

I'm going to use this space to tell you a little about THE POPPY WAR in case you're wondering whether you might enjoy reading it. This book is not a romance story. This is not a YA fantasy school story (sorry. I love those too.) Yes, there's a school, and we learn some things at the school, but please don't let that description deceive you as we leave that setting quite quickly.

This is, as I've always conceived it, a war story. It draws heavily on the Second Sino-Japanese war which–if you know anything about Asia–was one of the darkest and bloodiest moments in Chinese history. It grapples with the Rape of Nanjing. It deals heavily with opium and drug use. (Opium was a source of Chinese weakness. This book asks what would have happened if opium were instead a source of shamanic power.) This book is primarily about military strategy, collapsing empires, mad gods, and the human ability to make awful, ruthless decisions. It's about how dictators are made.

To be entirely frank, if you're turned off by violence, I might pick up a different book.

But! If you liked Avatar the Last Airbender but always wished it were a little darker and more fucked-up, you might like this. I think everyone writes, unconsciously or not, from the sources they loved, and this book ended up being my creative smorgasbord of ATLA, Ender's Game, The Grace of Kings, and Game of Thrones. I'm not saying THE POPPY WAR will necessarily read like those books. But geopolitical dramas mixed with brutally cruel choices is something I loved about all of those works, and I really hope that's reflected in the writing.

Thanks for stopping by, and I really hope you enjoy the book <3 <3 <3
Profile Image for Emily (Books with Emily Fox).
525 reviews56.7k followers
July 9, 2018
Hands down Best Fantasy of 2018!

This was such an amazing read and cannot wait to get my hands on the rest of the trilogy. The books will be insta buys for me!

War, school, magic, no freaking romance... This book kept me on my toes.

I have no doubt this series will become huge and I'll make sure to rave about it until you all read it!

PS. Just wanted to add that there are trigger warnings for... well everything. Self harm, drug use, rape, etc. It's a pretty dark book!
Profile Image for Regan.
366 reviews108k followers
July 10, 2020
wooooooooow

Lots to unpack here but overall I really respect the approach the author took.
Profile Image for emma.
1,784 reviews42.9k followers
July 10, 2022
I barely know how to read.

Even at my most literate, the best thing a book can be is under 300 pages. There is nothing more appealing in the world than a tiny little volume of literary fiction: I get to feel smart twice over (because I'm reading a capital-B Book in a day).

So when I even pick up a book that's over the 350 mark, that's high praise already.

And I have long thought I've grown out of my fantasy stage of life, instead preferring depressing lit fic and boring old classics and however way I can be pretentious.

So the fact that I read this book, a 550-page monster of my least successful genre, in a couple of sittings, should say it all.

And the fact that people call this boring is the dumbest thing I have ever heard in my life.

It has FIGHTING BOARDING SCHOOL that is also MAGIC BOARDING SCHOOL. It has nemeses. It has unlikely friendships.

Most importantly, it has an incredibly compelling and important fantasy depiction of imperialism, violence, colonization, and war, through the lens of the Rape of Nanking.

Per the advice of the brilliant and amazing Lily, I read this shortly after reading Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking. I recommend everyone do so.

It's tough reading, but it's necessary reading.

Bottom line: Redefined my idea of what fantasy can even be.

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pre-review

holy hell.

how do people call this book boring?

review to come / 4 stars

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currently-reading updates

me reading normally: time to pick up yet another 200 page book!

me during a readathon when i'm supposed to read as much as possible: this is a good time for the longest books i own

clear ur shit prompt 3: a book you were recommended
follow my progress here


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tbr review

this is your reminder that you are allowed to like or dislike whatever book you want, but the language you use when discussing it MATTERS.

especially if you are a white person reading an own voices narrative about an entire nation's trauma.

because apparently that needs to be said.
June 6, 2018
The Nikara believed in strictly defined social roles, a rigid hierarchy that all were locked into at birth. Everything had its own place under heaven. Princelings became Warlords, cadets became soldiers, and orphan shopgirls from Tikany should be content with remaining orphan shopgirls from Tikany.

Well, fuck the heavenly order of things.
Epic. Spectacular. Breathtaking. This is the one of the best books I have ever read in my adult life. I literally could not put it down. I'm gushing, I know, but it is THAT. GOOD. Holy shit this book is brutal. The author is an expert on military strategy and I believe it. If you guys have a weak stomach, this is not for you, but holy shit this is good.

Really.

Oh, and no romance. Just girl-power asskickery. UNF.

I don't want to compare this to Harry Potter because it is so dissimilar, but the premise is a familiar one that will draw comparison, however unlikely. A downtrodden orphan doomed to a miserable life until an opportunity opened up that brings them to an school designated for the special.

Unlike Harry Potter, the spot at this school is EARNED, through merit, not through mere chance of birth. And the risks are far greater should our hero fail. Mulan ain't got nothing on this bitch, and I use bitch as a term of praise. You gotta get down and dirty and nasty to survive.

16-year old Rin has a miserable existence. She is an orphan, worked to the bone and intended to be sold off to a ghastly old merchant once she comes of age. She rejects that destiny. In the kingdom, there is an annual test that every pupil takes. If they score high, they get to go to a school to be educated and trained. Sinegard is the best school of them all.

By studying her fucking ass off, Rin makes it to the top.
Her name was at the very top of the scroll. She hadn’t placed in the top ten. She’d placed at the top of the entire village. The entire province.

She had bribed a teacher. She had stolen opium. She had burned herself, lied to her foster parents, abandoned her responsibilities at the store, and broken a marriage deal.

And she was going to Sinegard.
There's no magical induction ceremony here. Life is hard and Rin is hopelessly behind. Her peers are the sons and daughters of the rich and powerful, who have trained for this their whole life. Rin came from nothing and she quickly discovers that she is nothing. It is unimaginably harder than she could have envisioned.
She had made it all the way across the country to a place she had spent years dreaming of, only to discover a hostile, confusing city that despised southerners. She had no home in Tikany or Sinegard. Everywhere she traveled, everywhere she escaped to, she was just a war orphan who was not supposed to be there.

She felt so terribly alone.
Her peers hate her. Her teachers hate her. The school is supposed to be based on a system of merit. It's not. Life is full of prejudice, especially for a peasant girl, and people let her know of their contempt.
“Every year we get someone like you, some country bumpkin who thinks that just because they were good at taking some test, they deserve my time and attention. Understand this, southerner. The exam proves nothing. Discipline and competence—those are the only things that matter at this school. That boy”—Jun jerked his thumb in the direction Nezha had gone—“may be an ass, but he has the makings of a commander in him. You, on the other hand, are just peasant trash.”
Enemies abound. Rin will fail many times before she succeeds.
No—they couldn’t just do this to her. They might think they could sweep her away like rubbish, but she didn’t have to lie down and take it. She had come from nothing. She wasn’t going back to nothing.

But if the Keju had taught her anything, it was that pain was the price of success.
And she hadn’t burned herself in a long time.

Success required sacrifice. Sacrifice meant pain. Pain meant success.
The world building is unbelievably intricate. It is based on Ancient China, and it does a great job of portraying an alternate history. I would compare it to Guy Gavriel's Under Heaven in that it is loosely based on it, and completely believable, while having elements that distinguishes it from being an actual historical retelling. My only complaint is the names. They're Western or Middle-Eastern based names of sort, and I would have preferred Chinese names too.

The world built in this book is extraordinarily intricate.

The characters are fantastic, from the mysterious Altan to my favorite, Master Jiang. He seriously is so awesome and hilarious.
Jiang was an effective if unconventional combat instructor. He made her hold her kicks up in the air for long minutes until her leg trembled. He made her duck as he hurled projectiles at her off the weapons rack. He made her do the same exercise blindfolded, and then admitted later that he just thought it would be funny.

“You’re a real asshole,” she said. “You know that, right?”
I am left utterly astonished by the scale and depth of this book. Bravo. Fucking bravo. This is a masterpiece.
Profile Image for Meg.
208 reviews44 followers
August 25, 2018
I wish I hadn't read this.

Maybe I should've done my due diligence before picking up The Poppy War (I didn't). I just saw that it was:

1) an Asian-inspired fantasy
2) even rarer, actually by a Asian-American (!) author
3) highly rated on goodreads

and that was enough to get me really excited, so I immediately picked up a copy and started reading.

The first few chapters are good, and Rin, a dark-skinned peasant girl who busts her ass studying to get herself into an elite military academy is the kind of heroine you can root for. But the entire section at the military academy with school antics was both boring and juvenile (there is a major character who is a teacher and makes fart sounds with his elbow).

It should be noted that I was under the mistaken impression that I was reading a YA fantasy while I was reading the academy part. Even though I wasn't enjoying the book by then, I wanted to continue reading and give it a chance to improve, because Representation Matters (even if flawed) and I did love Harry Potter and Alanna when I was younger (though I haven't re-read them in years, so I suppose I can't judge accurately whether the reason I disliked the school part in The Poppy War is because it is badly written or because it's a trope I've grown out of as a whole). Then I realized this was an adult book, and I couldn't understand why Kuang hadn't began the book with action -- with battles or war or something, and fleshed out Rin's background through flashbacks and other devices. The school part truly reads like HP fanfiction (complete with an Asian Draco Malfoy) that doesn't belong in the same book as the rest of this novel. It created pacing problems and did not fit the tone of the rest of The Poppy War .

Once the war starts, the book gets progressively darker and faster paced. At first, I was happy that something was actually happening, and I thought this was a sign the book was picking up. Then, how the world-building was handled really became an issue for me. Nikan, Rin's country, is a stand-in for China, while Mugen, the nation attacking them, is based off Japan. The war that Kuang narrates is based on the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), though the world she makes isn't adorned with the modern technology to match: with no guns, cars, telephones, or radio, Rin's setting feels more medieval in conception --think horses, scrolls, and armor.

The line between fiction and reality is always blurred. Stories can be truth or fiction, or more likely, some shade of in-between. For the most violent and brutal events in human history, non-fiction books and documentaries are crucial for remembrance and understanding. Fictionalized takes on these events need to be handled carefully, but are also important. I'm read and watched realistic historical fiction about tragic or violent events, and when it's done right, it's extremely powerful.

What makes me uncomfortable with The Poppy War is that it's fantasy: gods and magic play a large part in the story. Nikan and Mugen are thinly veiled approximations of real nations. The fall of Golyn Niis is really the story of the Nanjing Massacre. The research facility Rin and Altan end up in is supposed to be Unit 731. Some of the most sickening, abhorrent instances of violence Kuang inflicts on characters in her book are things that happened to real people, as documented in photographs and first person accounts. Kuang is incredibly graphic about these details, and she's not using her imagination, but rather history, to write these scenes. To me, it feels exploitative and incredibly tasteless. To use other people's pain to make your fantasy novel more exciting. It's a line that I think shouldn't be crossed.

The utility of it -- for remembrance, for analysis -- is debatable. I don't know if the casual American reader of this book will have read The Rape of Nanking or been to Hall of Remembrance in Nanjing or understand how many Asian people from countries Japan attacked during the war still feel anger and pain about the brutal war crimes committed. Perhaps I'm more upset than I should be because I'm also Chinese-American and I care too much about how these things are represented and handled because let's face it, the audience for this work is going to be majority white Americans, who might not understand just how much of this is fact, not fiction, as the extent of how much this is taken straight from primary sources isn't made explicit in the blurb or in some sort of author note. I know comparisons between atrocities is ridiculous. But since it happened during the same period and is more familiar to Americans, I wonder how a fantasy novel that draws directly from firsthand accounts of torture inflicted on people in Auschwitz or war crimes committed by Nazis in order to entertain its readers and and justify the main character's genocidal arc would be received, and if it would seem just as tasteless and ill-advised. Oh, and by the way, everything has been fantasy-renamed to things like As'gmordor and Nasuaron and the map at the front of the book is just Europe flipped backwards.

It's not that The Poppy War is extremely violent or draws heavy inspiration from history that is really the problem. It's the way the world-building is executed and handled in relation to the real world: magic and gods are real, but Kuang, instead of using her imagination as fantasy authors are supposed to, merely changes the names of countries and cities, while using actual atrocities that happened to real people as her plot.

Kuang, I know, has the academic credentials (studying for a Chinese History MA) to back up her reasoning. Even so, to me, her story of drugged up X-men teenagers making stupid decisions completely failed to be a respectful, sensitive, or appropriate handling of the Nanjing Massacre or Unit 731 in fiction.
Profile Image for Lisa of Troy.
376 reviews2,802 followers
December 31, 2022
Pretty Sure Wonder Woman Wrote This Book

Rin, a war orphan, is facing a poorly arranged marriage unless she scores extremely well on an upcoming test, the Keju. Against all odds, she places into a slot at a prestigious military school. However, Rin’s time at the school is cut short as the third Poppy War threatens her very way of life.

R.F. Kuang is also known as Rebecca F. Kuang. She has attended Georgetown University, University of Cambridge, Oxford University, and Yale University. Kuang was born in 1996 and began writing The Poppy Wars while she was 19 years old during a gap year in China. The Poppy War was subsequently published in 2018 while Kuang was approximately 22 years old. How absolutely remarkable.

Most veteran authors could not have produced a novel to the caliber of The Poppy War. This book has all the hallmarks of an exceptional novel. It has imperfect characters doing their best and great storytelling. The Poppy War has a female lead who is having important conversation (not just talking about men or nail polish). While the book is fast paced, it also has incredible rivalries and interesting backstory. R.F. Kuang also established the groundwork to entice readers into the next book of the series. The first book was satisfying yet there were a couple of open plot points to lead to the next book.

My only complaint is that Book 1 contained the part where Rin is at school. Recently, I have read 3 other fantasy novels that involve overcoming obstacles to go to school: Harry Potter, The Name of the Wind, and Skyward. Although I understand that attending school is a highly relatable right of passage to many readers, I was craving something a bit more original given my current reads.

Overall, an exceptional fantasy novel, and I am excited to read more from R.F. Kuang.

2023 Reading Schedule
Jan Alice in Wonderland
Feb Notes from a Small Island
Mar Cloud Atlas
Apr On the Road
May The Color Purple
Jun Bleak House
Jul Bridget Jones’s Diary
Aug Anna Karenina
Sep The Secret History
Oct Brave New World
Nov A Confederacy of Dunces
Dec The Count of Monte Cristo

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Profile Image for Val ⚓️ Shameless Handmaiden ⚓️.
1,794 reviews27.9k followers
October 21, 2018
Low 3 Stars

Boy, did it take me forever to finish this thing.

I really wanted to love this book. One of my favorite reviewers adored it and sang it's praises, but it just didn't draw me in the way I thought it would.

The last 150 pages or so got really good (thus why I rated it 3 instead of the possible 2 I was planning on up until that point - not that it matters) and I smashed through them in one sitting; however, it still didn't save the entire book for me.

I felt that the world-building was loose and the magic system somewhat unclear. I also felt like I never truly got to know the characters. Their characterizations were very surface-level...and completely inconsistent to boot. I didn't like our protagonist, Rin (I thought she acted like a whiny child who threw tantrums every now and then) and, other than Altan, almost all the other characters felt like one big blob of background noise with no truly defining characteristics or story lines of their own.

Thus, I spent the entirety of the book not really knowing for what or whom I should (or wanted) to root. And I'm a rooter. I need to know whose side I'm on, especially in my fantasy.

I might continue with book 2 when/if it comes out as it's possible I will love that whole book to the level I loved the last 150 pages of this one; but we shall see.

Regardless, I know I am very much in the minority with this book, so I would encourage you to still give it a go if it was something that caught your eye.
Profile Image for Samantha.
401 reviews16.6k followers
December 27, 2022
TW: child abuse; self harm; death of animals; VERY graphic violence; gore; graphic torture; graphic deaths particularly of women and children; rape; self-sterilization; opium use

(Note that this is not throughout the book; the torture and graphic death are mostly present in 2 chapters)

This is a adult grimdark fantasy inspired by the historical events of the second Sino-Japanese war. It weaves the fantastical elements of magic and gods with the grim realities of war. I adored our characters and how their history impacts their motivations. Rin is one of my new favorite characters.

I’m looking forward to the rest of this series!
Profile Image for may ➹.
463 reviews1,851 followers
January 11, 2021
reread 1/8/21: Reading this another time knowing exactly how everything ends is... so painful. I feel such a deep sense of despair for these characters and how their lives are touched and terribly scarred by war and trauma. I was able to appreciate Rin’s character arc in a whole new light after reading the next books, and I also shed a lot of my initial dislike of Altan this time around. This book and series is so wonderfully written, and it is so tragic to witness but a blessing at the same time.

// buddy reread with rain!!

—★—

what I should be thinking: The Poppy War explores themes of power, ambition, and humanity with a skill that is thoroughly inspiring for an author only 21 years old at the time of publishing, and Kuang expertly develops Rin into a character you hate yet also, somehow, adore. The book snakes its way through your brain, subtly becoming an obsession that only grows as time passes, and each day you find yourself thinking about how perfect of a book it is.

what I’m actually thinking: Fang Runin please step on me.

—★—

It feels like my life has been split into two eras: Before The Poppy War, and After The Poppy War.

There is no way to write a review that encompasses both my love for and the literary excellence of this book, and there are already some brilliant reviews out there (my personal favorites are Petrik’s and Jami’s). But my feelings about this book have grown to become an irritating cramp in my side, constantly pestering me: I genuinely cannot stop thinking about it every day. There is a burgeoning need in me to get something written down before I spontaneously combust.

The Poppy War follows a girl named Rin, a dark-skinned poor orphan who, to everyone’s surprise, manages to get into Nikan’s prestigious military academy Sinegard. There, she is relentlessly bullied for her skin color, gender, and economic status, yet she works tirelessly and climbs to the top of her class. But war is looming, and soon, with the dangerous, destructive shamanic powers she accidentally accessed, she shifts from student to soldier and is forced to make difficult decisions to save her country.

I think my favorite thing about the entire book—which is a grand statement to make considering how excellent it is in every aspect—is Rin. Her character development is phenomenal, and not only in terms of who she becomes in the story, but also just Kuang’s ability to craft a character so well. It’s made clear from the very start that whether or not you like Rin is up for you to decide, and this idea only grows as Rin begins to make questionable choices.

But god, if you don’t find yourself rooting for her, at least in the beginning, I’m not sure you get the point at all: Rin is a girl who, throughout her entire life, has fought against every person who tells her she is a burden and she is lesser, every obstacle that represents how her very own existence is an inferiority. And she never stops fighting. Everything Rin does is a pushback against her oppressors: gaining power, becoming a top student, turning into the perfect warrior and soldier (or… mostly perfect), and most of all using her anger and desire for vengeance as a motivation. Many of her actions are morally ambiguous, but you always understand the reasoning behind them, and whether or not you like her or agree with what she does, you still can’t help but feel a keen sense of both compassion and sadness for her.

(I love her so much. I love her so, so much.)

Kuang also writes other characters just as complex as Rin, most notably Altan. He is the sole survivor of a massacre that destroyed his race, and his life has only consisted of suffering and trauma. Now he’s seen only as a weapon to use to the Nikara military’s advantage. And it’s heartbreaking to see his rage fester, because it’s the one thing he’s ever known, and this hatred and desire for vengeance against Nikan was brought upon themselves for the things they did to his race.

Rin and Altan share many characteristics—Altan is her commander and role model—a large one being that neither of them are seen as human. I will never stop losing my mind and being desperately sad over how they are seen as risky yet powerful weapons but disposable once used, and how this view of them is exactly what shaped them into who they are now, is exactly why they do the things they do. Their complex relationship is written so masterfully, especially in the sequel The Dragon Republic, and I feel like I could wail about them forever. I may not love Altan, but I still appreciate the way that Kuang makes me mind-blown over his development.

I also don’t want to forget Kitay and Nezha, who are some of Rin’s classmates that I love a lot. They’re both assholes, in all honesty, but it’s part of their charm! I feel like they are more developed in The Dragon Republic, as this installment seems to focus more on Altan, but they still have important roles in Rin’s life, as the only friend she had in Sinegard and her bully-turned-friend(-turned-LOVER?), respectively.

(I guess my one complaint for the entire book is that there are some side characters, specifically the members of the Cike, who are not that developed. But that’s my only critique and it’s so minor that it is practically irrelevant! I also didn’t care that much because, if it isn’t obvious, I pretty much just care about Rin.)

On top of the excellent character work, Kuang succeeds in many other areas of the book as well. The way war is depicted stands out the most: She does not shy back, and I didn’t want her to. It’s brutal and graphic and most definitely difficult to read (content warnings at the end), but the way it viscerally tears at you is unforgettable and that’s the exact kind of effect it should have. It’s a harsh reminder of how viciously cruel humans can be, especially when you realize that what happens in the book is based on real-life historical events. You question over and over again, What lets humans do this to one another? How can such wicked violence be justified? How can people commit atrocities and not feel an ounce of remorse? and if that isn’t the lovely, jarring reading experience I want!!

A good fantasy must have good worldbuilding, and The Poppy War doesn’t disappoint in this aspect either. I’m not usually one to notice worldbuilding unless it stands out, either in a really good or really bad way, and Kuang’s worldbuilding is definitely on the really good side of the spectrum. Shamanism, gods, and magic are among the fantastical elements of the worldbuilding. The concept you usually see in fantasy of “magic is glorious and practicing it makes you healthier” is subverted into “magic can destroy you and you risk insanity each time you call upon the gods” and I adored it, especially when looking at it through the lens of how it furthered Rin’s character development. (Again, if it’s not clear yet, I! love!! Rin!!!)

Just the geographic worldbuilding was enjoyable to me as well—the explorations of colonialism and imperialism are so well-done. The way it mirrors our world, with China, Japan, and the West, is also something I really adore, because it depicts the horrific war crimes that Japan has committed while also painting the West as, dare I say it, the larger evil. (This is developed more in book 2 than in book 1, but I think it’s still worth mentioning.)

The final cherry on top, though, is Kuang’s prose and ability to write everything in a deeply compelling way. It’s simple and lovely and engaging, and it fits perfectly with the heavy content. This book is one that I chose to read for an English project, and for one of my assignments I talked about how there aren’t too many details in her writing, yet somehow I can imagine everything clearly and her words still have a strong emotional impact. (This assignment was a video that ended up being over 20 minutes long because, clearly, I cannot shut up about this book.)

It’s also worth noting that I struggle a lot to get through long adult fantasy novels, but this one was an exception. If you’re looking for an easier to read adult fantasy in terms of dense or heavy writing, I definitely recommend this one. I kept reading 100 pages in one sitting before realizing I had to stop reading, and everything seemed to fly by so quickly. It’s a wonder how 500+ pages can feel like nothing, yet I think back on this book and feel a strange flurry of excitement at the prospect of rereading it all within a day.

I’ve been writing this review for around three hours now (even though it feels like no time has passed because I could go on and on about this book). It’s certainly not my best, and there is so much more I could say to display how this book is absolute perfection. I don’t know if there’s someone out there who still hasn’t read this yet, but if there is, imagine me on my knees begging you to read it and experience the masterpiece that is The Poppy War for yourself. Rin will forever remain one of my favorite characters (step on me step on me step on me), and I won’t be getting over this book for a long time. It’s genuinely one of the best I’ve ever read, both subjectively and objectively, and I cannot recommend it enough!

—★—

:: rep :: Asian-inspired (mainly Chinese-) cast

:: content warnings :: war themes (death, murder, violence, etc.), drug use, substance addiction, suicide, self-harm, racism, colorism, misogyny, genocide, bullying, abandonment, abuse, animal death, animal cruelty, brutal & graphic torture, killing & rape, mutilation, human experimentation
Profile Image for Muhtasin.
182 reviews643 followers
January 6, 2021
The Poppy War (The Poppy War, #1) by R.F. Kuang

Gods, magic, and war. A military fantasy where the atmosphere inspired by Song Dynasty and the conflict in the book based on The Second Sino-Japanese War, you can be sure that this book won't be an easy one. Brutal story. Incredible world-building. Excellent writing. This is a story that asks us to examine how we weigh the life of ‘the other’, how we justify atrocities, and what it means to be human. Definitely wouldn’t recommend for a younger reader.
War doesn't determine who's right. War determines who remains.

Great dark story.
Profile Image for Virginia Ronan ♥ Herondale ♥.
515 reviews34.4k followers
November 23, 2019
”Children ceased to be children when you put a sword in their hands. When you taught them to fight a war, then you armed them and put them on the front lines, they were not children anymore. They were soldiers.”

This book. I mean… THIS BOOK! *sighs deeply and shakes head*
There is so much to be said about “The Poppy War” and I’m afraid I won’t even be able to put at least half of my thoughts into decent sentences. Because after finishing this book about a month ago (A MONTH AGO!!!) I still have troubles to sort out all of my feelings and thoughts.

“The Poppy War” is a great book but it tackles a lot of serious topics and I guess that’s the reason why my heart always feels kind of heavy when I think about it. Of course there is a war raging in this book but there happen so many other things that it’s almost impossible not to flinch when you reach those final 40%. Think about every atrocity that’s ever happened and you get a good idea about what you’re going to read in this book. There’s genocide, rape, torture, self-harm… and that’s just me naming a few of the triggers that might come your way.

”War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”

Let me tell you this: The longer you continue the worse it gets and even though this was masterfully done and I loved the world building and all the characters, there is still this strange undercurrent of heavy sadness and dread. Golyn Niis was so tough to read, I still get goose bumps when I think about it. This chapter was so, so, so, so damn hard to get through and I can’t remember the last time I read a book and felt that way. Maybe I never felt that way reading a book before. At least I can’t remember a single book that actually made me feel like this. I swear my stomach turned and I had troubles to breathe. I was feeling nauseous reading a book! Yes, it was that heavy! Everyone who already read the book will know what I’m talking about and to those who didn’t: It’s really as bad as everyone claims it to be! I got plenty of warnings but nothing prepared me for Golyn Niis!

”Amateurs obsess over strategy, Irjah had once told their class. Professionals obsess over logistics.”

Still, despite this heavy feeling of uneasiness that always overcomes me when I think about “The Poppy War” this book was definitely worth reading! I loved the fantasy elements and the idea of powers from the gods! Plus I really enjoyed the chapters at Sinegard Academy and the chimei! What I loved the most was the representation of human nature though. I might be alone with this but it’s obvious that R.F. Kuang put a lot of effort into her characters and you could see it in the way they grow, develop and change. Their character arcs were so amazing to follow, I’m in awe! And before I continue to gush about them here, I might as well move to my character section instead. ;-P

The characters:

This is my spoilery spoiler section and if you didn’t read the book already you better turn around and leave. If you’re still curious and don’t want to heed my warning you may proceed at your own risk! I mean I warned you, right? ;-P

Rin:

”No – they couldn’t just do this to her. They might think they could sweep her away like rubbish, but she didn’t have to lie down and take it. She had come from nothing. She wasn’t going back to nothing.”

Oh gods! Rin! I can’t believe what she did in the end and I can’t wrap my head around the fact that such a sweet and innocent girl could change that much! But it still happened and her descent was so heavy to watch. >_< I guess that’s what happens when you play with fire, quite literally in her case. She got addicted to the power and I’m so damn afraid of what she’s going to do next! I loved her defiance and strength at the beginning of the book, how she wanted to learn and did everything possible to achieve her goal. She was so determined and strong-willed! But then the war began and all those things happened and with every chapter Rin changed! She became something different, she hardened her heart, she lost her moral compass and made decisions that got her deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole! And then she did the unthinkable and I’m not sure if she’ll ever be able to return from that darkness again. T_T The ending broke my heart, for Rin, for the person she could have been for everything she HAD been before she came to Sinegard. She’s not the person she used to be and I find myself weeping for everything she lost and for what she became. =(((

”She didn’t want to be possessed. She wanted to remain free.”

”Then I will die on my feet,” she said. “I will die with flames in my hand and fury in my heart.”

”My god didn’t make me do anything,” she said. “The gods can’t make our choices for us. They can only offer their power, and we can wield it. And I did, and this is what I chose.” She swallowed. “I don’t regret it.”

”She was sane, she was convinced of it. She was whole. She had lost much, yes, but she still had her own mind. She made her decisions. She chose to accept the Phoenix. She chose to let it invade her mind.”

Altan:

”We’re the final front,” said Altan. “If we fail, this country’s lost.” He clapped her on the shoulder. “Excited?”

Altan broke my heart. At first I had the same impression like everyone else: That he knows what he’s doing, that he’s in control and a perfect student/soldier but the more we got to see from him, the more it became obvious that he’s far from all those things! This boy was broken beyond repair and he hid it so well that no one ever noticed until it was too late! I can’t say that I liked his actions but I could understand why he acted the way he did! He was lashing out at everyone because he was like a wild animal that only saw threats and didn’t know how to react to kindness. Altan was unable to see that not everyone who confronted him wanted to do him harm. Which makes me sad on so many levels. =( That poor, poor boy! To be tortured like this, to get out of it alive, to live with his past and the knowledge that it might happen again. Just to live with everything he went through! To draw breath every day and to continue, to keep on moving! I can’t even begin to comprehend how he must have felt and I can’t put into words how strongly I feel for him. T_T And I don’t want to believe that he’s dead! He can’t be dead! >_<

”I don’t know,” he said after a long moment. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

”Altan’s fire drew as its source an unending hate. It was a deep, slow burn. She could almost taste it, the venomous intent, the ancient misery, and it horrified her.
How could one person hate so much?
What had happened to him?


Kitay:

”One urinating statue for my easily entertained friend.”
Rin blushed. “Kitay, I can’t.”
“It costs nothing.”
“It costs a lot to me,” she said.
Kitay placed the statue in her hand. “If you say one more thing about money, I’m leaving you to get lost.”


I absolutely adored Kitay! He’s such a good friend and I loved that Rin and he became besties. =) Despite being fortunate enough to be one of the rich kids at Sinegard Academy he still reached out to her and became her friend. I think that’s what I loved about him the most, he didn’t care about titles or money, he just cared about the person and what it could do! Kitay is the living and breathing proof that good people exist and in the end his character was the only one that gave me any hope. Because despite all the things he witnessed and regardless of everything that happened to him, he still had moral values and acted according to them. In a world so harsh and cruel that it changed everyone around him, he still held on to his convictions and I loved him for it! <333

”There was a hard glint to his eyes that she had never seen in him before. He looked as if he had aged five years. He looked like his father. He was like a sword that had been sharpened, metal that had been tempered.”

Jiang:

”I am a mortal who has woken up, and there is power in awareness.”

I really don’t know how to feel about Jiang! I actually liked him at the beginning of the book but I was so disappointed by him when it ended. His character was some sort of catalyst and I had the distinct feeling that he could have done more, that he SHOUD HAVE done more! What if he would have taught Rin about her powers? What if he would have allowed her to use them in a safe setting? What if he would have fought alongside them and would have helped her to control the phoenix? He basically left Altan and Rin to their own devices and this set them on the dark path they were descending at the end. How different everything could have gone if Jiang would have watched out for them! =( To drop Altan as his student was the first mistake he made and not to teach Rin properly apparently his last.

”Ah. The law.” Jiang sniffed at an unidentified leaf and then tossed it away. “So inconvenient. So irrelevant.”

The relationships & ships:

Rin & Altan:

”She knew what addiction looked like. Opium smokers were yellowed, useless sacks of flesh. They did not fight like Altan did. They did not move like Altan did. They were not perfect, lethal animals of graceful beauty.”

Okay, I’m going to say it: I DIDN’T SHIP RIN AND ALTAN! I’m sorry but I just couldn’t! They didn’t have much of a relationship before Rin joined the Cike and once she was a part of them her relationship with Altan was nothing but abusive. He slapped her, hurt her with words, forced her to do things she didn’t want to do and was everything else but supportive. How was I supposed to ship that? I get that Altan was thoroughly broken but he didn’t have to let it out on Rin and as frustrated as he might have been with her, he still had no right to hurt her. So nope, it was clear right from the beginning that he didn’t respect her as much as she respected him and if you ask me those two never had a future. (Not saying that I wouldn’t love for Altan to come back again. I still wouldn’t ship him with Rin though) I’ll never ship those two and I stand by it. Fight me! *lol* ;-P

”Hey. Hey.”
Cool fingers wrapped around her wrists. Gently, Altan pulled her hands away from her face. She looked up and met his eyes. They were a shade of crimson brighter than poppy petals.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I know. I know what it’s like. I’m going to help you.”


”She had adored an idea of him, an archetype, a version of him that was invulnerable. But now she knew the truth, she knew the realness of Altan and his vulnerabilities and most of all his pain… and still she loved him.”

He leaned forward and grasped her face in both hands. She thought for a bizarre moment that he was going to kiss her. He didn’t. He pressed his forehead against hers for a long time. She closed her eyes. She drank in the sensation of her skin against his. She seared it into her memory.”

Rin & Nezha:

”We aren’t here to be sophisticated. We’re here to fuck people up.”

Now that’s a relationship I could appreciate! Yes, Nezha was an ass at the beginning of the book but in contrast to Altan he actually realized his faults and apologized to Rin. I loved how they both grew out of their initial animosity and became friends in the end. And those fighting scenes!! They were pure harmony on the battlefield and anyone who claims differently didn’t read the book! XD Just like Kitay seemed to have become a moral compass for Rin the same could be said for Nezha and I’m sure if he’d been around at the end she wouldn’t have gone down that dark road. >_< Unfortunately Nezha was lost in the toxic mist and seems to be dead. I refuse to believe that he’s gone for good though. I mean he had some serious healing abilities so maybe he survived it and became a prisoner? But then again he most likely would have been with the Mugenese when Rin launched her attack and I don’t know if he would have been able to survive this as well. >_< I really hope Nezha will magically reappear in the second book! =)

”But I saved your life. Doesn’t that make us at least a little square?”
Square? Square? She had to laugh. “You almost got me expelled!”
“And you almost killed me,” he said. That shut her up.
“I was scared of you,” Nezha continued. “And I lashed out. I was stupid. I was a spoiled brat. I was a real pain in the ass. I thought I was better than you, and I’m not. I’m sorry.”


Altan & Chaghan:

”They had come to an understanding, she and Chaghan. They were no longer opposed, vying for Altan’s favor. They were allies, now, bound by the mutual atrocities they had commited.”

I’m going to be honest here: I’m such a sucker for Chaghan!!! I love his character!!!! And is it just me or did I actually feel some gay vibes between those two?! Altan and Chaghan definitely had more chemistry than Rin and Altan ever had! *lol* And they didn’t even have all too many scenes together! I got the distinct feeling that something happened when they spent those three days in the valleys and I’m not talking about Altan winning a fight between them, feel me? *wriggles eyebrows* Haha! ;-P Gosh, I really would have loved to find out more about their relationship and this is just one more reason why Altan can’t be dead! I just ship him and Chaghan too much to accept his death! Period! XD

Conclusion:

“The Poppy War” was an amazing and sometimes truly revolting dark tale about a young girl that follows her own path and fights for what she thinks is right. It shows us how people can grow and how their circumstances and perceptions can change them. For better or for worse… This tale isn’t over yet. In fact it just began and I can’t wait to read what’s going to happen next. Let’s continue to hope for the best while we expect the worst, because apparently that’s the only attitude that will get you through this series. ;-)

”And she would call the gods to do such terrible things.”
Profile Image for Sofia.
294 reviews5,927 followers
March 1, 2021
This book thoroughly destroyed me.


This is dark and heavy and not at all an easy read. It’s a story of vengeance, hatred, and manipulation. Added to the bleak retelling of the darkest period in Chinese history, it’s a painful book to read. But it’s so, so good.


Rin, a peasant from the south, is a ruthless, determined, ambitious character who craves power over all other things. She’s a student at Sinegard, a prestigious military academy, but she stands out because of her dark skin and accent. She has to fight twice as hard to get to the top. Along the way, she discovers a power within herself that is fueled by her own anger. She longs to unleash it and burn the world down, but the gods are never to be trusted, and nothing comes for free. The grey morality is excellent.


"'They were monsters!' Rin shrieked. 'They were not human!'
Kitay opened his mouth. No sound came out. He closed it. When he finally spoke again, it sounded as if he was close to tears.
'Have you ever considered,' he said slowly, 'that that was exactly what they thought of us?'"



Altan, the only survivor after his entire race was butchered in a previous war, is a complex and layered character. He’s filled with a hatred so strong it manifests itself in his fire, but he hides it deep within him, using it to fuel his brutality. He’s a raging force of nature, a sly, cunning commander intent on revenge--but his weaknesses and his strengths both lie in his fury.


This book does not romanticize war, and I’m thankful. We live in a culture where fighting is glorified and praised as heroic. The Poppy War presents a brutal, raw, and honest perspective where war is seen as the horrific, cruel act it truly is, instead of being glossed over. It’s a commentary on the horrors of human brutality and the violence we are capable of.


“Children ceased to be children when you put a sword in their hands. When you taught them to fight a war, then you armed them and put them on the front lines, they were not children anymore. They were soldiers.”



This is about strategy, politics, sacrifice. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s intense, bloody--but extremely intelligent. Only a portion of the book is spent in the academy, but the lessons are well-researched and incredibly thoughtful. This is not your typical fantasy school story. It’s not really a fantasy school story at all. It’s a reflection on the ethical dilemma of sacrificing everything for the greater good, despite the unthinkable costs.


“Those weren’t lives.
They were numbers.
They were a necessary subtraction.”



The Poppy War is difficult to read. It’s a page-turner, but a dark one. The questions it raises are relevant, heartbreaking, sometimes controversial. But I promise you, it is worth it.


Fang Runin | The Poppy War Wiki | Fandom



5 stars
Profile Image for Melanie.
1,154 reviews97.7k followers
October 1, 2020

ARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

“But I warn you, little warrior. The price of power is pain.”

First and foremost, please go read one of my best friends in this entire world’s review: Petrik’s review is not only amazing, he is also an ownvoices Chinese reviewer. Next, I just want to warn you guys that this is a very dark book that is heavily inspired by the Nanking Massacre. Please use caution and know that this book has major trigger and content warnings for war themes, drug use, substance addiction, self-harm, racism, misogyny, genocide, bullying, abandonment, abuse, animal death, animal cruelty, brutal torture, brutal killing, brutal rape (off screen, but still maybe the worst I’ve ever read), mutilation, very graphic depictions of how children and adults died, experimentations on people against their will, colorism, colonization. Again, this is a very dark book that carries some very dark themes. Please use caution.

“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains”

The Poppy War is a fantastic debut that I feel so very privileged to have received an ARC of. This is the first book in an ownvoices Asian inspired fantasy story, and this first installment is told in three parts; each getting darker and darker. But in part one we meet our main protagonist, Rin, who is a war orphan who is living with a foster family that was forced to adopt her.

Rin has been working at the family’s local business, while also being forced to deal drugs. That is, until one day her family decided that it would be more in their interest for them marry Rin off to a man who is much older than her and who she has never met before. Rin is then forced to do the only thing that will allow her to not have this life forced upon her.

“Well, fuck the heavenly order of things. If getting married to a gross old man was her preordained role on this earth, then Rin was determined to rewrite it.”

In this world, children will study their entire lives for a test called the Keju. And the top fifty students in the country will be allowed to go the empire’s capitol to study at the best military school in the world. There they will be able to become the world’s best generals, tacticians, soldiers, and more. And all the students wish to one day be warriors for the Empire. And Rin dedicates herself to studying so that she can not only escape this marriage, but to also escape her abusive foster parents, and the entire town that has treated her awful just because she was born a war orphan.

And against all odds, Rin gets accepted. But once she gets to the school, she soon realizes that her spot isn’t guaranteed to last. At the end of the year, the different teachers will pick which students they wish to have study under them. And Rin soon starts to see that most of the school is not only very privileged, but also have power just from their last name and who their family is already in the current military.

And the reason part one of this book is hands down my favorite is because I love this school setting so much. And like many other reviewers have already said, it is very reminiscent of The Name of the Wind. From the attending kids that have been born with a silver spoon in their mouths, to unexpected companionship, to horrible teachers, to wonderfully odd teachers. And Rin becomes obsessed with not only impressing these teachers and her peers, but to prove that she is also deserving of her spot.

“You’re a war orphan. You’re a southerner. You weren’t supposed to pass the Keju. The Warlords like to claim that the Keju makes Nikan a meritocracy, but the system is designed to keep the poor and illiterate in their place. You’re offending them with your very presence.”

And while Rin is working to become the best at her school, terrible things are brewing outside the walls of the academy. Terrible, unthinkable things, that are about to impact the whole world. And Rin is forced to quickly learn about another world all together, where gods can make a person a shaman that can wield that power, but at a cost. And Rin has to discover for herself if the price is worth it.

“The nature of this god is to destroy. The nature of this god is to be greedy, to never be satisfied with what he has consumed.”

This is an action packed read, with beautiful writing that feels like a treat to read. This is a story filled with twists and turns, and you might think you know where the story is going, to only be completely dumbfounded. I couldn’t flip the pages fast enough.

Also, there is sort of an enemies to friends (maybe lovers eventually) element in this book, and I’m dying to see more in book two. Like, there is going to be more of it? Right? Please. Seriously, what God do I have to let inhabit my body? I need it.

“Because I can,” she said. “Because he thought he could get rid of me. Because I want to break his stupid face.”

And ultimately, this is a story about a girl who has been given nothing but pain in a world that constantly reminds her that she is lesser. And she overcomes every single hurdle and becomes not only what the world said she couldn’t be, but she becomes what she wanted to be. Like, this book is powerful, empowering, and a love letter to all girls that are told they can’t do something daily.

Overall, I really enjoyed this one, even if it got even a little too dark for me at times. I think this is a really amazing set up for what is sure to be an impressive debut fantasy series! I cannot wait to see what R.F. Kuang does next, because I really think The Poppy War is a bright shining star in 2018 releases.

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The quotes above were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

Buddy read with Jules! ❤
Profile Image for Maryam Rz..
220 reviews2,546 followers
May 23, 2021
When you are so hyped for a book you’re practically giving helium a run for its money, there are only 3 possibilities:

☆ You write a pungent review, crushed beneath the waves of disappointment.
✯ You write a loving criticism, pleased that it was good but displeased that it was not that good.
★ You write a gushing piece, declaring your heart stolen and your soul sold.

I was hoping for the third.
But I’ll settle for the second.


Credit: Jhoca

“You will be offered power beyond your imagination. But I warn you, little warrior. The price of power is pain.”

Even as The Poppy War was not the perfection I’d dreamt it would be, I could not help but be awed by the exquisite detail of this rigorous craft where no misstep is excused and no strategy overlooked. From economy to dialects and sources of prejudice, Kuang has considered everything in spinning this yarn of war orphans and martial artists, with gods that were only relics of the past peeking their insatiable heads and demanding blood as worship, and life beared in all its sheer dreadful abomination where an accident of birth makes all the difference because power, dolorously, dictates acceptability.

Through the duality of hallucinogens and the precarious line they make one dangle on, to studying opaque syllogisms and the intricate science of fighting at a ruthless military academy where girls cannot succeed unless they give up any future of motherhood, embarking on philosophical debates I craved to insert myself into on reality, brutality, and divinity, this debut mixes history and myth with fiction to paint an ancient China anew.

“The fish does not attempt to fly. The polecat does not attempt to swim. Only when each being respects the heavenly order may there be peace.”
Well, fuck the heavenly order of things.

But you cannot write military fantasy in all its glorious deception and spark a grim war’s inception without delving into tactics and logistics, and TPW is more analogous to a game of Go, treading strategy rather than direct confrontation to achieve dominance—despite the present action. This is an empire that can never be ready to face the enemies within and without; this is a song of vengeance horrendous and wondrous in its entirety. What Kuang does, in the end, is to depict the invidious truth that war is not about rightness but survival; and as she would tell you, to explain gravity to a child you will first have to let them fall.


Credit: Jhoca

Sadly though, I did not close the book with everyone’s shared what did I just read sentiment but with a sigh of ugh finally, since the plot of the book was not all that unexpected due to most of the twists having been revealed to us before they were to the characters, and their eventual deliverance was not dramatic enough to warrant true shock. I admittedly preferred the engrossing trials of Part I to the passivity of what followed.


CW ➾ racism, colourism, colonisation, abuse, bullying, misogyny, use of psychedelics, drug addiction, self-harm, animal cruelty, nonconsensual human experimentations, torture, rape, burning, massacre, genocide, mutilation


Which Is It: Grimdark or Wuxia Fantasy?

It’s rather bewildering to see various readers shelving the same book under 2 genres as fundamentally different as grimdark and wuxia fantasy. Like, what the hell? I’ll tell you what the hell.

What is grimdark and is this it? Adam Roberts puts grimdark as “where nobody is honourable and Might is Right,” declaring the world a “cynical, disillusioned, ultraviolent place.” Or as Genevieve Valentine puts it, grimdark dives into “the psychology of those sword-toting heroes, and the dark realism behind all those kingdom politics.” Even more complete is Jared Shurin’s 3 key components: a grim and dark tone, a sense of realism, and the agency of the protagonists versus predestination. Yes, this can all apply to TWP, especially if you consider the final theme that heroes inevitably let you down and gods have no agency and it is you who will forge the path. But in truth, TWP is not amoral or violent for the majority of the book. Why?

Because even as characters hold on to their anger throughout, they are so very concerned with morals and it’s only at the very end where they truly find law inconvenient in the face of their revenge. Because while there is violence aplenty in these pages, and while the logic of violence is explored and deaths are avenged, that violence is noted as wrong and intentional brutality warned against on principle—it’s not until the very end where the protagonist looks at that violence and sees it as right.

My favourite definition of grimdark is Liz Bourke’s, “a retreat into the valorisation of darkness for darkness’s sake, into a kind of nihilism that portrays right action as either impossible or futile.” But this definition can only describe the end of TWP, which is just not enough. I would say, pick this up for something grim and dark, but not for grimdark.

“I am a mortal who has woken up, and there is power in awareness.”

What is wuxia and is this it? Wuxia is a primarily historical genre of Chinese fantasy about a martial artist who follows the code of xia (its 8 common attributes being: benevolence, justice, individualism, loyalty, courage, truthfulness, disregard for wealth, and desire for glory). This theme of chivalrous righteousness might seem the opposite of all this book stands for, but wuxia heroes also remove oppressors and bring retribution for past misdeeds, and those 8 criteria are the focus of the first part of TPW—before they’re twisted and turned on their heads for a darker approach, that is.

One type of wuxia fiction more common in the era of anti-Qing revolutionaries (which is the era that inspired this series) goes like this: A hero from the lower social class of ancient China is denied admission into a martial arts sect, so she experiences hardships and trains secretly, waiting to surprise those who looked down on her; the plot will meander to a final showdown between the protagonist and her nemesis. As you can see, this is the structure of TPW Part I and its themes are taken along throughout the military path of the book even as they are ingeniously reversed.

“You’ll die.”
“Then I will die on my feet,” she said. “I will die with flames in my hand and fury in my heart. I will die fighting for the legacy of my people.”

Conclusion? If I were to shelve this genre-bending debut, the first 50% would be wuxia, the next 40% military, and the last 10% grimdark fantasy. Ultimately, this book might be grimly stark, but it’s not grimdark. Perhaps more a wuxia gone dark.


Asian Influences: Historical & Mythological

Starting from basics, compare this map with East Asia but keep in mind that the author said all resemblances to real-world countries are “completely unintentional” so shhhh:


Unfortunately, I can’t hush.

Nikan is China ➾ Evident in the usage of Chinese zodiac cycles for marking the passage of time and signs for naming the provinces; cì kè (lit. assassin) for the Cike; qi or ch'i (life force or energy flow, the central principle in Chinese martial arts) for ki; the expansionist policies and civilising mission alluding to the Qing dynasty (the last imperial dynasty of China, 1636-1912); Ke Ju (the national examination system that became ossified during the Qing dynasty) for Keju; The Art of War by Sun Tzu (pinyin: Sūnzǐ) for Sunzi’s Principles of War.

Federation of Mugen is Japan ➾ Due to themes of militarism and beliefs in the meaninglessness of the lives of soldiers and inhumanity of the non-Japanese, as well as the divinity of the Emperor practiced in Japan before the reconstruction.

Speer is Taiwan ➾ Mostly geographically but also Taiwan’s fight against colonisation by China.

The Hinterlands are Mongolia ➾ Both nomadic people with an integral horse culture and a prominent Buddha (Bodhidharma in TPW, both focused on the refinement of the individual) following, ruled over by the Qing dynasty/Nikara Empire.

Bolonia & Hesperia are America & Europe ➾ Strawberry blond pale skinned busybodies constantly “helping.”

I should note that TPW is inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War, sparked when a dispute between Japanese and Chinese troops escalated into a full-scale invasion some scholars consider to have been the start of WWII. In TPW, Kuang grimly rewrites Rape of Nanjing (an episode of mass murder and mass rape committed by Imperial Japanese troops), revisiting the pain and consequences of those atrocities, and proceeds to finish her smaller World War II with thousands of Japanese soldiers remaining in China and a retelling of Hiroshima.


Credit: Ashley Hankins

History aside, there is dangerous magic in TPW as much as there is war, and the author is just as thorough in capturing the mystical shamanic powers.

Often associated with indigenous and tribal societies, shamanism is a system of beliefs surrounding a spirit world that a shaman can interact with through altered states of consciousness. Not only does Kuang portray this fascinating practice as accurately as possible, she also includes the structural implications of colonialism and imperialism and how rare and limited these communities have become.


Characters: Development & Relationships

Rin is an ambitious, vicious, stubborn character I immediately fell head over heels for, cheering as her cunning grew—that is, until she became a passive moon circling Altan.

I understand her need to belong leading to her nonsensical obsession, but not having a front row seat to her fantasies made the whole matter underdeveloped. Neither did it help that, while I get the suffocation of his repressed rage and wanted to pet his solemn head for his pain, Altan’s farce of patriotism was intolerable—don’t paint vengeance in flowers please. Honestly, he was too tired to fit the legendary shoes Kuang had him walk around in.

Children ceased to be children when you put a sword in their hands. When you taught them to fight a war, then you armed them and put them on the front lines, they were not children anymore. They were soldiers.


Credit: Nan Fe

Jiangs eccentric head stuck in the clouds was fortunately a rare reprieve next to Nezhas efficient development (surprisingly, as I initially loathed his idiotic, egoistic, unworthy arse). But really, I just needed my manipulative, raging Rin back in action as a walking disaster and am pleased to announce her eventual realisation satisfied me.


But Time For Criticism: Why Not Five Stars?

There are 5 things I want from my adult fantasy, be it light or dark ➾ ❶ a careful plotting, ❷ a detailed craftsmanship, ❸ an immersive storytelling, ❹ a unique world building, and ❺ a layered theme; TPW meets 4 of those criteria with exceptional talent, yet falls flat with a disappointing thump in ❸. The issue is not that Kuang’s writing is easy and unnoticeable like YA, it’s that her storytelling technique is more telling than showing.

Putting aside the few moments of eloquence where, after incessantly knocking on the door I was allowed in to explore, immersive description is a rare thing to stumble upon in this book, with the unfolding deaths of millions summarised to a few sentences and Rin realising she’d been hearing a voice addressed as forgot to mention I’ve been hearing this since before so know this exists even though I ain’t gonna describe what it’s like m’kay? I mean?? Hello? Hi. Yeah. Her telling style did not allow for a thorough exploration of some facets of the book, such as Rin and Altan’s dynamic, and that’s just a pity because this could have been so much more.

Additionally, when writing a book you make a choice between fast or slow pace and stick with it, but Kuang refused to do this and got stuck somewhere between the extremes of the two, too scared to dwell too long and yet too focused on slow strategy to run fast. TPW spans across 3 to 4 years and Kuang’s method for handling this—writing only short selective scenes—both helps avoid dragging the tale and hurts the book by making it disjointed, underdeveloped, and incapable of building momentum. We are repeatedly told time is passing and, just as we are getting comfortable in the story, we get kicked out and thrown back in weeks later. It was perhaps akin to attempting to climb a magical mountain where your handhold vanishes after a few seconds; so the only way to get to the top and finish the book is to plunge in, climbing fast and without pause, because if you pause...well if you pause you’re done for.

But this was a promising debut and from the talent Kuang displayed in her first work, I know the next one is going to be magnificent. I can feel it in my bones.


Companions: Playlist & Related Reviews

Book series playlist: Spotify URL


Books in series:
➴ The Poppy War (The Poppy War, #1) ★★★★☆
The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War, #2) ★★★★✯
The Burning God (The Poppy War, #3) ★★★★★
April 28, 2022

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Whew. I buddy-read this with my friends Maraya and Sage and I'm honestly glad it was a team effort, because I'm not sure I would have gotten through the book on my own. The last time I tried to read this, I ended up quitting at 14% because I was so bored. THE POPPY WAR is a pretty widely-read book that a lot of people have read and have opinions about and I guess I'm just one of the masses in that regard, because I have a lot of things to say about this book and it's going to be really difficult because a lot of those thoughts are conflicting.



***WARNING: some spoilers to follow***



First, I'd like to say that I've noticed that some members of this fandom likes to attack people who didn't like this book. I muted "TPW" and "The Poppy War" as keywords on Twitter because I kept seeing people making fun of the one-star reviewers and saying that anybody who didn't like this book was too stupid to understand/enjoy it, and that is such toxic behavior to me. There are a lot of reasons why people won't like this book and honestly, some of them are valid. If you are sensitive to violent content of any kind, this is going to be an incredibly unpleasant read. Bad things happen in this book and the main character is very unlikable. Part I is very different in tone from Parts II and II. Parts II and II move much slower, and more unpleasantly, than Part I. I understand that sometimes people hold authors of color to different standards than white authors, and might say racist things in their reviews, but simply being put off by negative content or critiquing the writing or the pacing or the story in and of itself is hardly problematic and doesn't, in my opinion, warrant shaming and bullying. I read positive and negative reviews of this book, sans spoilers, and unlike 99% of other books, where I fall firmly on one side or the other, I can actually see where both sides are coming from and why this book is so polarizing. The things that make one side love it will make another side hate it. One person's idea of daring is another person's idea of triggering.



Second, I'm writing this review as someone who is somewhat familiar with both Sino-Japanese Wars, the Nanjing/Nanking massacre, and The Opium Wars (of which, I believe, the Poppy War is a play). I've read Iris Chang's book on the subject, which scarred me for life (although it ended up preparing me for chapter 21 soooo... mixed blessings). However, even though this is heavily inspired by Chinese history, I wouldn't say that it's a direct allegory like ANIMAL FARM. It's more like GAME OF THRONES, in that it borrows in bits and pieces, and there are some direct parallels, but most of that borrowing is used to further the fantasy elements and give a "grimdark" feel to a book while also making people feel smarter for reading it for noticing the borrowed elements (no hate-- it worked for me). I say this because some people are saying that this book is history or historical and I would argue that while that may be a matter of some debate, I don't really think this book is history. It has demons and gods and magic in it. It isn't history. It just borrows from it and takes artistic license with it.



THE POPPY WAR stars Rin, an antiheroine who is willing to sacrifice literally anything to be the best and win the war against the stand-in for the Japanese in this world, the Mugen. When she starts the book, I think she's a young teen because she hasn't had her period yet (so maybe 13?). To avoid getting married, she crams for the national exam, the Keju, spending two years working her butt off to pass. She ends up scoring the highest in the province and goes to Sinegard, an elite military school. This portion was honestly my favorite, as it reminded me of other "dark school" type stories, like VITA NOSTRA or SCHOLOMANCE (the R. Lee Smith one), which also feature morally gray heroines with sociopathic tendencies who are slowly corrupted by power. I think this is also why so many people categorize this book as YA. It does have a dark YA vibe to it, the way some of Victoria Schwab's allegedly adult books do, and it can be hard to pinpoint who the audience for this book actually is. I liked Rin's unusual education and how she came into conflict with her peers and masters as the underdog, and probably would have given this portion of the book four or five stars.



Parts II and III have a major tonal shift as Nikara, Rin's country, engages in war with the Mugense for real. Rin finally has to put everything she's learned into action while also trying to control the magic she's only just realized she's had (she, like a very rare few, has the power to call gods down from their sacred realm and let them temporarily possess her). In part I, her mentor was the delightfully eccentric Jiang. Here, she's attached to Altan, and unpredictable student of immense power who was the only survivor of a genocidal attack by the Mugense. Altan is a drug addict and abusive, and thinks nothing of yelling, throwing things, or hitting people, including Rin. Rin is in love with him and idolizes him in a way that feels uncomfortable, despite the abuse. Especially since so many reviewers laud Rin as a strong heroine when she seems comfortable acting as a pawn at the hands of others and apologizing for the people who use her ill. Again, I think that this will be a major trigger for some people.



The absolute worst part of this book, in terms of violent content, is the infamous chapter 21. This chapter feels like a Wikipedia dump of the Nanjing massacre, so if you aren't sure if you will be able to handle the content, read the Wikipedia article on the massacre. If it is too much for you, do not read this book or skip chapter 21. It is brutal, but not as upsetting as I was expecting since, again, I've read Iris Chang's book on the actual events that inspired this book (which had photographs). This is a reason I think that this book shouldn't be categorized as YA. Most U.S. schools don't teach the Nanjing massacre, and so students reading this likely won't have the context that puts this chapter into perspective. It's incredibly violent and horrific, and while I won't begrudge anyone who felt legitimately triggered by this chapter, I think having that historical context does put this book into perspective. That said, there are other moments of violence that don't really have anything to do with the war, such as Rin giving herself a chemical hysterectomy (in a scene that was uncomfortably similar to Yennefer's similar decision in The Witcher, but way less graphic) or graphic dueling scenes in the school or Rin getting grabbed or hit by the boy she loves. This book is very violent, period.



That said, I'm not really sure what this book intended to do with that historical parallel to Nanjing. In ANIMAL FARM, for example, the purpose was to show the slow slide into a dictatorship with the gradual relinquishing of one's personal freedoms, and how sometimes liberation can lead to an even greater prison. Here, the parallels seem more like GAME OF THRONES, in that they kind of feel like they're just there to shock. There is no real context for the war unless you are familiar with Chinese history, and it isn't really clear why the Mugenese hate the Nikara unless you interpret them literally as Japan in that specific time frame of history. There is no slow backslide into corruption on behalf of the Mugenese because, through Rin's eyes and those of their other victims, they were never human to begin with. So many of the descriptions of the Mugense describe them as inhuman or not human, and the only really humanizing moment is Rin's shock that they look so superficially similar to the Nikara. There's really nowhere for them to go because they are the de facto evil villains in this book.



Ironically, the slow corruption happens in Rin, who ends up becoming a perpetrator of genocide herself, which is ironic, since in an earlier portion of the book, she says, "War doesn't determine who is right, only who remains." She survives but at the cost of her soul, I would say, since by the end of the book she is a despicable person who doesn't see reason and makes decisions solely on rage (like Altan). She is literally unable to see how her own actions put her on the same level as the Mugense and their annihilation of Speer, which is interesting from a moral perspective, but kind of frustrating from a reader perspective. Especially since we watched her give her all to understand everything in Part I, only to throw everything away that she learned in Parts II and III. It almost felt like she was a different person from the first part, and part of that is because she grew up and was subjected to horrible trauma, but it was frustrating to see someone who I admired for tenacity (despite loathing her for her selfishness) become such a stupid person who made such stupid decisions. Why, Rin?? Why?



I didn't hate this book, despite thinking I might, but I didn't love it either. I can see why people do, because it is different, and it does take a lot of risks, and in some ways, it is very similar to some of the manga storylines I loved as a child. The scene with the chimei, for example (one of my favorite parts) was like something right out of Inuyasha: a pseudo-historical epic filled with violent magic and dark content, with characters you rooted for even though they were incredibly annoying. I think Inuyasha even had a face-stealing monster in one of the earlier books. So it was cool to read a book that had some interesting Chinese mythology thrown into a world filled with geopolitical intrigue. I just wish the second and third parts of the book had meshed better with the first, and that Rin didn't flip-flop (to borrow my friend's term) quite so much in terms of her character. She was all over the place, and I expected a brutal queen and not an idiot with a magical firearm she didn't know how to use but was all too willing to fire. Even if it is a revenge fantasy that does appeal to the dark satisfaction all of us would have at triumphing over our enemies at tenfold delivery, I don't really like the message in that.



Anyway, hopefully all that makes sense. I'm probably forgetting half the things I was going to talk about but I think I hit on all of the important key points, and I'm wicked proud of myself for figuring out the major "twist" in this book before I even got to the 15% mark. Props to the author, by the way, for taking the chosen one stereotype and at least subverting the trope a little bit by making the character work for it. That, and the brilliance of part I, is why this is getting 3 stars and not a 1 or a 2.



3 stars
Profile Image for ✨ A ✨ .
423 reviews1,594 followers
June 21, 2021
You know when you read the first few chapters of a book and you’re overcome by a feeling, a knowing, that this book is going to stick with you. That you don’t know what’s going to happen next, but you can tell you’re going to love it? — that’s what The Poppy War made me feel.



The writing was exquisite. It drew me in, and kept me hooked. It felt like I was watching a movie in my head, everything was so vivid, mesmerising but also heartbreaking. From descriptions of the setting, to the history and world building. Wow. I’m completely in awe of the authors skill. With each chapter I became more and more obsessed with this world and this story.

I loved the elements of magic and mythology combined with the history and war.

There was constantly a lot of new information to process and so many characters that I had to start keeping a log of who’s who — but honestly that just added to my enjoyment.

The first portion is set during Rin’s time at the academy is slow paced. After that things really start picking up.

I cannot say there was one moment I was bored or uninterested, even during the slower chapters.



The setting was fantastic. I’m so used to reading western centric fantasy and this just made me realize how much I need Asian fantasy in my life.

Something that I enjoy most as a reader is learning through fiction. The author draws from real Chinese historic events such as the Opium Wars, the Second Sino-Japanese War and The Rape of Nanking.

I immediately found myself looking up these events, wanting to know more. It hit me so hard to find out that all these atrocities actually happened and people don’t speak about it.

This book while an enjoyable read was also very hard to read. It portrays the very real horrors of war and there were times I was crying my eyes out for all the suffering Rin had witnessed. (content and trigger warnings at the end of this review)




Rin, I admire the most. She fought tooth and nail for her place at Sinegard and didn’t let the others who thought she had no right to be there bring her down. She was fierce and determined. And yes, when war came knocking she realised she wasn’t as prepared as she’d thought. War and circumstances changed her and she ends up making questionable decisions that I didn’t agree with, however I still wanted the best for her (I’m still worried about her and I’m so scared for her in the next books eeeek! ).

Altan was also another character I really enjoyed reading about. There were times I hated him but at the end of the day I think Kuang did such a great job creating this character who has been used as a weapon, treated like an animal, who is driven by vengeance and hate.

The character growth we see in the span of one book left me shook. Some characters I thought were garbage become dear to me (*cough* Nezha *cough*). Kuang makes sure we see the flaws in every character, the basics of human nature, the cruelty humans are capable of when they think others are lesser.

The ending left me teary eyed and with a hunger for more. I’m sad that I didn’t read this book when it came out but now I’m glad because I can immediately continue on to book 2 and there’s not much time I have to wait till the final book is released 💃.

I really hope we get to see more development of the Cike crew. I feel like there is still so much I need to know!

I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible.

Was she now a goddess or a monster?
Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.


CONTENT WARNINGS: violence, murder, genocide, gore, rape, animal cruelty, human experimentation, torture, mutilation

Buddy read with Ameerah & Warda
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Book 2: The Dragon Republic
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I'm gonna love this. Right?

Seriously guys, after just finishing City of Brass I cant take another disappointment
Profile Image for Reading_ Tamishly.
3,943 reviews2,167 followers
December 28, 2022
The second and the third books are calling me 💃💃💃💃💃💃💃💃


Oh, Rin 🖤

"Warfare was about absolutes. Us or them. Victory or defeat. There was no middle way. There was no mercy. No surrender."

And this happens exactly in this book.

I want to talk about so many things but it's just that there are so many things that I can talk about which might actually become spoilers so I am in a dilemma since yesterday as to how to write the review about this book.

This book is so many things at once (as it's supposed to be!) but what I really find fascinating is the way the characters have been developed and (I can say without a doubt that) there was never a dull moment till the last page!

Whenever you feel like the story is going nowhere or that the writing slows down a bigger, nastier, unbelievable situation comes up and it's never too abrupt or out of place.

I love the first few chapters a lot! Like a lot. But it's the second half of the book that actually made me read this book senseless like there's no tomorrow. Damn. It's so gripping and gruesome. So devastating yet you will be able to see the characters burn in fire (well... literally, metaphorically, realistically) which make them stronger and more powerful than ever they could have been.

Here's the successful part of this book:

🖤 The characters.

Yes, they.

They're many but each of them are unique and their different personalities shone. Reading about them was like there wasn't a main character but each character has an important equal role. Amazing!

I maybe a bit biased towards Rin, Altan and Kitay. Because that's the way the book has been constructed and obviously I got attached to them 🤦


🖤 The world:

It's pretty easy to get into.
When Rin gets selected and starts training, you will start to get a glimpse of what's going to happen but it will take a few more chapters to get you know the different 'clans', training and the 'masters', the 'gods', the history, the warfare, the betrayal, the torture and the 'powers'

🖤 The plot:

A decade old war becomes alive

Who's going to defend

What's needed for this: train, kill, learn, decieve, power, history, truce, genocides, the gods and lots of short-temperedness (just kidding but no, it actually played a role now and then 🤦)

(I don't want to describe the Cikes, the Speerlies, the Federation, Sinegard, Nikan etc etc because the review is already too long and no. I would bit want to know about them from a review. So no.)


🖤 The writing:

It's what made everything work. The author knows she's got that power. Character development, plot development, the action and adventure, the gut wrenching moments (even though there were only few) are well-done. Kept me hooked till the end.
(I am happy!)


🖇️The trigger warnings:

Rape, sexual assault, graphic scenes

Genocide

Gore descriptions

Strong language

Abandonment, drug usage and addiction

Bullying

Violence (lots of it)


🖇️And why I cannot rate this book a 5 🌟 :

Rin is impulsive. Fine. But some things she does, doesn't make sense at all. And no one should make a momentary permanent choice regarding what one does with the vital parts of the body just because of temporary discomfort. I don't see the reason as rational and I don't like it how it was done in a jiffy and written like it's encouraged.

Then the initial intense character introductions. And then characters ghosting out (or just sent away for no reason) at the beginning few chapters. Like it's not a play. Keep them engaged please and not place them again out of nowhere in the middle of the book.

And yes, the haphazard shallow emotional portrayal.

...and I cannot believe the ending was that calm just like the tickling sensation before a big sneeze 🤦 Was I expecting something else?!


💚 I hope the sequel is much better than this one.


But love this book nevertheless! Made my day actually 🖤
Profile Image for Navessa.
Author 10 books7,419 followers
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April 28, 2021


Me: typing this post while trying not to move my neck because this book gave me a spine-cracking case of whiplash…

What just happened? I haven’t experienced this kind of love/hate 180 with a book in years. It’s like this was written by two people. One would be an author I would add to my auto-buy list. The other I would never read again.

Let me go ahead and throw out the obligatory “SPOILERS” warning now, because I have some feels and I need to talk about them without censuring myself.

This book is written in three parts. The first part takes place in a small rural town and a military academy, the second revolves around a prolonged military siege, and the third is the aftermath of a crushing defeat where all the characters are desperate and make dumb decisions.

The first part was a solid five-stars for me. It was fucking incredible. Rin, the MC, proves herself to be intelligent, driven, logical, and inquisitive. In the second part, all this wonderful characterization starts to deteriorate, and by the third, it was like she had become a completely different person.

She spends two years at the aforementioned military academy, training from the best of the best, competing against the most intelligent children in the country (or, arguably, the most prepared for this school). As she’s from the poor, peasant class, expectations for her are low. Does she cave under the bullying of both the students and the teachers? No. She faces a seemingly impossible situation and responds by proving she has what it takes to be where she is.

I cannot stress enough how much I enjoyed this part of the book. The world building was phenomenal. This is a mythical land based on Chinese history. I was never lost or confused or wanting more information. And I can’t tell you how much I loved Rin throughout it. Her drive was inspiring. There was so much show here that I really, truly believed her to be the most intelligent student in the entire school.

Which is why it was such a shock that after two years of watching this brave young woman learn military strategy, rational thinking, and advanced combat, she turns into an illogical, cowardly, hero-worshiping shade of her formal self by the end of the book.

In short, her country gets invaded, she ends up having powers, and gets shoved into an “elite” branch of the military filled with people who can call on the gods to possess them. This elite branch is made entirely up of teenagers, which is supposed to make sense to the reader, since people can only channel gods for so long before they’re inevitably driven mad by the power and entombed in a prison.

It did not make sense. Because they weren’t all able to. There was a totally normal kid in there. Which begs the question, why wasn’t the person in charge of them also normal? Someone over the age of 25, with years of military strategy under his or her belt that could provide some much needed consistency to a unit with such a high turnover rate?

Answer: because that would have taken away from the love interest.

UGH, this shit again. Where an otherwise phenomenal book turns into a typical YA romance in which the formally intelligent MC turns into a moron for the male lead.

And this male lead, Altan. What a fucking piece of work. He’s allegedly the last of a warrior class of a race that was completely wiped out in the last Poppy War. In the beginning of this book, he’s a badass. I was intrigued by him. I wanted to know more about him. I lost all interest around halfway through, when he began to bully Rin.

And then he hit her.

YUP.

And I kept reading, because I thought that it was because the author was going to make a point about this. Have the MC be like “fuck you” and abandon him.

NOPE.

Instead, at the end, when she’s forced to choose between her old master, Jiang, and Altan, this happens:

“But what had he (Jiang) ever promised her? Only wisdom. Only understanding. Enlightenment. But those meant only further warnings, petty excuses to hold her back from exercising a power that she knew she could access…
“I taught you better than this.” Jiang put a hand on her shoulder. He sounded as if he were pleading. “Didn’t I? Rin?”
He could have helped them. He could have stopped the massacre at Golyn Niis. He could have saved Nehza.
But Jiang had hidden. His country had needed him, and he had fled to ensconce himself here, without any regard for those he left behind.
He had abandoned her.
He hadn’t even said goodbye.
But Altan…Altan had not given up on her.
Altan had verbally abused her and hit her, but he had faith in her power. Altan had only ever wanted to make her stronger.”


Whoo boy. There is so much to unpack there, and you don’t even know. Taken at face value, that’s fucked up. But when you add in the fact that Jiang was trying to keep her from her power because the god she can access eventually destroys everything it touches, it becomes a little darker. And then when you realize that he couldn’t actually have stopped the massacre and that Nehza needed saving because ALTAN FUCKING LEFT HIM TO DIE, you realize just how bad this is.

And yet, she goes on to realize she loves Altan.

Because, like I said, this turns into romantic YA trash.

The MC continues her downward spiral, until the book ends with her calling on her god to literally kill every living soul of her enemy nation, because they’re "animals" (oh, hello, racism), and then after she does, she’s made the commander of her unit and pledges to kill everyone and everything that ever hurt her one twu wuv.

Does she realize that Jiang was right all along? Nope. That Altan was wrong all along? Nope. That she should have listened to everyone’s warnings? Nope. That she’s the world’s biggest hypocrite? Nope.

She’s spun as some sort of hero to her people.

Cool.

I’m praying that this is all a set up. That in the next book she’ll realize how much she fucked up. But the fact that she doesn’t show any remorse at the end of this makes me worry about that. And it also makes me want to abandon all hope in this series. Because without even a glimmer of character redemption shown to me, I don’t have any faith that there will ever be any.

Not after that ending.

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Profile Image for Connor.
681 reviews1,658 followers
July 19, 2018
My Video Review:
https://youtu.be/6hlv4tFLNRI


This novel started out so strong for me, and I can't believe how little I was enjoying it toward the end. This novel reads like two separate people wrote it. I loved the first 40 percent. I know people have compared The Poppy War to The Kingkiller Chronicle because of the academy setting and the fact that the main characters don't have much going on personality-wise. I get that criticism, but I was just enjoying the academy and the classes and everything with the world building.

Rin is very determined, strong (and over the top with her self-harm), and persistent. She's quick-tempered and has a strong desire to learn and to lead. Then after 40%, she's completely the opposite. I don't understand. She whines and complains all the time. She's unfocused and weak (with random sprinkles of strength that are too few and far between?) She went to the academy to avoid getting herself locked down in the first place and then attached herself completely to some random dude that treats her poorly and she hardly knew? In one chapter she's "given up the luxury of fear," and then in the next, "fear struck her as she looked into that eye." Rin's characterization was just too inconsistent and really threw me out of the story constantly in the second half. I was fine with Rin being a Mary Sue, but I wished she'd at least been consistent with her Mary Sue-nature. At the very least, I wish she had kept her quick-tempered nature because that would have made the most sense with what happens in the second half.

Caveat: I read this as an audiobook, so her drastic change in tone and personality may have been read into her by the audiobook narrator. She may be a little better if you read it physically.

I honestly thought the gruesome aspects made a lot of sense, and I thought it was realistic. There is genocide, rape, torture, colorism, racism, and substance abuse. Those are terrible, but it wasn't where I had problems with this book. I think maybe this should have been published and split into two. The first half, the better half, would have been amazing. I probably would have given it 4-5 stars. Then Kuang would have had more time to polish and fix the characterization problems with the latter half.

I'm happy to see so many people love this book, but I was unfortunately a little disappointed.
Profile Image for Sean Barrs .
1,099 reviews44.1k followers
July 24, 2019
The Poppy War is not a book to be missed by fantasy fans and especially those who like it infused with copious amounts of blood, darkness and misery.

This isn’t some fluffy little tale about teenage romance and personal discovery (although it may seem that way in the beginning.) This is a book about reality. Now that’s an odd thing to say isn’t it? Reality? We’re talking about fantasy here. But do let me explain.

This is a book about the realities of war. War isn’t pretty. War isn’t about heroics and grand deeds. War is about men pissing themselves and running away in fear. War is about control. War is about men trying to murder each other; it’s about soldiers brutalising their enemies and terrorising the innocent. War is about rape, raping of the land and of the defenceless. None of us will ever be ready for it. It is so very unsurprising that Rin turns into a cold hearted bitch by the end.

“Children ceased to be children when you put a sword in their hands. When you taught them to fight a war, then you armed them and put them on the front lines, they were not children anymore. They were soldiers.”

Her student days are over before they really began. She only just begins to taste her power (a rage filled magic fuelled by drugs) before she is enlisted and forced to defend her training academy from invaders. Her master taught her to control her power, and trained her only to understand it. He never wanted her to use it, though when backed into a corner Rin unleashes all her fiery fury upon her enemies. It was either that or death. Some will think her character extreme, though I think she is a product of her situation.

Rin is driven to succeed. This is not a woman who will give up. She has done some excessive things to be admitted into the training academy. She has gone without sleep. She has self-harmed (to allow the former) and she has worked harder than most would think possible. The war has shattered her dreams. It has prevented her from finishing her studies and it has turned her into a killer. She wants to finish it and will do absolutely anything possible to do so, vengeance becomes her new goal. By the end she is unrecognisable even to herself. War has killed her in a way, though it has made her very strong.

“War doesn't determine who's right. War determines who remains.”

The Poppy War was not the book I thought it would be. The more fantasy I read, the more I see the same similar plot directions and romances. Some details were predictable (such as The Gatekeeper’s identity) though I did not expect it to go quite the way it did. Initially the book parallels much of the basic plot of The Name of the Wind. It appeared to be going in a similar direction but then the invaders came and everything exploded into a bloody mess of unpredictability. Such is the nature of war.

This was far from a bad thing. I did really like the first part of the story, though my interest peaked as chaos descended. War never comes at the right time. It interrupts lives (and plots.) What the author showed us here is that it destroys everything. It destroys our plans and it destroys the direction we set for ourselves, and that’s why the sharp shift in plot was so necessarily strong.

Believe the hype. Believe the reviewers. This will be the biggest fantasy debut this year: go read it!
Profile Image for jessica.
2,478 reviews29.7k followers
November 27, 2020
‘this book will seriously mess you up.’
- ancient chinese proverb

lets get down to business. there is a lot to unpack with this book, so im going to use this review as a way to process my thoughts. to begin, the story is broken down into three parts.

part one - this felt very YA to me. students are gathered at an elite school to train to become top soldiers for an imminent war. we get introductions to characters and decent world building. its very straight forward feel to this section.

part two - this takes on a very different tone than part one, its almost jarring. the war is starting so we see what life is like outside of the school and on the battlefield. there is more world building and the fantasy element of the story begins to make a more prevalent appearance.

part three - what did i even just read!? this was dark, and morbid, and even barbaric at times. but it also transcends everything previously developed in the story. things that had been hinted at in the first two sections finally become clearer and the ending of this is just insane. so many themes were explored in this section, i dont even know where to begin. holy crap. this section. definitely not YA.

its safe to say this book was not what i was expecting. but thats because i picked this up with literally no expectations, other than knowing it was historical fiction. and even though this was based on chinese history, it had a very modern feel to it, which could have been because of the writing. also, it was difficult for me to determine the pacing of this book. at times it felt soooo slow, but then youre hit with a massively action-packed section. i think if the overall story (i.e. atmosphere and pacing) had been more consistent, and even condensed, this would have easily been a 5 star read for me.

as a whole, i thought this debut was a massive accomplishment and i have a really great feeling about the sequel, and this series in general. im really looking to see how the story will further develop!

4.5 stars
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