The Poppy War

R. F. Kuang
The Poppy War Cover

The Poppy War


The Poppy War is the kind of book that I feel (and hope) will take 2018 by storm. It's a brilliant example of an inversion of tropes that manages to lull you into a false sense of security with its focus on the familiar before throwing you right into the midst of a war. It's a book that starts by feeling like a historical fiction novel (with mentions of legends and gods and fire shamans, but all within the context of being a myth, something to scare the children) and then it turns into something so dark, so gritty and so violent, I had to recover from the whiplash. And I absolutely loved it, because it's fierce and it's real and it covers an area and a time in our own history that I personally have never seen before in fantasy: the Opium Wars of China and the conflict with Japan (up to and including the Rape of Nanking).

The story starts off with Rin, a war orphan who lives with an abusive family peddling the highly illegal drug opium, and her attempt at escaping the futures her guardians envision for her: one where she is married off to further their illegal activities. So through sheer grit and determination (and not without quite literal pain), she studies for the Keju, the highly prestigious exam that would send her to Sinegard Academy and a freedom she daren't dream of. But, as it transpires, life at the Academy isn't quite what Rin expected it to be and soon, she learns the true purpose of the school: to prepare you for war.

So far so Harry Potter clone, right? I admit that I sincerely appreciated where the book went, but to begin with, I wasn't exactly blown away. The worldbuilding is top notch (and Kuang continues this throughout the novel, minor details that expand her world and characters, building a picture of a setting that feels lived in, with centuries of history and mythology behind it. The Sinegard chapters read like a darker Harry Potter, until you encounter the first sign this may not be going quite where you think it is: when Rin decides to sterilise herself rather than go through periods, a moment so grim and so brutal that showed me we weren't (and never had been) in Hogwarts anymore.

Then, about halfway through the book, as the action ramps up, the stakes get even higher and Rin is forced to face some harsh truths about her country's history, its actions in the war and the deeper truth of her own nature (not to mention that when the fantasy bits come in, everything is thrown off kilter in the most spectacular way). The ending is so amazingly over the top, so brutal, so unbelievable that I was left wanting more (and I don't know how I could possibly deal with this if this were actually a standalone novel) and I desperately want to know more about what's going to happen next. To Rin, to her world, to her friends and companions, because if we really are looking at a fantasy reimagining of China, some really horrific things are about to hit us (even more horrific than what we've experienced so far).

But The Poppy War does so much more than just explore the horrors of war; it tackles racism (and classism), it tackles magic, it tackles genocide in ways that are new and refreshing. It's a brilliantly written work of fiction, able to go from the mundane interactions over dinner to visceral scenes of brutality and death. It completely takes the tropes we have come to accept from a fantasy novel and flips them on its head. And it asks questions about humanity, about war and its repercussions, about the lengths to which regimes go in order to protect themselves from change (as well as related questions about how change should be enacted - how brutal should the revolution be, and in Rin's shoes, what would your choices look like?).

I loved this book and if Kuang can keep up the good work, I can easily see myself putting this in my top 10 series. It does so many things so well and all I can hope for is that others also notice this and ensure the hype trains keeps on chugging.