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The Poppy War: A Tale of Brutality and Vengeance

Author: R. F. Kuang

Year Published: 2018

  • Plot: 5/5
  • Characters: 5/5
  • Writing: 5/5
  • Overall: 5/5

TW: Self harm, suicide, substance abuse, torture, basically every possible trigger warning- you name it!

The Poppy War was a sprawling, suspenseful story all about war, suffering and the price of vengeance.

This book is pretty brutal. So much so, that the atrocities committed shocked me to the core- it was quite hard to carry on reading at some points. After doing a bit of research, I found out that it was heavily inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Nanjing Massacre, and then I was even more shocked to realise that the events in the book were based on real ones.

It starts off with a young girl called Fang Runin (Rin for short) who lives in the Rooster Province of the Nikara Empire. To escape her tedious life and arranged marriage, Rin becomes determined to pass the notoriously difficult Keju test and get into the prestigious military academy of Sinegard. She succeeds in this, and once she is there, she faces many challenges from becoming top of her class to fighting in a war.

Rin was a very complex character and the novel spans several years of her life. She develops so much during this time and we learn about the motivations, hopes and fears that drive her and her choices. Throughout the book I found myself saying, “No Rin! Please don’t do it!” because although I understood her need for revenge, I didn’t want her to ruin herself in gaining it as I had grown to like her. At the end of the book, my opinion about her changed and I wonder how she will deal with the consequences of what she has done in the next book.

The ‘magic wielders’ were called Shamans and they make connections to their gods (by taking psychedelics) to gain their power. In many books, we see the characters throwing around balls of fire and swords made of ice with absolutely no consequences and everything’s peachy. That’s not the case in The Poppy War. The Shamans eventually go mad from the power and have to be imprisoned so they don’t pose a threat to others. I thought this was interesting as it shows how the power almost has a cost and throughout there is a constant battle within Rin as she is torn between giving into the allure of the power or resisting and retaining her sanity.

Kuang is a very skilful writer and it’s amazing how much she’s managed to fit in 544 pages. Rin’s internal conflict was put together very skilfully and there were also in depth themes about genocide, revenge, military strategy and more.

This novel is not for the faint of heart. I would only recommend it to people who think they can handle it. Apart from that, it’s a brilliant military, grimdark fanstasy and I think people will be talking about it for many years to come.