The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

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I was so hyped up for this book, everyone seems to be talking about it and I watched a ton of 4 and 5 star reviews pop up for it over the last month or so. I was worried it was going to be too hyped up and I would walk away disappointed, but I didn’t! This book will appeal to people who like non western setting (china), and darker books.


 

At the start of the book the main character, Rin, is living with her adopted parents and her brother and it’s not a great situation. She was adopted begrudgingly by two cruel drug pushers when the government mandated that those families with only a couple children adopt war orphans, to prevent said orphans from growing up on the streets and causing an increase in crime.

Her ‘auntie’ and uncle abuse her constantly and have had her working as a drug mule for years.

She’s then betrothed to a man twice her age who’s already been married a few times, her adoptive parents think it’s a great match because he’s a wealthy man who’s in charge of shipping and can look the other way to their drug trafficking in exchange for their daughter. Rin only sees one way out, to try her best to test into an academy. If she scores high enough on the tests, she’ll be able to get into Sinegard Academy, it has a free tuition and is the most prestigious school/military training program in the country. The ordeal to get into the Academy was intense, she resorted to self harm methods to keep herself focused, and eventually linked pain with success.

Once at the Academy she had to struggle through even more hardship since she’s an outsider of sorts. She’s from the south and their skin tone is much darker than the porcelain-skinned people of the north. She’s also a commoner with no wealth and no family name so she’s immediately ostracized both by her peers and her professors.

The book is split into three sections, so the first section is her getting to the Academy and dealing with assholes, overcoming their prejudices, and getting top marks. The second half of the book is about war, the trainees are thrust into the thick of a genocidal war and the tone and plot shift rather drastically.

Rin is a very complex character and I loved reading about her, she was an extremely well developed and felt so real. She has a lot of unique personality traits that I don’t see done very often, at least not in this way. There are characters who are great at everything in many, many books – but Rin isn’t great because she’s naturally gifted and everything comes easy to her. She becomes great through incredible sacrifice and self-determination. She burns herself to keep herself awake at night while studying, she studies under the reject professor since he’s the only one who will take her in, she struggles the entire way so when she wins it’s extremely satisfying rather than eye rolling. She does manage to make a few friends at the Academy and she’s fiercely loyal to them, she also has a good conscience and set of morals which makes her easy to relate to, despite her having some extreme personality traits.

The world building starts out very low fantasy, for the first third of the book it read as a historical fiction to me, there were no fantasy elements at all except for a few mentions of “fire shamans” which are scoffed at as myths and legends. However, by the end of the book, it was full of demons, magic, gods and shamans. There are shapeshifters who can turn into water, there are people who walk the spiritual realm more than in reality, there are people who can call upon the gods and reign down fire on the enemies. It’s slowly introduced and then, later on, it opens a floodgate to a realm of fantasy and I absolutely loved it.

To access the gods you have to meditate and clear your mind of everything, a lot of the shamans use poppy seeds as a hallucinogen to get them there faster. It’s a huge risk because most of them become addicted to the substance. Poppy, heroin, mushrooms and other hallucinogens play a big part of the story, as is suggested by the title.

Once you access the gods, they act through their human vessel to create magic, it can be overwhelming to the point where people go insane and lose themselves entirely. There are a plethora of different gods, and not all of them have the same kind of power. One of Rin’s friends has access to the pig god, and his power is to be able to smash things lol. Rin accesses the fire goddess, one of the most powerful and destructive of the gods.

The writing in this is superb, I flew through this book so fast. It’s very detailed, but not to the point where it bogs down the story, instead, it creates a rich atmosphere that’s easy to visualize. This also includes the violence, so it made me squirm in places as well – which is the point. There are a lot of uncomfortable and deeply depressing passages in this book which really struck home with me, considering this book is influenced by real events.

The tone starts out mildly dark, there are self-harm tendencies in the main character, and the city where the academy is located is brutal. While reading through the first 60% of the book I didn’t understand why so many people called this such an intensely dark read, “C’mon guys, it’s dark but not that da-” …. “oh, my”. Once you hit part three where the war really ramps up you’re inundated with graphic depictions of violence, rape, and child slaughter. This is a book that revolves around a genocide and it doesn’t pull any punches.

The pacing does start out a bit slower, for the first 2/3rds of the book it’s just a build up for what’s to come. I kept reading because I was so engaged with the character, not so much because I was enraptured by the plot – that didn’t happen until later.

The originality of this book is off the charts, there’s a lot of things I’ve never seen done before in this book and it felt very fresh. It’s not common to see this period of China represented in fantasy, I can’t think of another. It’s not common to see drugs play such a crucial role in the world, let alone the magic system. I really adored how unique this book is, and I can’t wait to see what this author does next.


Scores:

  • Plot: 13/15
  • Characters: 13/15
  • World Building: 14/15
  • Writing: 13/15
  • Originality: 14/15
  • Pacing: 11/15
  • Personal Enjoyment: 9/10

Final Score: 87/100 – 5 stars


Audience:

For people who like:

  • single pov
  • grim dark fantasy
  • non western settings
  • war
  • slow introduction to fantasy elements
  • character driven fantasy
  • unique and fresh settings and magic system
  • demons
  • minimal romance

Not for people:

  • who don’t like graphic violence
  • who don’t want to read about rape

 

 

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