Book Review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Status: Finished Reading (02 August 2018)

Edition: Amazon Kindle

Rating: ★★★★★

Image Source: Goodreads

It took me a few days to be able to gather my thoughts after reading this book. I think the only way to truly describe it is a journey – and one of the most tumultuous journeys I’ve been on as a reader. It was a difficult journey to take but it was one, I think, that was necessary for me to have gone on.

The Poppy War is the story of magic and fighting and gods. It follows the journey of young Rin who has shucked the societal expectations placed on a dark-skinned, poor war-orphan, and made her way to the most elite training Academy in the Empire. It is her story on finding ways beyond human capabilities to prove her worth, and to show the world that she is not someone to be taken lightly.

At the same time, the book is the story of humanity, the loss of it, and the tragedy of war. Based on real life events during the Second Sino-Japanese War, it makes the reader truly live the experience of being in such a time and place. The book has no qualms about getting truly dirty and gritty about all the horrible things that happen during war, never holding back on making the reader understand what it’s like to be in the midst of one.

I highly recommend that before you read the book, you read R. F. Kuang’s post explaining the choice to write physical and sexual violence in an explicit manner in this book. I think it does a good job of not only preparing a reader with the necessary trigger warnings, but also prepares them to treat the written material with as much respect and sensitivity as the author has.

This book was not an easy read. I had to put it down multiple times – in some cases because the triggers were difficult to handle on a personal level, and in some cases because they were difficult to handle simply as a human being. But, as Kuang explains, silence hurts worse. The Poppy War makes the reader experience the brutality of war, and the aftermath of it, and in many ways the depth of that impact is achieved by being extremely honest.

The story is an incredible one even from a purely fantastical standpoint. Given that it’s based on real events, there is a lot of authenticity behind the world building and the kind of militaristic decisions that are made by the characters – after all, how can anything seem outlandish when it is based on real events to a great deal? If anything, if something feels outlandish, you start realising just how horrible the decisions have been that history has made.

I mentioned this in passing on my social media, but I don’t think any of the characters in the story were morally perfect. They could not be – we were seeing individuals who had been raised for war, and then watch them thrust in the middle of it. The book explores their moral greyness, how they succumb to difficult decisions, and who they become when they reach the other side of it. It is a questioning of human nature and how it is governed by fear, hunger, pain, wrath, and desperation.

It has been a long time since I have read a story where the characters truly scare me – in most cases, they manage to only make me extremely angry, at best. But Rin and Altan? I think I can safely say that, as much as I love them as characters and thoroughly enjoyed their personal story arcs, they also scared the living daylights out of me. There was little to no way for me to ever predict what they were going to do – and every time they did, it only brought more fear and foreboding with it.

Kuang has created here a very three-dimensional set of characters and put them in such a raw story that it leaves the reader’s nerves just as tender. I was shaking when I was done reading. With fear, with shock, with pain – but also with so, so much grief. Mourning for the characters, mourning for those of us in the real world who may have been a victim of violence, but also mourning for those who suffered in history and gave this story its basis.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a realistic historical-fantasy book. Kuang really put all of us through a ringer with the manner in which this story accelerated – by the last few chapters, I was holding onto the edge of my seat, certain I was going to be sent flying off by the last page. And I did. I cannot wait to find out what happens next.


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