REVIEW: The Poppy War – R.F. Kuang

the poppy war

Author: R.F. Kuang (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Harper Voyager

Genre: Fantasy, historical fiction (ish)

I stumbled across this book when I saw review copies being offered on twitter. The cover was so beautiful, I immediately leapt on it, but was only able to get a digital copy through Netgalley. Fortunately, this book is so much more than its cover, and I devoured it.

The book is set in a fantasy world, in the Nikara Empire, who have an uneasy truce with their neighbour and former occupying power the Mugen Federation. It follows Rin, a young girl from the rural south of Nikara, as she tries to gain entry to the most prestigious school in the country – Sinegard – to avoid an arranged marriage, and then her studies there and development into a military leader. When she arrives at Sinegard, however, she discovers that things are not as straightforward as they seem, and there are powers in the world that seem like the stuff of legend, rather than reason.

One of the things I loved about this book was that it wasn’t set in a Western-style world, but instead in a country which closely paralleled China, and Mugen playing the part of Japan. I only know the faintest bits of history for that area of the world, but I was able to identify certain parallels – some stories were taken directly from Chinese history, such as the monk who sat in a cave and stared at a wall for seven years, listening to the ants scream. Even the description of the woodcut image accompanying the story is recognisable to the one I have seen, and this close parallel I think made the world feel more solid for its description, although it did raise some questions in later parts of the book. Mostly, however, I loved the different voice you had as a result of this setting, and it was so rich and delightful and refreshing to read.

I would say there are trigger warnings – drug use and self-harm for the majority of the book, but in the latter third we are exposed to the extreme atrocities of war. This seemed to come a little out of nowhere for me. Whilst the book had dealt with serious issues, and death, and it hadn’t shied away from discussing war and bloodshed, the chapter dealing with these atrocities took things so much further, made the narrative so much darker. It was unexpected, but narratively it worked for me in that these atrocities would always be unexpected – no-one in their right mind would expect anything of this nature. This marks a turning point for the characters as well, and you see questions of sanity, morality and the varying nature of good and evil. Whilst the first two thirds of the book are socio-political, the latter turns into a very dark narrative on sanity and war crimes which perhaps would not be too far away from Heart of Darkness in its depiction of what total immersion in aggression can do to you psychologically. Equally, given how closely the book has followed Chinese history and is so anchored in this world, these atrocities do raise some questions for me about how much is drawn from reality at this stage, which perhaps makes things that little bit more uncomfortable than they already are. On the author’s blog, she states it’s influenced by the 1937 Rape of Nanjing, and I find her thoughts very interesting. This level of understanding of Chinese history that grounds her book is why it works so well, and why it feels so real. The author is sensitive to the triggering material as well, and gives specific chapter warnings in her blog post – I highly recommend reading it.

This appears to be the first of at least two books, so whilst the end resolves, it is not a neat ending, or one where you feel the characters have reached their full potential. The next book will be an interesting exploration of the repercussions from the first book, and I have no doubt, based on this, that they will be handled sensitively and with great care.

I am not sure whether this book is strictly a young adult book – I have seen some criticism levelled at it saying it is not, but I have also not seen anything suggesting that it is meant to be young adult. Perhaps this assumption was made based on the age of the main character. I think it is aimed at a crossover market, and it definitely would appeal to a huge range of readers. The narrative is strong and fluent, the pacing is extraordinary, and the issues and themes in it are meaty and handled well. I think Rin is a wonderful main character, flawed and rounded in so many ways, and I adored the setting and mythology that came from it. It was the book I hadn’t known I’d wanted, and it was like a breath of fresh air.

Briefly:

  • A high fantasy, historically-styled novel, based on China and Japan, making for a rich and unique narrative and setting.
  • The narrative and pacing are impressive, covering a rich story over many years without feeling too slow or too rushed.
  • A brilliantly strong female lead, well-rounded and developed in ways female characters historically haven’t been. She is allowed to be hard, angry, aggressive and driven, and these facets both fuel her strengths and weaknesses.
  • Potentially triggering material with mentions of self-harm, drug use (opiates in particular) and war crimes. The last gets particularly explicit towards the end of the book.
  • The first book, I am looking forward to the sequel.

Rating: 5/5 – generally I am hesitant to assign full marks to the first book of a series, as I am not seeing the story as a whole, but I honestly felt this book was phenomenal.

 

 

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