I saw this on NetGalley but didn’t request it or read what it was about, until I hear someone on Booktube say its setting was based on Chinese history. I then read the synopsis and got really interested -> *Request*
I was not let down. This was a great read throughout.
This ARC was provided to me by NetGalley and HarperCollins UK in return for an honest review. Thank you.
The Poppy War
by R.F. Kuang
Synopsis by NetGalley
A powerful epic fantasy novel with roots in the 20th-century history of China.
Opium runs through the heart of the Nikara Empire, a constant reminder of the war with the Federation of Mugen that brought it to the empire’s shores. A war that only ended thanks to three heroes – the Vipress, the Dragon Emperor and the Gatekeeper – known as the Trifecta. They were legendary figures, each bestowed with god-like powers, who united the warlords of the Empire against the Federation.
Decades have passed. The Trifecta is shattered; the Dragon Emperor is dead, the Gatekeeper is missing, and the Vipress alone sits on the throne at Sinegard. Peace reigns, yet the poppy remains.
War orphan Fang Runin grew up with it. Her adopted family smuggles it throughout the Rooster province, making a living on the misfortune of those addicted to its smoke. But when Rin’s parents force her into an arranged marriage, Rin refuses to accept her fate and fights her way to the prestigious military academy at Sinegard.
There she will learn of drug-fuelled shamanic powers thought to be myth, powers which might defeat the Federation during its third invasion. But the cost of some power is too great to pay, even if it means winning a war that threatens to destroy an entire nation.
Badass female main character
Historical Chinese setting
Shaman Magic system
Struggles in training and learning, nothing happens overnight
Basically, I enjoyed this book so much I forgot to take notes, much of this review is based on memory.
The book is told from Rin’s perspective 95% of the time which is really nice as I have read a lot of multi-perspectives books lately. The book is divided into three parts, all relating to the relation between Rin’s nation Nakara and its neighbour and all the different stages of Rin’s understanding and development as a person. In short, the first part is new and fun, the second part is nervous, and the third part is bloody.
I really enjoyed the entire book. I loved Rin as a character and loved following her development throughout the book and the story.
Be aware of the brutality which starts in part 3. I have read a lot of books and when people say it’s a dark book I tend to love it and not really find it that dark, or people say it’s brutal, and I don’t really find it that brutal. This one was very brutal for me. It’s not just the fact that they are at war, but it’s the gruesome brutality towards civilians (men, women, children and infants) that really struck me deep. It had a realistic feel to it, which made my brain distance itself a bit from the story emotionally, so when something sad happened I didn’t have the reactions I should have. However, it all adds up to the reasons behind Rin’s decision making and her changes as a person.
The story is set in a fantasy version of 20th century China. Rin’s Nikara is controlled by an Empress, while the neighbouring Federation is run by an Emperor who feels Nikara is his. Rin goes through a Nikara in a peace, to a Nikara on the brink of war and in full tension, to a Nikara at war. She makes a dramatic and difficult journey. Both trying to figure out who she is, who she wants to be, and want she wants, where her place in the system and in the universe is and of she has a choice in it all.
Kuang writes war in high detail and not the typical fantasy war with battalion against battalion, but as in a modern warfare against older warfare. It’s guerrilla warfare, sword fights, magic fights, and waves of soldiers. It’s brutal, gruesome, tragic, and realistic. It’s very well written, but not something you should read before bed or while you eat (like I did. it was a short lunch…).
Rin is the main character and the story is from her perspective. The book starts with Rin sitting down to take her Keju exam. She has spent only two years studying for this exam while most children spend their entire lives studying. Rin only has one chance. If she fails she will be married off to a rich old dude… Who wants that?
I really enjoyed her study method, it was intense. She had to finish two books a week and rotate between two subjects a day, on top of her duties as a shop girl and drug dealer. I could probably do the two books a week and a full time job. I would be exhausted and have no time to study anything! And obviously no social life!
Rin really develops and becomes more solid as she figures out who she is and as the book evolves. And it’s not like halfway through she has found her self, the search goes all the way to the very last page, and I really liked that.
One thing I didn’t like about Rin was when she got her period. Firstly, Hell Yeah a period is mentioned in a book!!! YES, Kuang! And it’s not a nice trickling sort of period it’s the full-on on crime scene and pain of death stuff she gets.
But, what I didn’t like is the author’s way of getting rid of this element. I know its very difficult to write about a female character who every month has to have her heavy period, but it makes it realistic and adds a challenge. In here though, the author writes it off. Yes, I understand what Rin was thinking, and believe me I understand! But I wished it would not end so soon. I felt she could have struggled with it more. Get some life experience and all that. Having said all that, later in the book, this event proposes an interesting limit for Rin and who she is. I won’t say more…
I enjoyed her training struggles and not having an easy time learning, because learning isn’t always easy. You can’t run a marathon just because you trained once, you have to go through the struggles of training for months, and Rin does that. Not the marathon but the training. Loved the pig up the mountain element, lol!
Of all the side characters I really liked Kitay. He’s a great supporting character for Rin, as her opposite but complementary to Rin as a person.
It’s quite refreshing when there is no romance just pure action and adventure and friendships.
There is some potential romance for future books, but none occur in this one.
I found the setting magical. I absolutely loved it. I kept imagining a mix of Mulan and Chinese art (like the cover), especially in the beginning. As the storyline become darker and more brutal my thoughts moved towards the Second World War and the Vietnam War (as my only source of reference for a modern war in Asia with serious gruesomeness and brutality), but still with Chinese art style landscape.
The magic system was fascinating as hell. I really enjoyed how Rin discovered it the first time around. That was a lot of fun to read. The shamanism is something I’ve never read about and it gave me something new and interesting, and I really like it.
I also like the fact that Rin has to discover several things for herself by trial and error, which gives the author a chance to “try stuff out in this world” and to introduce and explain things to the reader. It also gives Rin more challenges and struggles to go through.
This book is really well written throughout. It’s detailed without overwhelming me with details. The pacing is spot on in all the different scenes without sprinting or dragging. It’s smooth and easily flows through the plotline.
I’m definitely reading other stuff by this author and I can’t wait for book two in this trilogy!
PS: side-nerd-note: Lava doesn’t dry! It cools… just saying.
Have you read this? What did you think?
I would recommend this book to any fantasy reader, especially if you liked Mulan or are interested in Chinese fantasy settings. But again it’s brutal and gruesome so if you a sensitive, then maybe not.
Anyone become interested in this book after reading my review? Let me know 😊