The Poppy War may not be a story for the faint of heart, but it certainly managed to keep me hooked until the very last page.
When Rin aces the Empire-wide Keju test and earns a place at the most elite military academy in Nikan, she is promised a new life far away from her meager existence as a war orphan at the mercy of her guardians. Earning her place at the top is only the beginning of her struggles, but then she discovers her own unique power: a talent for shamanism – a near-mythical art that is mostly regarded as an excuse to get high – and begins to explore her strange power with a teacher whom most deem insane.
As an invading nation approaches the Empire’s shores, promising the return of the terrible Poppy Wars that devastated her home, Rin’s shamanic abilities may be the only way to save her people. But what price will she have to pay to wield the power of a god?
I’ll start off this review by saying that grimdark isn’t usually my favourite subgenre. I still enjoy books like Prince of Thorns on occasion, but sometimes it can feel like these stories are more focused on being as dark and cynical as possible, rather than telling a compelling story. And while this book doesn’t quite reach that level of gratuitous violence, it certainly doesn’t shy away from it either.
Abuse, cruelty, and pain in all its forms are depicted here without hesitation. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the book does contain a section based heavily on The Nanjing Massacre/the Rape of Nanjing. It’s one of the most brutal sections I’ve ever come across, not helped by the fact that it is based on real events. Horrible events do serve a purpose in the narrative, and they are presented without glorifying or reveling in the violence for the most part, but I don’t want anyone picking up this book without being aware of just how dark this book can really be.
With that said, while this kind of setup could easily turn into nothing but bleak misery, Kuang’s writing is smart and filled with enough sincere emotion to make it work. The story is rife with all things terrible, but there are actual moments of hope and camaraderie in between all that darkness, and likable characters whom I can root for without feeling like I need a shower afterwards. The result is a gripping, consuming, albeit still extremely dark, story that grabs hold of the reader from page one and stays with you long after the final chapter.
It helps that the world R.F. Kuang creates is absolutely, beautifully realized. The influence of Chinese history and culture creates a vivid and refreshing setting that breathes real life into its world and it’s story. Much like in my Spin the Dawn review, this new perspective is a welcome change. The Empire of Nikan and it’s people are alive and unique, and you want to see this world and all its characters succeed, even as war erupts on the horizon and the brutality of combat rises up almost from the start.
The plot begins with intensity and never once lets up, moving from threat to terrible threat with the speed and brutal urgency of a hurricane. It’s fast paced and tightly packed, particularly in the first third where Rin goes through her ‘coming of age’ from a poor orphan to a member of an elite academy. It took me less than two pages to be pulled completely into the story, and before I knew it I was already halfway through the novel and I never wanted it to end.
The best part of this book is its lead character. Rin is one of the most memorable protagonists I’ve ever come across; complex and compelling in equal measure. From the beginning, Rin absolutely refuses to fail. Every obstacle set in her path is just another test of her determination, and if there is one thing Rin has in abundance it is hardcore, unrelenting determination. That resolve is her greatest strength, and her greatest downfall, reminiscent of a Greek tragedy, as she sacrifices more and more of herself in order to do what must be done.
It all comes to a head in the finale, when Rin makes a choice that left me both absolutely horrified and utterly astounded. It is one of the most memorable choices in any fantasy I’ve ever read, and it will stick with you long after you close the book. Whether or not that’s a good thing is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.
For the most part, The Poppy War manages to find the right balance. I was absolutely hooked from the beginning, and the book’s fast pace and high stakes kept me invested through even the darkest chapters. I’m honestly still not sure how I feel about this ending, even days after finishing the book, but I do know that I will be picking up the sequel as soon as possible.
Final Thoughts: Dark, gripping, and absolutely brutal, The Poppy War manages to balance out the darkest elements of its narrative with a terrific protagonist and a compelling story. If you can handle a little brutality in your fantasy, I would definitely recommend it.
Thanks for reading everyone. On to the next chapter!