The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: The Poppy War (Book 1)
Genre: Fantasy, military fantasy
First published: 1st May 2018 by Harper Voyager (US) & 3rd May 2018 by Harper Voyager (UK)
I wanted to love The Poppy War quite desperately given its inspiration (and gorgeous cover).
The Poppy War is firstly a welcome change to the standard western Europe medieval setting and secondly, it is an allegory to the history of China. The narrative casts a harsh light on the brutal history of early 20th century China, specifically the genocide of the Nanjing Massacre. The mythology and culture present in the story are also so closely depicted that the novel almost reads like historical fiction, albeit in a secondary world.
I loved these worldbuilding elements of the novel, but at the end of the day, they serve as a backdrop. Characters and their stories within that backdrop matter the most in elevating a book from just good to great. I had the unfortunate experience of disliking the primary character, Rin, pretty early in the book. Initially, I thought that she was still young during the first half of the book and hoped that she will get better. But nope, that didn’t happen and in fact, she got even worse towards the end. Hot-headed, impetuous, and couldn’t keep her stupid mouth shut when she needed to, I found myself getting irritated more often and not.
The Poppy War reminded me a lot of my experience with Red Rising. I liked almost everything about the story, except the primary character. In a single POV narrative, it can become quite a problem. And similar to Red Rising, I really liked the supporting characters in The Poppy War. I wished the story has more focus on them instead, and that they can come in as POV characters so I can get out of Rin’s silly head.
As such, I thought a 3-star rating would be fair to balance out the pros and cons. I know a lot of readers liked Rin, but I failed to empathise with her character and it ultimately hampered the full value proposition this book could potentially offer.
Nonetheless, judging from the numerous awards that The Poppy War has been winning, please don’t just take my word for it. For Western readers, in particular, it provides a near representation of Chinese cultures (the Keju test, for example), mythology (gods and deities – the Monkey King parable was spot on as well as the zodiac animal signs) and history (Chinese history in its entirety is very complicated. Similar to this book, there was an Emperor who first unified China – the tyrannical but visionary Qin Shi Huangdi who laid the foundation of the Great Wall and created the Army of the Terracotta Warriors).
And just one more thing, the trigger warnings are not to be ignored. The portrayal of the atrocities of war was truly dark and disturbing.