The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Title: The Poppy War (The Poppy War #1) Author: R.F. Kuang

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Genre: Historical High Fantasy

Page Count: 530


What is the book about?

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for

the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

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Who wrote this?

Rebecca F. Kuang is a Marshall Scholar, translator, and the Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award nominated author of The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic. She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from the University of Cambridge and is currently pursuing an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies at Oxford University, where her research examines nationalism and ideology in modern Chinese fiction.


Initial Thoughts

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang was a great novel about a young orphan who did everything in her power to change her sullen fate that she was about to face. I love novels about strong women, which is what drew me to this one.

I could not put this book down for the life of me. The Poppy War is one of those books that sucks you in and makes you want to know what's gonna happen after each and every scene... next thing you know, it's 4am, and you still want to read just one more chapter. Did this happen? Maybe. Don't judge!

Years, and years, and years...

I really appreciated that Kuang understands that big things don't happen overnight. The Poppy War spans over about four years (that's my rough estimation, don't quote me on that!) and brings us to three main locations/points of action, as well as a number of smaller areas of interest. I thought it was really great to be able to digest the story properly, with an understanding that there was an appropriate amount of time given to the characters to achieve what they needed to.

I thought that the plot was excellent. Kuang has a fantastic way of not dwelling too long on unnecessary information, and describing certain events in a great deal of detail. I really felt connected to the characters because the pace of the book felt real to me.

I LOVED the reading about the Pantheon and the Gods, and above that, I found it interesting how Kuang inserted the use of psychedelics as a method to reach them. It's a very different take on that subject matter and I found it added to the plot substantially.

Not your typical heroic, female driven fantasy.

A typical female driven fantasy consists of a strong, independent woman who fights for the greater good and represents what is good in the world. Rin does not represent that, and I love it. Rin embraces her flaws; her rage. Her emotions are real; gone is the unapologetically heroic, brave, can-do-no-wrong woman, and in with the angry, vengeful, hardworking woman who had to fight - actually fight - to get to where she wanted to be.

Does Rin make all of the best decisions? Do all of her actions help the world? Absolutely not. I felt like I could connect to Rin as a main character, not because I am angry and vengeful, but because her character felt the full spectrum of emotions that people normally feel, rather than a select four that make a character the most relatable.

Every character you meet in The Poppy War is unique and memorable. Jiang, Altan, Nezha, Kitay, even Jun, were all so captivating in their own way. I sincerely hope that Kuang decides to write separate stories for these characters in the future, because their backgrounds draw you right in!

The Gods give, and the Gods taketh everything.

The theme of the novel hangs around war and the ethics of war, as well as religion and the ways it can be used.

Kuang doesn't present the Gods of the Pantheon as fair, kind, and nurturing as so many books do. No, they are greedy, power hungry entities that use humans as vessels to create chaos and destruction as soon as they are asked for just a little bit of power. Humans are nothing to them, prayer means nothing, only destruction and pain.

The Speerly's God, the Phoenix, is a perfect example of this. He seeks nothing but mass destruction and pain. He feeds off of anger. He fuels anger, and uses it to his advantage. I think this symbolizes the problems that can arise when religion is used for evil purposes.

Wrap this up!

The Poppy War was phenomenal. We had a strong, independent woman lead, amazing secondary characters that deserve spinoffs (yes, all of them!), a plotline that felt very realistic time-wise, and a realistic view on war and religion. I loved it, and I am so excited to read The Dragon Republic, book two of the series.

I give The Poppy War 5 out of 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐😍

What did you think of The Poppy War? Are you going to read the second one in the series? Let me know!

Until then, read on.

~ Hayley's Reviews, xo