The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang / ★★★★☆
Summary: Rin defies the odds and passes the Keju, a prestigious test that gets her a spot in Sinegard, the nation’s most prestigious military school in the nation. From there, she continues to work her way to the top and discovers she is capable of things beyond what she thought possible. When a terrible war against a nearby country begins, Rin is pulled into something more deadly than she ever would have expected, and goes to impossible lengths to avenge her people.
I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible.
Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction
This book took me on QUITE a ride. The Poppy War packs a lot of action and character development into 500 pages, and by the time I reached the end I felt a world away from where the book had started. This Chinese-based fantasy war novel begins on a rather Harry Potter-esque note when Rin earns a spot in Sineguar military school and works her way to the top of her class after growing up an orphan raised by cruel opium smugglers. This part of the book was definitely the most fun I had reading (though while Sinegard gave me a Hogwarts vibe, it’s in the vein of an extremely ruthless Hogwarts and makes detention in the Forbidden Forest look like a nature walk). I loved getting to know this new world alongside Rin and coming to know just the kind of person Rin is: the kind that will do quite literally anything to earn herself a place.
When war begins, the book takes a rather severe tonal shift. Rin goes from education to suddenly having to apply her skills to very real battle, and this is when the story begins to turn really brutal. I will admit that this is where the book struggled to hold my attention at times – military strategy and politics are things that have never meshed well with me – but the infusion of the lore Rin learned about at school and the more fantasy-based aspects of the plot pulled me back in. But if you do enjoy military strategy and tactics, it’s so well done that I can’t see why you wouldn’t enjoy it.
I’d read in other reviews that this book is violent. And I’m here to say THIS BOOK IS REALLY VIOLENT. It does not play around with war and massacre, and is a mirror of some of the past atrocities between China and Japan. Even though I had an inkling of what was coming, I did not expect it to go quite as far as it did. But Kuang brought it there and she did it so terribly well, and it really gave much more power to the choices Rin makes by the end of the novel.
RIN. She was an incredible character, even though I was yelling at her for half of the decisions she made throughout this book. The development of Rin’s character was so well done and even if I didn’t always agree with her, I never struggled to understand why Rin made the choices she made and I never doubted her. Kuang took her all the way and I LOVED IT.
I’d say that this book probably ranges more toward a 4.5 than a flat out 4, but aside from my own lack of attention span for military tactics, I really enjoyed this book and LOVED the ending. This book was so brutal. I’m very much looking forward to book two.
A few other reviews of this book I think are worth reading:
Hadeer’s fantastically detailed review makes a really good point about the gender dynamics of this book- where are all the girls, and why is the fact that Rin is one of the only female students in her school – and in war – not more essential to the plot?
Rachel discusses how much she loved this book even though fantasy is not a genre she gravitates towards.
Shanah’s review pinpoints similar aspects of the book that I struggled with, and highlights exactly what I also loved about it.