The Poppy War: The award-winning epic fantasy trilogy that combines the history of China with a gripping world of gods and monsters: Book 1 Paperback – 16 May 2018
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- ASIN : 0008239819
- Publisher : Voyager - GB; ePub edition (16 May 2018)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 544 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9780008239817
- ISBN-13 : 978-0008239817
- Dimensions : 15.3 x 4 x 23.4 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: 385,585 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
‘An outstanding debut’
‘A book that will go down as one of the best grimdark/military fantasy debuts of all time’
‘A masterpiece by grimdark’s newest and perhaps darkest daughter’
FANTASY BOOK REVIEW
‘A wholly unique experience’
THE WASHINGTON POST
‘R.F. Kuang’s fresh approach to magic and hard-hitting story is a punch to the gut fantasy has needed for a long time. I can’t wait for THE DRAGON REPUBLIC’
Peter V. Brett, bestselling author of The Demon Cycle
‘Enthralling from start to finish … I thought myself prepared. I was now. R.F. Kuang’s debut is a masterful must-read, and I’ve no doubt the best is yet to come’
Nicholas Eames, author of KINGS OF THE WYLD
‘A blistering, powerful epic of war and revenge that will captivate you to the bitter end’
Kameron Hurley, author of THE LIGHT BRIDAGE
‘Fresh, assured, character-driven fantasy that’s choc full of magic, war, and betrayal. I loved it from start to finish’
Peter Newman, author of THE VAGRANT
‘A powerful, emotional journey, compellingly written’
Adrian Tchaikovsky, award-winning author of THE CHILDREN OF TIME
‘An original and engrossing tale of the coming of age of a talented young soldier amid the horrors of invasion and genocide’
Anna Stephens, author of GODBLIND
‘I so enjoyed The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang … It is all about survival, and how a person’s will and determination can change the course of their life. I loved the central character, felt her pain and her far-too-brief moments of joy, and just loved how Kuang breathes fresh life into the warrior training school … Highly recommended’
John Gwynne, author of MALICE
The award-winning epic fantasy trilogy that combines the history of China with a gripping world of gods and monsters
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Top reviews from Australia
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At the heart of The Poppy War is Fang ‘Rin’ Runin, an ambitious Nikaran war orphan raised by a pair of opium smugglers. To escape a life of robbed of agency and an arranged marriage, Rin plotted and blackmailed her way into sitting the Imperial Keju examination, subsequently gaining access to Sinegard – Nikara’s leading military and combat academy. In Sinegard, Rin contends with students from privilege backgrounds and instructors who underestimate her worth. What I love about Rin is her drive and ambition, the way she refuses to let anyone else take control of her life’s narrative. In a fantasy genre filled with Chosen Ones with preordained destiny, Rin stands out by using sheer grit and determination to dictate her own fate.
Aside from Rin, there is a host of intriguing characters populating The Poppy War. I love the ‘easter eggs’ hidden for readers familiar with Chinese folklore and classic texts, such as Su Daji and Jiang Ziya, or Nezha and the members of Cike – these figures are simultaneously familiar and recognisable yet stand on their own merits as complex and unique characters. As the book documents a period of several years, we are privy to the development of several characters throughout their Sinegard schooling and beyond. There are characters I wanted to punch at the beginning of the book, only for them to become one of my favourites by the end (although I would still like to punch them). While I may not always agree with the decisions of certain characters, I could sympathise with them as their choices are always grounded in realistic and complex motivations.
The book is inspired by modern Chinese history, particularly touching on the Second Sino-Japanese war and the Nanjing Massacre. Its use of fantastical and fictional elements to directly commentate on the wounds left by war and the ghost of memories is nothing short of brilliant. The Poppy War exemplifies why SFF as a genre excel at starting difficult conversations about the issues in our world. The dialogue that The Poppy War begins is uncomfortable but necessary, and its execution was raw and honest – I can see this as a book that would haunt its readers and be discussed for years to come.
There is a lot of darkness within this book, and several difficult and triggering scenes which mirror horrific events in real life. These scenes are harrowing to read, and I felt physically ill at one point – so I highly recommend that all readers take care before diving into the novel. I thought the unflinching inclusion of these brutalities in the story was necessary, and would highly recommend you read the author’s own take on it.
Here’s a list of content warnings: self-harm and suicide, violent rape including the rape of minors, sexual assault, murder, genocide, massacres, torture, mutilation, brutalisation, drug abuse and addiction, emotional abuse, physical abuse, relationship abuse, human experimentation.
If you’ve seen my activity across social media in the past weeks, it’s no secret that The Poppy War is one of my favourite books of 2018. However, there are a couple of things I would love to see explored in future books. Firstly, the ableism in one scene – where someone comments that a character would be better off dead than disabled. Secondly, while there are many women within positions of power within the novel, aside from Rin, they all play a minor role to the men in the current narrative. I believe the antagonist set up for the subsequent novels will change that, but I would love to see more women in prominent roles for the rest of the series.
I am still left reeling by this book, the fate of its characters, the scope of its world. The Poppy War 2 is already my most anticipated novel of 2019, and I can’t wait for the day I get to pick it up and have my heart destroyed once more.
One more thing - I recognised so many details from the Nanjing Massacre. If you're sensitive to brutality or unfamiliar, wiki that and get a general flavour before you start reading part 2, so you're prepped. This book is absolutely worth reading with or without that. Damn!
Top reviews from other countries
The main protagonist is a teenage girl called Runin Fang or Rin for short. She is an orphan from a previous war whose uncaring opium dealing foster parents are trying to marry off to a much older man for their own gain. Rin's only chance is to enter the Keiju, a test held country wide to find the cream of the crop and send them to prestigious schools. Rin not only passes, she is first in her whole province sending her to Sineguard, the top military school in the whole of her country Nikara. The problem is she is an orphan with no money or standing and the other teenagers there are mostly sons and daughters of nobles who have been training for this their whole lives leaving Rin both behind and shunned by her new classmates.
I loved this, it was like martial arts Harry Potter. The premise is great and Rin absolutely shines, you can feel her determination, her pain, tears and anger as she refuses to give up or be beaten no matter what is thrown at her. It was gripping, well written and I couldn't put it down. There are three acts to the book, that was act one, unfortunately the other two acts almost feel like they were written by different authors.
Act two has the start of a war break out forcing the students to be drafted to fight. Rin suddenly becomes childish, petulant and kind of pathetic, she loses all her fire and just about every other character comes across as hugely unlikeable as well. I can certainly understand her finding actually fighting, killing and seeing friends die pretty taumatic but it's like she's a different person completely. The whole pacing despite there being a war on also just seems to slow down completely and act 3 becomes even worse with Rin making stupid decision after stupid decision following another character out of some crazy loyalty that is never really warranted from the actual content. She barely feels like the main character anymore, just a puppet following along, so different from the firey spirited girl at the start. The ending is extremely unfulfilling with Rin a shadow of the person she starts as, I just didn't really like her by the end of the book. The Poppy War also has a huge tone shift from the first third of the book with some extrememly over the top violence and rape descriptions that seem needlessly dark in it's descriptions. I saw another reviewer mention it being a reference to the Nanking massacre during world war II and I can certainly see that being the case but it feels so unneeded and didn't really add anything to the story to me.
It's really frustrating because the start is absolutely excellent, the martial arts fights are exciting, Rin is developed well and I could feel myself really rooting for her with all the stuff coming her way, it was even emotional at times yet by the end I just didn't really care about her or what happened. I don't feel bad I read it but I find it hard to recommend overall. It has great ideas but the book sadly just isn't consistant enough in it's tone or characters to keep the pacing or enjoyment going.
+ Martial arts Harry Potter.
+ The first third of the book is fantastic.
- Act 2 and 3 are disapointing in their tone shift and character personality shift.
- Ending was terrible.
This was one of those books that hooks you from the first chapter and stays with you long after you have finished it. Filled to the brim with action, and with a heroine you're not sure is a hero or a villain, the twists and turns of this book are sure to keep you hooked until the very last page. I only recently found out that this draws inspiration from the Second Sino-Japanese war and the Rape of Nanking, and I love, though am slightly disturbed that this takes inspiration from real life events.
I always enjoy a brilliantly written literary school and the Sinegard was no exception. Described as the elite military school in Nikan, which only accepts sons and daughters of members of the nobility, until Rin. Despite all the trials that Rin faces at Sinegard, there is one saving grace in the Master of Lore Jiang ( who is a cupcake and I adore him!). He teaches Rin the basics of Shamanism, how to reach the Pantheon, and then how to cut herself off from the God's. which is the exact opposite from what Rin wants to learn.
Rin is a beautifully written character, she has the best of intentions, but her thirst for revenge is what eventually takes over, and drives her down the path of the Phoenix God. Though not necessarily a "hero" you cant help but feel that Rin's choices are made from the heart and with the best of intentions, she simply feels that there is no other way to exact her revenge.
Altan is the reason for Rins choices and the main director of the path she takes. A boy that has had so much taken away from him, and far too much power given to him. He feels wholly the pain of the destruction of Speer, and the weight of being the last Speerly, until that is, he meets Rin. Together they make a hugely powerful team, however, there are those who believe them unnatural and unholy who would seek to ultimately destroy them.
This book is split into thee parts. Part one is mainly focused on Sinegard and Rins first year at the academy, learning who her supposed enemies and friends are. Part two focuses more on her training with Jiang and the initial onslaught of the Mugen heralding the start of the third Poppy War. Part three follows Rin as she is eventually put to use in battle under her commander Altan, and her realisation that everything she thought she knew can be turned upside down.
This was an easy 5/5 for me. I loved everything from the plot, the character and the world that Kuang builds. A must read for anyone looking for a dark and gritty Fantasy novel, with characters whose decisions don't always fall on the side of good. Though please do take note of the trigger warnings before reading.
Once I actually picked up the book though, I’ve got to admit that for the first third, my overwhelming thought was that it did feel a bit YA after all. And not just that, but a bit clichéd. This section revolves around a girl from a poor village studying hard and being accepted into an elite military academy. Inevitably, she has a tendency to be top of the class. Inevitably, more privileged students are awful to her. The writing and world building were great, and the pseudo-Chinese setting was refreshing, but it all felt a bit too much like something I’ve seen numerous times before. I also found it a bit unbelievable that the main character did quite as well as she did. I felt like more moderate success would have been just as satisfying and helped me suspend disbelief.
In the second third, the plot and the tone totally change. Instead of learning about war in a safe, theoretical manner, the MC and the other key characters are plunged into a brutal, bloody conflict with a neighbouring nation (which felt like a fantasy Japan). You certainly wouldn’t call this part YA. It’s very violent, with several quite disturbing scenes, and one standout horrifying one, in which a particularly sadistic occupation and massacre is described in pages and pages of horrifying detail. I’m still torn over whether it was needlessly gratuitous or a brave attempt not to sugarcoat the horrors of war. It was certainly memorable either way! Violence aside, this section is also notable for its interesting use of military strategy. Even if I had to read some of it with my hands over my eyes, I found this section more original and intriguing.
The final third, while maintaining the adult tone, feels different again. To some extent, the war recedes into the background, the stakes become more personal to the MC (albeit with global implications) and there’s a move away from stark reality tinged with magic to full-on metaphysics. It was definitely the most unique part of the book, particularly when combined with the MC’s increasing moral ambiguity (at best…).
Overall, an impressive but somewhat unbalanced and tonally inconsistent read.
The Bad: I did feel that some of the agency stalled in part three. When the rest of the book was so tightly wound, I couldn’t help but notice that it lapsed here. Regardless, this is my nit-picking for a ‘the bad’, as this is a truly fantastic book.
The Ugly Truth: A coming of age epic that leads on to a magic school section of mayhem and mysticism, before spiralling into a grimdark no-holds-barred military fantasy that’d make Sun Tzu roll over in his grave to rewrite The Art of War, with Joe Abercrombie writing the foreword. The Poppy War delivers what most trilogies aspire to – in ONE BOOK.
Review: For full disclosure, I read this months ago but at the time was too busy to review it properly. And then, as happens in life, things got in the way and before I knew it, months passed and still no review. The fact that this has sat in my TBR pile AFTER the TBR pile (i.e the to-be-reviewed pile after breaking free of the mountain that is the to-be-read pile) is entirely my fault.
But, in a way, having put this aside for a few months has really helped me to realise how much this book got its claws into me.
The Poppy War, like a drug, has me hooked.
The Poppy War tells the story of Rin, a war orphan scraping at the bottom of society’s barrel. But when she passes the mandated tests of the Empire and earns her place in the most elite military school in Nikan, she learns that rising to the top doesn’t make the water in the barrel any less murky. Through teenage trials of friendship and falling out of love with your dreams, to the pains of growing up and what purpose life is supposed to hold, Rin learns life’s hardest lessons in the Sinegard military academy. Showing an aptitude for the equally mystical and mythical art of shamanism – something regarded as a bit of mumbo jumbo, or better yet, an excuse to get high – Rin learns the hard way that not all is as it seems. And just when she seems to have fought her own inner demons to a stalemate, an invading nation threatens all she knows.
Now, before I continue, I need to clarify something. I’m not a fan of ‘trigger warnings’ – though that’s probably because I deal with the sentiments/emotions that the content invokes in me in a different and probably not all that healthy way – but this book is full of them. It’s a veritable who’s who of violence, abuse, and pain in all its forms. Be warned.
It is also key to note that certain elements of The Poppy War are heavily influenced by the Rape of Nanjing/The Nanjing Massacre during the Second Sino-Japanese war.
For months now, in quiet moments when reflecting upon books, The Poppy War has crept into the back of my mind like an itch I can’t scratch – or the fix that I need. I’ve been lucky enough to read a lot of fantastic debuts in my time reviewing, and as a reader it’s as if I’ve struck gold in 2018 with all the recent releases of not-just-another-white-medieval-fantasy. The Poppy War is one of many new non-typical worlds brought to life by new voices, including Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri, The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty, and the Asian influences of RJ Barker’s Wounded Kingdom trilogy (aka the ‘Assassin’ books. #OhGirton). *
From the first page, the world rose up around me. Time and again I’ve used the ‘living, breathing worldbuilding’ line in reviews, but in The Poppy War, Kuang does more than this. When I first started reading The Poppy War I thought that maybe it’s because the Asian influence is so clear and distinct that I can imagine the world easier, or maybe it’s because I was so hyped for this book I had already built the world for it inside my head. In hindsight (several months’ worth, but still a beautiful thing) it’s because Kuang’s worldbuilding and scene setting was done so cleverly that I didn’t notice the individual blocks until the whole was built and I was already sitting down with my feet up reading the book in the comfort of the newly constructed house.
At which point ‘the first page’ has been and gone, and so has the first few chapters, and before I knew it, I was through the first part, with only two left to go, and I didn’t want the story to end. The plot is tightly packed, especially in the first third, which takes Rin from her ‘coming of age’ to ‘magic school’. The pace is thick and fast and doesn’t let up throughout. The only time I had an issue with the story was in part three, as I felt that some of the agency was lost at the start of that section. However, by the end Rin was well and truly back in control – or not, as it were.
With every book I read I try and put my finger on the ONE thing that stands out the most for me, and with The Poppy War I had a hard time deciding what that was. Until now.
It was Rin.
Rin is one of the most compelling, complex and comprehensive characters I have ever read. At first she’s the underdog character, the type of ‘chosen one who was never meant to be’. Except, as the story progresses, her fierce spark of determination becomes a flicker of fire, then a flame, and by the end it’s a raging inferno. She is a heroine reminiscent of a Greek tragedy, hearty but equally heart-breaking, whose hubris and failures are linked not just to her faults but her strengths too. She is deeply flawed. Deeply. But at the same time she makes decisions based on logical comprehension that the normal person either wouldn’t see, or even bring themselves to face it and weight it as a choice. She does what others cannot, because they will not.
There is a particular moment in part one, when Rin is faced with a dilemma and a decision, which I won’t cover due to spoilers. Firstly (and you will know the moment when you get to it), I have never heard of a book present this type of dilemma to a character, or indeed the reader, and secondly, Rin’s decision blew me out of the water and left me ‘whu whu whu’ing like a fish trying to breathe. It will probably go down as one of my most memorable moments in fantasy of all time.
Which is a fitting farewell to a book that I will no doubt continue to think of. ‘One of the most memorable’ has more of a ring than ‘the damn book haunts me when I can’t sleep at night,’ but both are true. I like to think that the best books make you feel or think something, and by this mark, The Poppy War is one of the best books I have ever read.
*Side note: I’d like to take a brief moment here to reflect on that sentiment: representation in fantasy, both that of the story and the teller.
The world is a very big place. It’s also very old.
There are far flung corners of the map that I, and many others (maybe even you, dear reader?), have yet to read stories ‘influenced’ or ‘inspired’ by these places, the history of the locations found there, or the people that have lived there. And, because we are talking about fantasy here, it’s not just about what/where is on the horizon, it’s about what is over the horizon, in places you cannot see except for in your mind.
So, if anyone is short-sighted enough to not see the beauty beyond the four walls of the box you’ve built around your own expectations, please feel free to expand your horizons, and join in exploring a brave new world, and whatever lies ahead of us.
The world is a very big place. It’s also very young.
And I for one look forward to seeing where it goes next.
Fang – Rin – Runin is a war orphan. A girl forced upon a merchant family from a poor province in a society where class and station mean everything. As you can imagine, Rin in looked upon as a burden that the Fang’s want to offload as soon as possible.
Sure enough, the moment Rin reaches fourteen years of age, the Fang’s arrange a marriage for her. She is to wed a man twice divorced and three times her age. Little wonder, then, that Rin rebels. The Keju – an annual national test to find the brightest students in the Nikara Empire – is approaching. Rin takes matters into her own hands. She’s a bright girl with a good mind, and through some artful maneuvering, manages to secure private tuition.
The trouble is, when Rin aces the exams, she finds her success is merely illusory, like fools gold. Why? Entry into Sinegard – the Empire’s most prestigious military school – doesn’t guarantee her troubles are over. Far from it. They’ve only just begun!
Prejudice, bitter rivalry, narcissism – from classmates and instructors alike, make Rin’s life a living hell. But this dark-skinned peasant girl with a strange accent from the south has one thing going in her favor. She’s not a quitter. And when she discovers she is one of only a few people in existence who can summon the power of the gods, well . . . events take quite a turn.
Alas, the gods are unpredictable. Vast in scope. Insanely passionate and impossibly cold and aloof. And when their majesty is brought to bear upon insignificant little humans, the results can be – and often are – catastrophic. Rin witnesses this firsthand when the Mugen Federation declares war upon Nikara.
Far from helping her take control of her own life, Rin finds her future thrown into jeopardy when an avenging god seeks to use her as its conduit onto the mortal plane.
As to how that goes, exactly, you’ll have to find out for yourselves. But in summation:
“The Poppy War” is a fantastically mystical story, operatic in scale, personal in its appeal, and one of the most entertaining, thoroughly satisfying journeys you will ever take through the pages of a book.
Prepare to have your perceptions altered.