Review of “The Poppy War” by R.F. Kuang

CW for the book: Descriptions of intense violence, rape, and war crimes 

The Poppy War is, in a word, brilliant. It absolutely blows my mind that R.F. Kuang wrote it when she was so young, and that it is her debut novel. The depth of the book is amazing. The writing is fantastic. For all of its violence (and there is a lot of violence), it is one of the funniest books that I have read in a long time. I could tell from reading it that R. F. Kuang has a sharp sense of humor. 

The basic premise of the book is that Rin, a poor girl from the countryside of Nikara, gets the chance to train at the most elite military academy in the empire. There, she discovers that she has the potential to unlock the power of the gods, and this skill is put to the test when the empire enters a potential war. 

The writing is deeply snarky.

For one, it offers a scathing satire of standardized testing which I am still laughing (and crying?) over. Additionally, the way that Rin handles her body is at once painfully relatable and funny. These are just two examples of how sharp the writing in the book is. In every chapter, it will cause both pain and laughter.

I thought the lack of romance was very appropriate.

As The Poppy War is the first book in a series, I think it makes sense that an overt romantic storyline was somewhat lacking. Rin has a single minded focus to succeed throughout the book, and this dominates a lot of her actions. I think that giving her a romantic arc too early on would have taken away from this character development.

The main character isn’t someone you’ll always root for.

I am fascinated by Rin. She is incredibly obstinate but also deeply loving and loyal. She does wonderful things, but she also does unspeakably horrible things, and it is engrossing to sit with that dynamic throughout the book. Perhaps my favorite quality of Rin’s is her bluntness. There are a lot of ridiculous people in her world (looking at you, Jiang), and she almost never takes them in stride. She has to call them out, and I appreciate it. 

You will grow to love characters.

I will not mention another one of my favorite characters by name, but they are initially set up to be villainous. Kuang made me think that I didn’t like them, but then she showed me how wrong I was in the span of a single page. I love them now. I am devoted to them now. 

This is just one example of Kuang playing me like a fiddle. You think you know what’s going on in one page, you think you’ve formed your own opinions, and then suddenly you’re emotionally involved and she’s got you right where she wants you.

A warning: the book is almost never what you think it will be.

I, a stupid mortal, definitely started this book thinking it would be a cute coming of age novel at a magic school. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Make no mistake, this is a book about war. This is among the most violent books I have ever read, and the violence has stayed with me for a long time. Don’t read this novel if you want to avoid descriptions of rape, or vivid depictions of the violence of war. As I touched on earlier, I would also avoid the book if you want a main character that you can root for all the time. Rin has her highs and her lows, and the lows are stunningly lethal. This will turn some readers off, but for the majority, it will just be fascinating. 

I don’t think that there’s much to critique about this book

The one negative that I will mention is that 3/4s of the book is plotted very well, and the last fourth is kind of chaotic. It’s a very tumultuous time in the book, so this isn’t as big of a critique as it sounds, I just thought that there could have been a slightly more clear purpose to the book at the end, especially compared to earlier parts.

I highly recommend this book.

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