Title: The Poppy War.
Series: The Poppy War #1.
Writer(s): R.F. Kuang.
Publisher: Harper Voyager.
Release Date: May 1st 2018.
My Overall Rating: ★★★★☆.
War is Hell. But a time without it has never seen the day. Through those dark periods, the lessons we learn are often those that we retain the longest, but history shows that we love to repeat our mistakes. To expect anything else from humans would be irrational. But what happens on the battlefield is often not the same as what is told throughout generations. From creating a dichotomy with heroes and villains to embellishing the who, what, where, why, when and how, these stories share the common purpose of immortalizing a message. With legends filled with mystical occurrences being the perfect example, you sometimes have to wonder how much of these stories are true and how much is the result of mankind’s imagination. But what if there were no lies in what was told? Fantasy author R.F. Kuang offers a historically-inspired debut fantasy novel to delve into a little girl’s journey through maturity and ultimately into war.
The Poppy War tells the story of Fang Runin, who goes by the name of Rin, a war orphan from the Rooster Province who seemed destined to a life of misery as she reached the point in her life where her guardians would marry her off in hopes of further expanding their criminal enterprise. It is her resolute volition to take on the Empire-wide test to recruit the most talent youth to a free scholarship at the Academies, that presented her with her last hope in becoming much more than what she’s being forced into. As she goes head first onto a treacherous and bloody path towards war but also mysticism, she will find out the hard way that things are only getting started for her. While greatness is not achieved by sleeping your way through life, Rin finds herself constantly challenged by the people around her into building her character through adversity and perseverance. However, will she do whatever it takes to get what she wants or crumble from the weight of the trials that life has in store for her?
Split into three parts, the story explores theory, theology and warfare, while always cranking the level of darkness and gore as you progress. Creatively structured, R.F. Kuang does an impeccable job in developing her characters and her world in The Poppy War. The first part of the book draws upon the famous school trope and focuses on Rin’s book smarts as well as her training as a military combatant. With various themes often found throughout academia, from bullying to anxiety, the climax of her education remains an exciting moment of discovery that leaves fans craving for more. Upon reaching the second part, R.F. Kuang starts to truly explore the elements of fantasy that will structure the lore of her trilogy. It is here that she does not shy away from building intrigue and suspense through the potential of her world and her mythology. The way this also shapes Rin into enveloping her mind around concepts that she never truly believed in mirrors what the reader feels and keeps us fully invested into the adventure.
The third and final part is where theory is put into practice. The story now shows its true colours and marvels in its qualities and potential. R.F. Kuang flexes her creativity and historical ingenuity once she starts to dive into the military plot. How she fuses mythology and gods into what seemed like a world void of magic is truly mesmerizing and really captures the readers heart with the vivid, and sometimes really gory, sequences that throws you right in the heart of the action. There are however extraneous moments throughout the story that led nowhere or didn’t offer the intended comic relief, but for the most part, the story always builds upwards and looks to draw a clearer picture of the universe in which these characters live in, while also leaving enough mystery to torture the reader in their pursuit for answers.
While the grimdark elements progressively take form, there is no refuting its presence in The Poppy War. Violence, cruelty and horror are usually crucial companions to war, and R.F. Kuang brilliantly portrays it all in this story. Even through Rin, R.F. Kuang is able to display a young and flawed character that has yet to truly or fully understand the nuances of war and the emotions that come with it. But it’s how she struggles to contain her own feelings that makes her character so complex, so intriguing and sometimes, so very irritating.
Framed within a military fantasy novel, R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War is a phenomenal Asian-inspired epic blooming with mythology and warfare.