Review: The Poppy War

Posted: December 17, 2019 by in Books that are Mediocre (2.6/5 single_star) Meta: R.F. Kuang, Fantasy

There’s a part of me that wonders if I’d have ever decided to pick up this book if I didn’t have a Twitter account. A few months ago, there was just this rash of people talking about it in my feed and gushing about how beautiful it was, or what a great book it was. So I decided I’d better see what all the hubbub was about. There are a couple other books like that in my to-read queue right now, but this was the one that took precedence because it was the first one I had free access to it. Got nothing but love for my local library.

THE POPPY WAR (Amazon) is the first book in a planned trilogy by R.F. Kuang and is her debut novel. The story revolves around the character of Rin, a war orphan living in a world much like China of yesteryear that has been adopted by abusive step-parents who have a high level of importance in the illegal sale of opium. When her parents decide to marry her off to a very old man to further their own financial situation, she somehow instead talks her way into being allowed to study under the tutelage of the local librarian in preparation for taking an entrance exam into the prestigious military school, Sinegard Academy. Against all odds, she passes the test with flying colors and begins her journey toward learning how to become a mighty general of the Nikara Empire.

Oddly enough, I never remember her learning to use a bow. So, you’ll just have to ignore the image on the cover. Even though it is, admittedly, pretty cool.

First off, I really need to make an important distinction. This is not a YA novel. Despite the fact that Rin is a young woman, this story delves into subject matter that is significantly beyond what we should be feeding our teenagers. The world that Rin lives in has a continual history of war and violence that inundates so very much of their lives. This doesn’t become apparent, however, until late in the book. Perhaps around the 2/3rds mark. At which point, Rin is thrown into a war that exposes her to levels of violence and torture, wide-scale rape, and gory repulsiveness that was enough to literally make this reader sick to his stomach on multiple occasions. Has this kind of violence occurred in the world. Yes. Is it terrible, and horrible, and should it be reviled? Yes, yes, and yes. Should we be allowed to forget that it’s happened? No chance.

But do we need to feed it to our children? I’d say that’s an absolute no on pretty much all fronts. In fact, I have no doubt that there will be plenty adults that won’t even want to read about it. So, be warned.

Not to mention the fact that one of the ways in which Rin finds to force herself to keep moving is to self-mutilate along the way, and that’s not exactly a topic to be praised either. Not that themes such as those can’t be used in stories. Just that if they are, they should probably come from authors that are decidedly further along in their career, so that they’re handled sufficiently well. Moving on.

THE POPPY WAR has trouble deciding what it wants to be. It jumps between YA and graphic war horror, building the world more than relaying a compelling story

Arguably, the best aspects of this story are the great prose and detailed world-building. The author is a teacher of history, and so it’s easy to expect that any novel she writes would be well written and strongly supported by its history. From generals, to wars, to commerce and social structure, the world she presents feels full and ready for a great story to be told upon. The major difficulty in absorbing it all is because of how much comes to us through the lens of… well… a history teacher. Rin learns a lot of the history of the Nikaran Empire through books and teachers, once she’s arrived at the school. It’s a bit much to take in, honestly. Feels a lot like a firehose, and despite being new and well-told, frankly the presentation got pretty boring after a while. There’s only so much info dump that I can swallow in one go, and when the teaching goes on and on for several chapters, and I don’t see the point or any direct impact upon the story at hand, my eyes just begin to gloss over and I lose the ability to enjoy the tale. But then there are scenes that are quirky and funny, with a stage of characters that feel like they were pulled out of MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (EBR Review), and then a dive into the wicked cavernous depths of a mountain prison to save Rin’s master from the Academy. There were definitely spots that made me perk up and hope, but never enough that it grabbed hold of me or kept that interest level up for long enough that I ever felt I was really enjoying the story as a whole.

This difficulty is somewhat compounded by the meager amount of characterization built into the story. The strongest portion of the novel is the beginning. By far. Where Rin is motivated by the threat of essentially being raped by this old man to whom she’s being offered. She pushes herself near to the breaking point to memorize and understand all of the book knowledge that she must retain in order to perform well at her testing. Because if she fails, she knows where she’s going. Once the story moves to the Academy though, characterization and nearly all motivation falls off the map. While reading the myriad passages about what other students were doing and teachers were saying, I lost the thread of who Rin was or what she wanted. There were more than a few times when there was nothing directly impacting her, and instead of resolving to do something or even to go somewhere, she’d wander around or end up accomplishing the equivalent of twiddling her thumbs while others made the important decisions.

The magic system was definitely interesting. Built upon the usage of opium and other hallucinogens, those that have the inherent ability within them, can reach out to the pantheon of gods and petition them for power or bind them to their will. The few instances of this power source being used show just how destructive and powerful these gods are. In thinking about the whole setup after finishing the book, however, I’ve decided it highly likely that this whole power structure should have resulted in a complete obliteration of essentially the entire planet upon which these people live. I wouldn’t feel at all hesitant to say that we’ve likely all seen kids that should have been old enough to know better and act better throw an absolute fit of screaming outrage over something decidedly small in nature. Imagine a child in the throes of a fit like this having the absolute power of a god/goddess at their beck and call. I just don’t see it ending well for anyone. And yet, this is the power that is eventually handled to these children.

On the whole, well-written prose with a tale that is more of history than engaging story and not focused or consistent enough to garner anything above a mediocre rating from yours truly. There have definitely been better books published lately, and you’d do better to go looking elsewhere for something worth the read.

  • Recommended Age: 18+ for all types of adult content
  • Language: Frequent F-words, but very little else.
  • Violence: Very violent, sexual, and gory in portions of the book
  • Sex: Main character uses the threat of rape as a motivational factor, and the wholesale application of rape during a war scene

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