Book Review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
The Poppy War is an Asian-inspired epic fantasy that is influenced by the real-world events of the Second Sino-Japanese war and the 1937 Rape of Nanjing. It tells the story of Rin, a war orphan fostered by the local drug dealers in a country town, and her remarkable journey from there to the number one military school, and after as a soldier.
The story is told predominantly from Rin’s point of view, although there are a couple of chapters told from different characters. Rin is a headstrong, determined girl who, rather than be forced into an arranged marriage, finds a way to study for the entry exams into a military school. Once there she learns more about the history of where she lives, the Nikara Empire, and the wars between it and the neighbouring island country called Federation of Mugen.
Whilst at school, she also learns that she has a special shamanic ability and is taken under the wing of an eccentric tutor who teaches her about the many gods and spirits of the empire, and those humans who once called them. However, Rin’s schooling is cut short when war erupts once again and the Federation of Mugen decides to invade Nikara. As a soldier, Rin is led by a young ex-pupil, and she learns how to harness her power.
As the gruesome war goes on and Rin witnesses some horrific events, including the death of many of those close to her, she decides to take matters into her own hands – well, actually the hands of her God. And as that is the vengeful Phoenix, she uses her fire to unleash all kinds of hell on the enemy.
There is great worldbuilding, with an intriguing history and little touches that really bring the world to life. However, although I enjoyed this book, I didn’t love it. I found that I just couldn’t get fully engaged with it. I kept catching myself daydreaming about other stuff whilst reading it. The writing was good, but a bit bland with odd uses of modern words, like ‘okay’, which threw me out of the immersion.
I didn’t enjoy part one, where Rin is at school. It felt a bit generic (she meets her nemesis on the first day etc) and there was also was a lot of telling rather than showing, which felt like a summary of events. And there was one too many info-dumps. It read like a YA novel and, unless it’s Harry Potter, school settings are one of my least favourite fantasy tropes. It dragged.
I forced myself through part one, and I’m pleased I did because I enjoyed the beginning of part two when Rin becomes a soldier. Suddenly I felt like I was there with her in real-time and there was a big pick-up in energy and momentum to the story. Then the pace went a little flat again but got really good around the 80% mark.
This is definitely an interesting adult fantasy, and makes a refreshing change from the usual medieval Europe settings. Definitely give it a try, you might love part one way more than I did!
My rating: 3/5 (Part one gets a 2/5 and part two a 4/5, and a 3 overall.)
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>>My debut novel, a grimdark epic fantasy called MELOKAI, is out now! Available from Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Google Play Books, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords. Read more about my books here.<<
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