Review: The Poppy War

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recieved this book as part of the Hugo 2021 nominations packet

This book was GREAT! I can definitely see why its series was up for a Hugo nom this year. I wasn’t able to get past the first book before it was time for Hugo voting, but I looked forward to reading this book every day. There was never a time where I felt I had to push through the book. It even had such a great start:

“Take your clothes off.”

Actually, the first paragraph:

Rin blinked. “What?”
The proctor glanced up from his booklet. “Cheating prevention

WTF kind of test is taking cheating so seriously that the students have to strip to make sure they aren’t cheating?”

And from there we were off to the races. I was reading this mostly at the same time as The Ruin of Kings. I also enjoyed that book, but I felt this one was more exciting from beginning to end – probably because (other than the first chapter) it’s being told chronologically so nothing has to be held back for suspense or surprise. There was also the difference factor of this book’s setting. While most fantasy is either Europe or Europe by another name, here we have a world that straddles primary and secondary world fantasy. Clearly the Nikara are China and the Mugan are Japan. I was torn on whether Hesperia was meant to be the Roman Empire or a lumping of all of Europe. The Hinterlands are clearly the Mongols. Spearly – I’m not sure if it’s meant to be Okinawa or Taiwan. But we have a correlation to Sun Tzu and even a journey to the west type Buddhism story. That was all fun and having the food and cultural references be a little different was also informative when it’s so often taken from Greek or Norse mythology. (Or Tolkienesque) I think many fantasy readers of Asian descent will be happy to see themselves in the story, finally! If my kids (who are hapas) continue to be into fantasy, I’ll definitely be sharing it with them.

As to the story itself, in another interesting contrast to The Ruin of Kings, the fantasy elements take a LONG time to arrive. This is neither good nor bad, it simply is. It made me wonder for a long time how and when RF Kuang was going to incorporate fantasy into it. In the meanwhile it read like a Confucian/wuxia tale and that was fun in and of itself. I think Kuang takes the well-worn Harry Potter/Cinderella trope of being raised by uncaring relatives and rising WAY above that to some good places. Because it’s meant for an older audience it’s not simply a “prove myself and I won’t be a misfit anymore” story. It’s also a wartime story and I think a lot of the aspects of the aftermath of war hit me a little harder in 2021 after years of things like the Syrian Refugee crisis and understanding how quickly things get turned around. I think Kuang does an excellent job of providing consequences to the actions. This isn’t one of those fantasy books where murder just happens willy-nilly. It leaves people screwed up.

I’m definitely adding the next book to my to-read list and can’t wait to jump on it. (Although since Hugo voting is over, it’s going to the back of the list) If you want your fantasy to have a different perspective or if you want to see yourself as the hero (because of gender identity or racial identity) read it. If you want a good story, no matter your background – read it!

Definitely a book for adults or for a very mature teen – profanity, drug use, rape, war, death, violence.

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