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Blood, War Horrors, and a Ruthless Protagonist ⇉ Review of The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Tuesday, May 1, 2018
I'm always on the lookout for books with Asian protagonists, especially Asian-inspired fantasies. I love reading books with characters who look like me, and I love Asian mythologies.

I also read the author's "review" of her book on Goodreads and was intrigued by her comments on her work. (Though after reading the novel, I would caution against reading her comments until after you finish the series . . . since on hindsight her comments seem to cover the whole of the work and may potentially spoil the books for you or have you anticipating something that won't happen in the first novel or two.)


Asian-Inspired World
The Poppy War draws inspiration from Chinese history (the Second Sino-Japanese war). I like how the story incorporate elements of Chinese culture in a fantasy world. Because the inhabitants of this world look like me, and that rarely happens in the American book industry.

Intricate Worldbuilding
The world building is not at the scale of great books like Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind or Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, but there is a fair amount lore in this book. I like that this is included because the lore of a people group tells you quite a bit about their history and culture.

That said, I do wish that more was shown about the people and culture of the different provinces along with the intricacies of their relationships. It feels like so much of the world building is focused on the mythologies. (Which is understandable given the nature of the "magic" in this novel.) Hopefully, we'll see more focus on the present day and culture in future installments!

Detailed Imagery
Besides the lore, this novel is heavy on the imagery. Of particular note to me, the imagery brings the setting and the horrors of war to life, the beauty of the world and the ugliness that may be wrought by the hands of humans (and gods).

An Intelligent, Inquisitive Protagonist
Rin is a bright, hardworking young woman. This aspect of her nature reminds me of some of my favorite books growing up, and I appreciate a protagonist that doesn't act on emotion alone.


Power-Hungry, Inconsistent Protagonist
Rin's ideologies have been twisted by the environment in which she grows up, and later they'll be influenced on the battlefield. Because of this, I can understand the reasoning behind some of her ideas and actions, if I cannot entirely embrace them. That said, she isn't entirely incapable of compassion. The problem is that her moments of compassion/regret/human-ness feel out of place because the context has not been set for them. These moments are too rare with little apparent motivation, especially when her thoughts contradict prior thoughts that she had.

Information Overload: Too Much Summarizing
It felt like most of this book was a summary of what was taking (or had taken) place. There were also a couple chapters that summarized what Rin was learning from her books and teachers. While some is needed in an academy setting, and in a fantasy world where the reader needs to learn about how the world functions, there was so much information being summarized (and in large quantities!) that it was dry and tedious to read.

As it is, it wasn't until I was over 40% into the novel that I felt like some action was taking place, but even then, large chunks of the novel still felt a summary of events. There were only a few scenes that felt like I was actually there with Rin on her journey and not being told what happened.

Sparse Dialogue and Little Side-Character Development
While the novel was strong in its imagery, it was weak in dialogue. There aren't many interactions between Rin and other characters, at least that we're shown, and when they do talk, conversations are short and not very revealing of the other character's personality or relationship with Rin.

In fact, the side characters aren't well developed. The most interesting character was her fellow Sinegardian student with whom she spends time on guard duty once the war starts. (I still think this student has something waiting for us to discover in a future installment.) For the most part, however, the side characters fit into tidy boxes and don't seem to contribute much to the story outside of these boxes.

Over-Revealing Synopsis
Most disappointing of all has to be the synopsis. While I understand that everything presented in it is important to the plot in some way, it gives away too much about the book and leaves little to be uncovered by the reader. In fact, it pretty much gives away the whole story, excepting the war's outcome, which is won't be resolved until a later book. (Which I don't consider a spoiler given that this novel is the first in a series.)


Much is left wanting with this book. There are quite a few inconsistencies with some elements being well done and others lacking. Few scenes drew me into the story, and for the most part, these were imagery-heavy scenes. All that said, the world presented to us in The Poppy War is creative and intriguing. While I wouldn't say that this is a great novel, it has presented a compelling villain. I am interested in learning more about this world and seeing what happens next.


When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.


For who or what cause would you be willing to kill?

Publication Info
  • The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
  • Published by Harper Voyager
  • On May 15, 2018
  • Genres: Fantasy
  • Pages: 544 Pages
  • Format: Hardback
Series: The Numair Chronicles
  1. The Poppy War
  2. TBD
  3. TBD
Mature Content 
(highlight to see)
  • Language (fairly frequent cussing, including one that involves a part of the female body)
  • Death, Various forms of torture, rape, and other atrocities of war described in detail
  • Violence (explicity)
  • Vulgarity

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