Review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Review: The Poppy War by R.F. KuangThe Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, grimdark
Pages: 544
Published by Harper Voyager on May 1, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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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.

My Review:

The Poppy War is an absolute wow of a book. It’s also amazing that this is the author’s first novel, but that’s not what makes it such a marvel. It’s just completely, totally and utterly WOW! If you like grimdark (because this one is very grim and exceedingly dark) and/or if you like your fantasy-style alternate history set in a time and place that is totally f-ed up beyond saving, but the characters try anyway, then this book might be for you.

If you want a happy or at least a triumphant ending, where both good and evil are clear-cut and clearly drawn, this is not your book.

Instead, be prepared for absolutely anything, because this one sets off a whole pantheon of trigger warnings. And if you fall into it, dragging yourself out at the end is incredibly difficult. This is an epic book, and it will give you an epic book hangover – interlaced with tons of frustration, because it is clear from the way this book ends that this story is not over. Rumor has it that the author is committing trilogy, but there are no projected publication dates, or even titles, for those putative books 2 and 3.

Even though when you finish The Poppy War, you will want to read them right now – or at least right after a cocoa and a lie-down. I’d pass on the nap, because I think nightmares would probably be inevitable for a bit.

This book is so many things. It is a heroine’s journey, but it is not the usual heroine’s journey. Every time the heroine reaches a point that should be a triumph, the situation descends quickly into tragedy, anarchy or both.

There’s certainly an element of the “chosen one” to this story, but by the end one has the distinct impression that what Rin has been chosen for or by is operating by the old saying, that “those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”

While the heroine is in her teens, and she certainly comes of age over the course of the story, this is absolutely, positively NOT a YA book. And while the first half of the story covers the trials and tribulations of fish-out-of-water Rin at the prestigious military academy at Sinegard, this is also not a “save the school, save the world” story in the way that Harry Potter is. At the same time, there are elements of Rin’s personality that may remind readers of a very, very dark Hermione Granger – at least the swotting parts of her personality.

The Poppy War is also an #ownvoices epic fantasy. The heroine is a brown skinned Asian woman, written by a brown-skinned Asian woman. The history that the author has chosen to use as her background is history that is all-too-familiar to her, but that we are not familiar with in the West, and should be. The unfamiliarity makes the story even more fantastic, while the grounding in the real gives it an authenticity that makes the tragedy all that much more tragic and awful.

And “awful” both in the sense of terrible and in the sense of “full of awe”.

Escape Rating A+: This may be the first week I’ve ever had two A+ books, and back-to-back at that. Epic fantasy is one of my first loves, and it’s certainly obvious in this week’s books.

The Poppy War is so many, many things, and all of them special and amazing. I was absorbed into this world from the opening pages, as our chosen heroine desperately seeks a way to escape her intended fate as concubine to an old man so that her foster parents can further their opium business.

Rin’s way out is through pain and achievement, and it sets the pattern for the rest of her story. At each turn she takes the more painful and dangerous route, no matter how dark the road seems or how often she is warned against it.

The Poppy War is a story where things are always darkest just before they turn completely black. Then the scene lights up with fire, and everything is reduced to ash. And Rin, well, Rin does not so much emerge triumphant as she rises slowly to a standing position, bloody, broken and incandescent.

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