Book Review: The Poppy War by RF Kuang

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.

Book Review:

When people are trying to undermine your capabilities, abilities, and skills, and when they are trying to pull you down and prevent your growth — the only logical response is to prove them wrong, right? Rin, orphaned and struggling with poverty, is treated badly by her step-parents. And one of her best qualities is perseverance, grit, and unparalleled mindset. This book holds me at the edge, gripping the things that I am immersing with this novel. The Poppy War by RF Kuang is exhausting. It lets you digest its content wholeheartedly and saturate you with Rin’s journey at the same time, it tires you but you don’t want to put this book down.

That’s how good this book is.

At first, I was reluctant if I would be able to finish this book since I am in a book slump. Didn’t I know that I will enjoy this book more than I expected. It showcases the wonderful personalities of these characters that teach us that the world is vast and that there are people you will come across with for a short time and there are people you are not really in good terms in the beginning but will be the best influence to you in the future — that sometimes, its not about the relationship you have in the beginning but who is the person that makes you grow as they grow.

Rin’s journey to be a part of the military is one thing. But discovering her true self along the way is another. What makes this book amazing is that it explores her identity as a woman, the true nature of discrimination, intimidation, hierarchical power, and inhumane decisions for them to win. I am torn whether to justify the actions in this book since there is war and what is a war without immorality, right? I guess, this book just proves that no matter how humane a person is when it comes to war, we would lose our shit and as much as we want to stay to our humanity, we would be forced to do the things that are against our principle and moral code – as such thing happened to Rin in this book.

 This book tackles a lot of difference within the Empire – misogyny, racist, and manipulation. In short, toxic culture; in which I appreciate the most when RF Kuang includes these negative aspects of real life in her book that makes the reader really think. I would like to believe that we should be exposed to these things whether in real life or in a book to be more open-minded and to know more about the world we are trying to live in. I would like to question everyone: How we will make a change if we are not aware of these idiosyncrasies? How we will teach them if we don’t know the borderline or the gray area between good and bad? How we will be able to embrace change if we will end up sugarcoating these topics?

Another part of the novel that I ended up noticing is how Rin questioning her purpose and how life forces her to be the Rin she is at the end of the book. I don’t know if I should be happy because she is growing immensely but at the same time I feel sad because of the things that Rin is trying to endure, the sacrifices that she has to make, and the longing, the emotions, and her feelings that she should hide because for her, these things are irrelevant when you are fighting — and people only acknowledged you if you win.

The Poppy War by RF Kuang is a masterpiece. A book that you feel like hating but ended up loving. It reflects a lot of real-life struggles and finding yourself in the midst of a crisis. It will make you realize that there is more out there that you are not aware of. That you shouldn’t judge anyone based on their background. That simply doing good, studying better, and being kind is not enough for this world to go around. As the old saying goes, there should be light and darkness — to obtain balance in our world and to also appreciate the good moments in life and realize that the bad things that are happening are only there to make you stronger.


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Rebecca F. Kuang is the Nebula, Locus, Campbell, and World Fantasy Award nominated author of The Poppy War and its forthcoming sequel The Dragon Republic. She is currently pursuing an MPhil in Modern Chinese Studies at Cambridge University, where her research examines the wartime fiction of Northeast writers from 1931-1945.


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