I received an advanced reader copy of The Poppy War from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank R. F. Kuang and Harper Voyager for this opportunity.
Rin is a war orphan who works at her foster parents’ shop and their main income is created by dealing drugs. Only just into her teenage years, Rin is offered a proposal to marry and bear children for an unattractive gentleman three times her age who has no redeeming qualities. She decides she needs to escape this presented and projected future and her only means of doing this is to study for the Keju – an examination where the top-50 students in the country that pass the test can train at the military educational establishment set in the empire’s capital. Surprising everyone apart from herself she is successful and then whisked away by her tutor to the city and this is where Rin’s adventure really starts.
Although the college sections are similar in design and structure to those depicted within novels such as The Name of the Wind and The Wizard of Earthsea, The Poppy War has a lot more in common with Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song. This is a dark, brutal, gruesome and occasionally uncomfortable book to experience so readers should not think that because it features a school environment with best friends, bullies, and coming of age experiences that this is dumbed down like some fantasy adventures that feature such tropes.
The Poppy War is inspired by China’s bloody 20th-century history and parallels between segments here and real events can be seen at certain points. The oriental take on fantasy is something that has intrigued me since I read Fonda Lee’s – Jade City and similar to that tale Kuang’s debut is complex, insightful, well-crafted and features certain characters who kick-ass at martial arts. The world building here is sublime, as is the depth of the nations history, religions and practices. There were many ways the author engineered the intricate details of her created world but my personal favourite was when the myths of the Trifecta were presented in the form of a shadow puppet show.
The characterisation and character development employed throughout this novel are exquisite. Written in the third person perspective, Rin is the only point of view character that we follow and to say that her character and personality change throughout the course of the narrative is an understatement. She is an excellent protagonist and shortly she may be mentioned alongside genre-defining characters such as Kvothe and Vaelin. There is quite a sizeable dramatis personae and too many standout characters to mention in this review. Notable mentions go to Jiang (the Lore master who might just be a little bit insane), Nezha (Rin’s rival who is the beautiful son of a warlord and who should have a glorious military career), and Altan (the college’s finest student who excels in all aspects and has never lost a fight). Also, the Cike are brilliant. They are almost like this worlds version of the X-Men.
Approximately the first half of the book is set in the school where students learn about five subjects including strategy, lore, and martial arts training. Three years later we reach the second half of The Poppy War which features skirmishes, battles, political indecision and some of the grimmest and most shocking scenes I’ve come across for a long time. One moment is particular stands out as being on par with the nightmare that was the hammer scene from Anna Stephen’s Godblind. This story features plenty of deaths as well as torture, drug use, mutilation, implied rape, grotesque monsters and malevolent gods. The first third of the book doesn’t really present this sort of darkness and despondency so I thought I’d make it clear in my review that this is a story that is very adult in nature. A good percentage of destruction, later on, is generated from this worlds magic where certain vessels can be assigned the power of the gods and wield it for their own means. As I’m sure you can imagine, this leads to ridiculously overpowered players that then can lead to complete madness.
2017’s debut fantasy releases were some of the finest of recent years and it’s great to know that Kuang has picked up the baton and is carrying on the trend and leading the charge in 2018. I can safely say that this will be the finest debut of 2018 and I’d be surprised if it isn’t one of the top 3 books of the year full stop. Spectacular, masterclass, brilliant, awesome… All the complimentary buzzwords you can imagine don’t quite do The Poppy War justice for how amazing it is. The only very minor criticism I have is that on the cover artwork Rin has a bow and I can’t remember her using such a weapon in the book. That’s my only negative. If you like dark adult fantasy then check out this masterpiece by grimdark’s newest and perhaps darkest daughter.