The Poppy War, R. F. Kuang’s fantastic debut novel and the first book in an epic fantasy trilogy inspired by Chinese history, is partially based on the Second Sino-Japanese War, particularly the horrific massacre that came to be known as the Rape of Nanjing. As such, it’s a story that unflinchingly examines how war shapes and changes people, for better and worse—with heavy emphasis on worse.

The heart of The Poppy War is Rin, a war orphan determined to avoid the fate her guardians plan for her: marriage to an older man whose position would benefit their opium smuggling business. Rin’s only viable alternative is doing well enough on the Keju to be accepted into a prestigious military school. It’s a long shot for a young peasant woman who has not been preparing for the test since a young age, but she steals drugs from her foster parents, hides her theft through bookkeeping, and convinces a local tutor to help her study in exchange for her stolen goods. For two years, Rin spends every spare moment and many sleepless nights immersed in the Four Noble Subjects, and her dedication pays off: she receives the highest score in the entire province, securing herself a spot in the academy.

Rin quickly discovers that getting into the school was the easy part, despite the amount of effort it took. Approximately 20% of the students are rejected as unfit to become a master’s apprentice after their first year, and Rin has a large disadvantage given that she has not been training for this throughout her entire life like her noble-born classmates. To make matters worse, the Combat Master despises peasants like her who pass the test and refuses to teach her—and she knows that none of the masters will want to mentor a student lacking martial arts skills.

Nevertheless, she persists, even managing to become a top contender in her classes. Though she struggles with teaching herself martial arts, her attempts come to the attention of Jiang, the eccentric opium-growing Lore Master most of the school views as a joke, who agrees to instruct her. She learns that he knows the secrets of the gods she once believed to be mere legends, and Jiang discovers that Rin has an affinity for shamanism but also fears her connection to the wrathful Phoenix.

But Rin’s education at the military academy is cut short when the Federation of Mugen attacks the Empire and all students and masters are needed to fight in the Third Poppy War. Rin’s god could save her and her people—but at what cost?

The Poppy War is one of the better 2018 releases I’ve read. It’s well paced and engrossing from the very first page, plus it features an intriguing main protagonist, some engaging—and at times amusing!—dialogue and narrative, and a world with a rich history. Although I found it to lag very briefly once or twice and had a couple of other minor issues with it, I enjoyed the book immensely overall and especially appreciated the boldness of Rin’s character progression.

As compelling as I found it, I do want to be clear that it seems like a major understatement to write that The Poppy War gets really dark toward the end. R. F. Kuang’s description of the book on Goodreads discusses some of its influences and what can be expected, including the following statement that sums up the novel’s core:

This book is primarily about military strategy, collapsing empires, mad gods, and the human ability to make awful, ruthless decisions. It’s about how dictators are made.

To be entirely frank, if you’re turned off by violence, I might pick up a different book.

It also includes abuse, rape, genocide, and human experimentation, among other topics that many may prefer to avoid in their reading. The author’s blog includes a full list of content warnings.

The earlier part of the novel serves as a sharp contrast to what follows, even though it does touch on some of the aforementioned subjects (such as discussions of a past genocide). This section shows Rin’s sheer grit and determination as she conquers her classes through hard work and aggressively removing any obstacle that could potentially get in her way (and, on one occasion, smuggling out a library book that first year students are not allowed to read). She makes a friend and a nemesis, and like the rest of the academy, becomes captivated by their star apprentice, the last of the Speerly people and an undefeated warrior whom the teachers wish other students would emulate—who, she later learns, is hiding a lot of baggage despite his many accomplishments.

Then Rin’s classes are interrupted when her nation is once again attacked by the Federation of Mugen, and she discovers that no amount of learning can truly prepare one for actual war: the fear that comes with being in the heat of battle and killing another soldier for the first time. There’s a huge difference between theoretical discussions about strategy that take place in the safety of a classroom and making decisions that will impact a country’s people. Suddenly, Rin’s epic rivalry seems inconsequential, and both she and her rival immediately turn to working together against their common enemy. (I rather loved the development of their relationship as it moved from adversarial to friendly, from wanting to kill each other to wanting to save each other’s lives.)

From here, Rin is immersed in the war, and I really admired that R. F. Kuang did not play it safe when it came to Rin’s choices: they are clearly horrible, but they are completely hers. They are not brushed off as having been influenced by higher powers. They are not made in ignorance since she’s not only been warned but has also come to better understand the reasons behind these warnings by the time she gets to the point of no return. Her decisions have consequences and change her relationships, both creating new bonds and tearing old ones apart.

The Poppy War is a gutsy fantasy novel that increasingly delves into the grimmer side of humanity: the involvement of gods adds to the story and raises the stakes, but it’s ultimately about people’s capability to create horrors all on their own. Though I didn’t quite LOVE this book—I thought some of the secondary characters could have had more depth and that the writing could have been stronger at times—I came close to it, and I’m looking forward to the next installment in the trilogy.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

Read Chapter One of The Poppy War

Read R. F. Kuang’s Women in SF&F Month Essay “Be a Bitch, Eat the Peach”