Book Review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

“When man begins to think that he is responsible for writing the script of the world, he forgets the forces that dream up our reality.” 

This is one of those books that I should have read the day it landed on bookshelves. It may be my first book of 2019, but I am certain it will be in my top 5...of all time.

In all honesty, I was nervous to pick up this book, despite the overall stellar reviews, because of the comparisons to Harry Potter. While The Poppy War is as phenomenal as my beloved Harry Potter series, the two are on different 'playing fields.'

The Poppy War is a diverse fantasy novel that follows Fang Runin - known as Rin - as she literally studies her way out of the home of opium dealers to the best military school in the country; the novel is re-imagined version of the orphan-turned-prodigy. Inspired by Chinese history, it is rich in fully-fledged characters, history, myths, legends, and politics. 

The first section of the book is (almost) misleading: Rin struggles to acclimate to the rigor of her classes at Sinegard and find her 'place' among the elite teens of Nikara. Parts two and three of the novel plunge readers through the burgeoning war in Nikara as former enemies make another attempt at usurping the Empress and massacring the entire population of Rin's fellow countrymen. Kuang is unrelenting in her portrayal of dark themes as the characters make dubious choices while they try to stave off an invasion. Rin's character is complex, twisted, and sometimes, unconscionable. Kuang is not shy in her account of barbarous and merciless actions of her characters, and there is an irresistible quality to her writing that kept me up until the early morning hours, slowly absorbing this gorgeous book. 

What has enamored me to this novel, I believe, is it's diversity. I've always been an avid reader of fantasy, but it has become a stale genre. However, The Poppy War disregards traditional fantasy tropes and cliches. There is a marked absence of European history and legend, medieval settings, weapons, political structures, and social systems. Instead, there are morally-grey characters like Nezha, Rin's rival and Altan, the only Speerly left after racial genocide. There are gods and shamans, intense war strategies and campaigns, and plenty of shocking secrets to keep you turning pages. You will never be bored, just consistently surprised and delighted by the story as it unfolds.

A masterpiece, a timeless classic, a must-have, a I-need-a-signed-copy, a top-of-your-to-be-read-pile.

(This book is not for you cannot handle graphic violence, genocide, racism, drug use and abuse, sexual abuse (off-page), and/or other harsh themes. This novel is definitely for adults; I would not classify it as YA).

My rating: 

"War doesn't determine who's right. War determines who remains."