The Poppy War, R. F. Kuang’s debut fantasy novel, follows Fang Runin (known as Rin) living in the country of Nikan. She grows up poor, in a foster family that treats her poorly. However, she decides to take a near-impossible exam in an attempt to get into the most prestigious school in the country, Sinegard Academy. To everyone’s surprise, she gets in, and soon finds herself in a new city among students more rich and privileged than she can imagine. As she adjusts to life at Sinegard, she must also face the fact that war with the neighboring island country Mugen is imminent. So Rin must decide if she should harness the shamanic abilities her teacher insists are possible, and thus save her country.
This is an impressive fantasy world, though less fantastical than some because it’s rooted in and inspired by the recent history of East Asia, particularly China and Japan. Much of the conflict between Nikan and Mugen are clear echoes of the Sino-Japanese wars, and this adds an intriguing element of realism. Beyond that, the details of Nikan, especially Sinegard, feel well-realized and detailed.
The characters are many, but written well. Often in fantasy, side characters seem like a generic cast with no significant distinguishing factors. But in Poppy, supporting cast members like Kitay, Nezha, Venka all have distinct personalities. And others like Altan and Jiang serve major roles and have moving storylines themselves.
The plot is surprising. The first third feels more conventional—a fish-out-of-water thrust into a magical school. (And there is a plot point during this section borrowed from, I believe, Louis Sachar’s Holes, which is… odd.) The presence of these tropes is not necessarily bad, but I became more engaged during the second act. It was unexpected and unpredictable, but then again, that’s how war works.
This novel doesn’t shy away from portraying the horrors of war. Murder, mutilation, rape, and other war crimes are all present. Characters are traumatized, wounded, changed forever. These aren’t easy things to read about, especially considering they are based on real events. Some scenes get a bit gory and intense, which I didn’t love. And the end sends our protagonist to such a dark place that one wonders if she can be saved. I was pretty uncomfortable during some parts of this book, and I’m not sure I’ll read the other two in the trilogy. And that saddens me, because I initially was all for a novel that is different than the usual Western-inspired/Eurocentric fantasy. I guess I will have to keep looking for one that fits me better.
In the end, though, this book is an impressive debut. The characters are great, the plot is interesting and twisty, and the magic blended with history makes this fantasy novel something different than many. However, it’s a bit too dark, gory, and violent for me, which is a shame because I could have loved it.
Overall rating: 7.5/10