Saturday, March 21, 2020

Review: THE POPPY WAR by R. F. Kuang

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Poppy War is a dark and gritty military fantasy inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Rape of Nanking. The story involves the use of shamanistic magic to call upon the gods for power during the brutal wars.

Rin is our strong female protagonist, but she’s not invincible, which I appreciate. She cried multiple times throughout the book and was both physically and mentally hurt a lot too. She had to struggle and learn, and even then still made mistakes. It was nice to see her grow into herself over the few years we follow her in this book.

One issue I had, though, was that Rin was one of only three characters who I felt had a real story in this book. Besides the secondary characters of Altan and Jiang, and maybe Nezha, everyone else felt flat to me, one-dimensional tertiary characters. This is definitely not a character-based story as each character’s arc, even Rin’s, could have been more developed and gone much deeper. I will note, however, that I’ve seen many reviewers claim the opposite, that the characters in The Poppy War were dynamic and have complex relationships, but I honestly did not feel that way at all.

I do not have a good understanding of Chinese history (history was always my weakest subject) so I have no idea how similar this story was to true Chinese history and culture. And frankly, I don’t care if it follows it to a tee or not because I liked the story. It’s clear that Nikan is supposed to represent China and Mugen is supposed to represent Japan, but that’s all the parallels I was able to draw with my limited historical knowledge. I’ve seen a few complaints that this book got some aspects of Chinese history wrong and portrayed things in a bad light (such as how Mugen is fully evil and there’s nothing good ever mentioned about that country), but guess what? The Poppy War is fiction. It doesn’t have to be 100% historically accurate. I thought it was a good story regardless.

At less than fifty pages in, I already started seeing similarities to Red Sister—a young orphan girl goes to an academy to train and becomes super strong and cool. Except I didn’t care for Red Sister while I at least marginally enjoyed The Poppy War. (I’ve also seen this book compared to The Name of the Wind, among others, because of the school setting, but I have yet to read that book so I can’t make those comparisons.)

The Poppy War is divided into three sections. Part one was my personal favorite as it had the warrior school setting and things were a little more lighthearted; I loved reading about Rin at the Sinegard. Part two started to get darker as the war started and strategy tactics and battles were introduced. Then part three got really dark and was almost depressing to read at times. By the time I was a few chapters into part three, I was really wanting to be done with this book to move on to a fantasy that’s not as gritty. I normally like to jump right into sequels without waiting, but after the events in The Poppy War, I’m going to read some other things first before starting The Dragon Republic.

Although I enjoyed my time reading this book, I also found myself wanting to be done with it. Epic fantasy books like this take me a long time to read for some reason, so it felt like I spent forever in this story and I just wanted to move on to something else at times, for example when I had spent hours reading and only managed to get through forty pages in all that time, I knew I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I was at the beginning. I also prefer my fantasy to be a little bit more fantastical than this story was—Rin’s a shaman and can call upon the power of the gods, so we get to see the supernatural plane of gods and monsters, but there’s not really any form of magic system in this book, which I wanted there to be. It mostly felt like a historical fiction book for most of the story until the shamanistic bits became too unrealistic to not be considered fantasy (catching yourself on fire or walking the spirit plane to call upon the Phoenix god for power, for example).

Maybe this book was just too dark for me, I don’t know. I haven’t really read any military fantasies before so maybe it was all the wars and fighting that I didn’t care for. I can’t really put my finger on what exactly it was that made me not love The Poppy War, but I know that I expected to like it more than I did. I have read so many five-star reviews for this book, people claiming it was the best fantasy debut of 2018, but there are definitely better books out there in my opinion.

If you enjoy dark military stories with a dash of fantasy, lots of gore, and a school setting then you will likely enjoy The Poppy War. It wasn’t the best thing I’ve read but I do still plan to finish the series because I liked it enough to continue on with the story, and I respect stories like this one that bring light to some historical events we may know little to nothing about. This book also made me want to read more Asian-inspired fantasy.

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