the Little Red Reviewer

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Posted on: August 5, 2019

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

published May 2018

where I got it: purchased new

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I don’t know what I was expecting when I bought this book.  I’d heard good things about it, it got some buzz when it came out, and then it fell off my radar. I knew it was about a kid who attends an elite military academy, gets embroiled in a war, and has to risk everything.

 

when I read the back cover copy, my first thought was “is this a fantasy version of Ender’s Game?”   Hahahahah!!!!  yeah . . . . nope. More like Name of the Wind if written by Robin Hobb and then half way through Ian Tregillis took over in the vein of the Bitter Seeds books.

 

I meant to keep this review light and happy and talk about the plot and Rin’s adventures at school and how cute it is that she has no idea how to talk to boys she likes, and that she’s great at memorizing facts but shitty at martial arts.  I meant to write a super happy funtime book review.

 

That didn’t happen.

 

Good news first!  The Dragon Republic (book 2) is already out!  You can read books 1 and 2 back to back!

 

The Poppy War  does start out fairly light and happy – a war orphan, Rin, needs to escape her opium smuggling foster family before they marry her off, so she studies for the imperial exam and hopes for a scholarship.  Not only does she do well on the imperial exam, she has the highest score in her prefecture and gains a full scholarship to Nikan’s elite military academy Sinegard. Rin doesn’t care what she studies, she doesn’t care about dorm life, she just knows that school means she won’t have to marry a stranger and that she’ll get three meals a day, and that after graduation she won’t have to go home.

 

She’s by far the poorest most provincial kid at the school, and is relentlessly bullied by wealthier upper class students and a few teachers as well. But, like I said, none of them are forcing her to get married or get involved with opium smuggling, so she shrugs it off.  I thought it was so cute that Rin has no idea how to talk to boys she likes – she thinks they are cute, she ends up staring at them, but has zero idea how to talk to them. It was funny and adorable. And as dark as the end of this book gets, I was thankful for these cute light scenes at the beginning.

 

This is not one of those long, drawn out school chronicles, where each book is one year at school.  The Poppy War is ultra fast paced. Kuang deftly uses a few school scenes for worldbuilding, where the students are discussing world history, with the professor telling them what really happened.   Oh, and a whole shit-ton of other awesome stuff happens that I won’t spoil for you.

 

Before you know it, Rin’s first year of school is over and she’s pledged to study Lore under the school’s weirdest professor, Jiang. Doesn’t hurt that she easily recognized the hallucinogens in his garden.   He is saddened that her goal is to become a good soldier.

 

So, Jiang and Lore.  why would a military school offer classes on lore, mythology, and shamanism?  Why indeed.

If Rothfuss isn’t going to bother finishing The Kingkiller Chronicles, it’s fine with me, because Kuang gets to the good stuff faster and in a much more satisfying way. And that’s all I’ll say about why a military academy has an eccentric professor who teaches Lore.  Oh, and that scene in The Poppy War where Rin and her friend Kitay see the puppet show? That’s another reason why.

 

I really can’t wait to read this book a hundred more times, it lures me in with happy fun light breezy stuff, pulls me in further with mythology and mystery and duality and truths that are meant for us, and then makes me want to puke and cry and say things that don’t make me any sense.  I love Rin, but deep down I want to grow up to be Jiang.

 

Ok, so that didn’t make any sense, did it?

 

 

Remember when N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy broke the internet?  This book has the potential to do the same thing.

 

The Poppy War  should be required reading in high school.

 

The Poppy War is basically fantasy China gets invaded by fantasy Japan, mixed in with all sorts of other 20th century historical events in the region.  Look for a copy of this book that has the afterward material, where the author talks about and lists some of her historical resources, where she says in no uncertain terms that “Very little was made up – most of what you see truly happened”.

 

Look, I don’t know the exact definition of “very little”, or “most”,  but what I do know is when I was reading the end of this book I wanted to throw up.  I kept reading because it was a fucking good book, and I respected Rin. Out of respect for her, I needed to go through what she was going through, I needed to be on the page with her.

 

Here’s the thing – I do not know how to feel about myself, people, humanity, after reading this book.  We are all living on the edge of being monsters, every single fucking day. It is easy, and cheap (and it gets you re-elected!) to choose violence and hate. Being a sith is as easy as breathing,and I don’t know about you, but I sit around and breathe all day long.   What’s wrong with people today? (and every day in our human history?) People is what’s wrong with us. WE are what’s wrong with us:

 

People seem to like leaders who dehumanize enemies, who make everything about Us vs Them, who tell us that everything is someone else’s fault and we are blameless. Those of us to what to give peace a try are seen as hippies, as wusses, as pussies, which then devolves to #notallhumans and being told you are not a good enough activist.  We, as humans, we fucking glorify violence and ways to forcefully impose our will on others. You’d impose your will on a horse, wouldn’t you? If you can convince yourself to view another person as nothing more than a horse, it’s easy to impose your will on an animal, right? I mean, doesn’t it feel good to have that kind of power over another human being? (aren’t we taught that it feels good? It’s almost like an . . .   addiction)

 

It’s like Cat Valente says in Space Opera – who is people and who is meat?

 

(I think I read this book at either the exact right time, or the exact wrong time.  I’m beginning to think “another mass shooting” is what the rest of my life will be like.)

</rant over>

 

Maybe we’re all Rins who want to grow up to be Jiangs, but we’re already addicted to something else. He was a teenager once, he knows it is hard to be patient and understand consequences. Maybe he’ll wait for us. Maybe one day, when we visit him in the mountain,  we won’t even have to say anything. Maybe he’ll see the look on our face and know why we’ve come.

 

But if we’re gonna grow up to be Jiang, we’ve got to break our own addictions first.   Drug addition, by the way, has nothing to do with what I’m talking about.

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4 Responses to "The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang"

Loved this book. A few flaws—the flow of it felt off somehow—but overall very good. Waiting on the second at the library. I agree about human nature. But then I’m a Lutheran so I have a pretty dim picture of humans being good to each other. But when we look at mass shootings, systemic racism, totally ignoring climate change, etc., seeing humans as inherently good is pretty tough.

Liked by 1 person

I’m an atheist and i have pretty dim view of humans being good to each other.

I think(hope) we want to be good to each other.

but our human-ness gets in the way every time.

Liked by 2 people

No this is definitely not a happy book at all! I did love it though, and I’m very excited about the sequel being out. I’m going to have to start it ASAP.

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Well now I really want to read this book.

As for thoughts on us being the problem … yeah, I’m right there with you.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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