A Masterclass of Fantasy Writing: R. F. Kuang – The Poppy War

Damn, I had forgotten just how good this book was! The feelings that stuck the most were impressed but not exactly happy ones because, let’s face it, this book gets dark. But in order to enjoy the trilogy propery (and thus remember all the characters’ names and such) I decided to re-read the first volume in R. F. Kuang’s epic series. I do not regret it. This book is a masterpiece.

by R. F. Kuang

Published: Harper Voyager, 2018
531 pages
The Poppy War #1
My rating:

Opening line: “Take your clothes off.”

A brilliantly imaginative talent makes her exciting debut with this epic historical military fantasy, inspired by the bloody history of China’s twentieth century and filled with treachery and magic, in the tradition of Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

Holy shit, this was even better the second time around! I have to preface this review with my observations about the difference between reading this and listenting to the audiobook, which is how I first consumed this story in 2018. I adore Emily Woo Zeller as an audiobook narrator and I remember loving this book but for some reason, it didn’t get to me as much the first time as it did now, when I read the ebook. This may have nothing to do with the format at all and more with my mood at the time, the books I had read prior to The Poppy War, or something entirely different for all I know.
But what I do know is that this re-read made it all the more clear what an immense talent Rebecca Kuang is and what a masterpiece her debut (!) novel is.

You have probably heard that this book gets dark, and it absolutely does, so please make sure to consult content warnings before you pick this up. But also don’t let that deter you from reading it. It’s not all doom and gloom and it doesn’t start super dark. In fact, it starts on a serious note but also by using a well-loved trope – Rin, a young war orphan who comes from nothing, works her way into the most prestigious military school in the land. By studying hard, foregoing sleep, putting everything she has into this one chance to escape her life, she actually gets a spot at Sinegard Academy. But getting into the school is just one step and it turns out to be the easiest.

What follows is essentially the magic school trope, except darker, more serious, and with so much world building and depth and brilliant characters that it feels nothing like other school tropes you’ve read. It has all the elements that make these stories fun – like the instant rivalry between penniless Rin and rich pretty boy Nezha who bullies her for her dark skin, her southern accent, her lack of martial arts training. The classes Sinegard students take are all highly interesting and Kuang manages to pack a lot of world building into this sequence without ever bogging down the story, without making it feel like she’s using the school setting to get information across to the reader, and without sacrificing character development. That by itself is an impressive feat, especially for a debut author.

One thing I had forgotten since I first read this book was how much I adore these characters. You may think it’s easy to love Rin, the underdog, the girl who just wants some agency, who prefers to fight for her country rather than be married off to some man twice her age. But Rin isn’t perfect. Far from it! She’s a real person with flaws and a temper, she makes terrible decisions and she can be really insensitive at times. But she’s also brave and relentless, she gives her all and she believes in doing the right thing (the right thing isn’t always obvious and sometimes, there isn’t even any “right thing” to do) and I love her with the fires of a thousand phoenixes!
I was equally impressed with the side characters, whether it’s quiet, bookish Kitay, the first real friend Rin makes at Sinegard, her rival Nezha, or the admired Altan, the last Speerly and best martial artist at Sinegard.

Speaking of Speerly, and the world in general. There is such a rich history to discover in this fantasy world. Nikan is based on China, the Mugen Federation – currently at peace but another war is coming and everyone knows it – is Japan, and it is because of this book that I learned a bit of real-world history (warning: it’s one of the most terrible things I’ve ever read). But as much as this story takes inspiration from our world, it is still firmly a fantasy novel. There is a pantheon of gods, there are people who can converse with them, and a very few who even have the power to call down a god and use their power. Poppy and the various drugs made from it has its part to play as it helps to reach a certain mental state needed to reach the pantheon, a state otherwise achievable mostly through meditation.

“I noticed the puppeteer glossed over how we actually won the Second Poppy War,” Rin said after a while. “You know. Speer. Butchery. Thousands dead in a single night.”
“Well, it was a kid’s story after all,” said Kitay. “And genocide is a little depressing.”

So there’s history, there’s magic, there is a school setting and a vibrant world. But Kuang took such care with the world she has set up and she lets us look at so many more aspects of this world. Class differences, politics, religion, culture… it’s all there and helps create this really immersive place that feels utterly real! It didn’t matter to me at all whether I was reading about Rin sitting in class learning about how the Nikan Empire sacrificed the island of Speer in order to win the last Poppy War, or whether I was reading about an action-packed martial arts fight scene between her and an opponent, I was always completely in the moment, totally gripped by the story, with my eyes glued to the page (well, e-reader, but you get the idea).

Kuang’s writing is superb! I swear there was not a single wasted page, not a line out of place, not a word too many. I’m writing this prior to reading books two and three, so I can’t yet judge how well Kuang did foreshadowing for the trilogy as a whole, but within this novel, she did it phenomenally. She manages to repeat vital information in a way that makes sure readers don’t miss it but without making it feel unnatural or forced.
This is a fairly big book yet it felt like a mere 200 pages. There was never a time when I wasn’t eager to return to the book. Working and doing other stuff (you know, stupid nonessential things like taking a shower or cooking dinner 🙂 ) was so annoying because I just wanted to go back to The Poppy War. And that’s the number one sign of a good book for me. When I constantly wish I was reading, when I want to know hat happens next. And in this case it’s even more impressive because I already knew what would happen next. Reading this is not just about the plot or even how the characters develope, it’s also the simple pleasure of being immersed in Kuang’s world via her writing.

When the bad parts came, and they keep coming relentlessly once they start, I was crying for a few chapters straight. Again, despite the fact that I knew what was coming, those scenes hit me in the guts and seared themselves into my brain all over again. It takes a skilled writer to describe such atrocities, especially if you don’t want them to feel like they’re just in the story for gratuitous shock value. As horrible as the later parts of the book are, they are vital for the story. The plot and Rin’s development as a person wouldn’t make sense, wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for these depictions of war.

The ending strikes this glorious balance between delivering a satisfying end to the first story arc, while at the same time setting up events for the next book, and hitting home emotionally. I’ll be honest, I waited about 30 seconds before I started reading The Dragon Republic because I didn’t want to let go of these characters. As of writing this, I don’t know how the trilogy ends but my gut is telling me to prepare for pain. It goes to show how great Rebecca Kuang is that I’m looking forward to the hurt she will inevitably inflict on me…

MY RATING: 9.5/10 – As good as perfect!


4 thoughts on “A Masterclass of Fantasy Writing: R. F. Kuang – The Poppy War

  1. James Weber says:

    Nice review! I love seeing this kind of enthusiasm no matter which book it ends up being. This is why we read!
    I’ll admit this one didn’t land for me quite right away. I needed to investigate the context to truly understand what it was “trying to do”. Now that I understand some of the history it was referencing I can agree it’s an amazing feat.
    Still perhaps a bit dark for my tastes however. I haven’t started the second one yet, but I’m sure you will soon so I’m anxious to see what you think!

    Liked by 1 person

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