Why You Need to Read: “The Poppy War”

The Poppy War Series: Book 1: The Poppy War

By: R.F. Kuang

Published: May 1, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Folklore, and Military

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains minor spoilers from this novel. You have been warned.

            “Who are the gods? Where do they reside? Why do they do what they do? These are the fundamental questions of Lore. I can teach you more than ‘ki’ manipulation. I can show you the pathway to the gods. I can make you a shaman.”

            Gods and shamans? It was often difficult to tell when Jiang was joking and when he wasn’t, but he seemed genuinely convinced that he could talk to heavenly powers. 

            She was admittedly fascinated by myths and legends, and the way Jiang made them sound real.(Chapter 6).

            This debut novel caught my attention during one of my browsing visits to Barnes & Noble. My interest in this novel piqued when I read the synopsis of the book, and that fans of Katherine Arden would enjoy it, too. The Poppy Waris often described as a fantasy folklore historical military fiction novel, but it is so much more than that. Readers are treated to a blend of Chinese culture, memorable characters, and the horrors of war. 

            The protagonist of this novel, Runin Fang, or Rin, has readers comparing her to Harry Potter; but this story is NOT about an orphan who learns of his or her heritage and is given the opportunity to attend a school. Rin is an orphan of the last Poppy War who is raised by a family of opium dealers. Rin studies for the entrance exam to Sinegard—the most elite military school in the country—in order to escape poverty and an arranged marriage. When Rin is accepted into Sinegard, we meet her classmates: Kitay, Venka, Niang, Negha, Altan, etc.; her instructors including: Jiang, a shaman; and, the members of her Division. 

            The plot of The Poppy Warhas three parts: learning about war, going off to war, and surviving a war. Part I focuses on Rin’s acceptance and placement to Sinegard. I say placement because Rin and her classmates can get expelled or killed at any given moment during their time there. Rin has to deal with the prejudice surrounding her socioeconomic status as well. When she decides to study under Jiang—the Master of Lore—to become a shaman, Rin’s true education begins and her identity is revealed to her. 

            Part II is the beginning of the Third Poppy War. The Twelve Provinces and the Empress gather their soldiers for war, and this includes the instructors and the students from Sinegard. This reflects the reality of war in that the students at the military school go off to war. As the first battle takes place, Rin and her classmates experience the horrors of war, which was NOT taught to them in their classes. During this battle, Rin loses control of her shaman abilities. To the horror of her comrades, commanders and Empress she helps secure victory of the battle. Rin’s nature and heritage are revealed to everyone else, and she is transferred to the “secret” 13thDivision, which is made up of soldiers with their own supernatural abilities.

            Part III reveals more horrors of war through the eyes of Rin’s surviving classmates, and the descriptions provide images that won’t leave the readers’ minds anytime soon. This is the point in the novel that a decision must be made as to how to end the war immediately. And, no matter what is decided, there will be consequences. Yet, it is soon realized that it isn’t that one country is bad and the other is good, or vice versa; no, each side is ruthless and will do anything to ensure survival, including betrayals. 

            The narrative is first person and stream-of-consciousness. Readers witness Rin’s education and decisions through her eyes and understand her reasons behind all of her actions, including the mistakes she makes. It is because of Rin’s mistakes that readers can view her as a reliable narrator. The narrative jumps through time so that the pivotal moments in Rin’s life are presented to the readers. For example, the scenes of Rin’s imprisonment and the siege are told in real time so that readers can comprehend and emphasize with the boredom and the impatience the protagonist and her comrades deal with. Even the scenes illustrating the battles and their aftermath will leave you nauseated and horrified. The narrative is written in a way that all readers can follow. 

            The style Kuang uses throughout the novel reflects its setting. One could argue that The Poppy Waris an allegory of the emergence of nuclear weapons at the end of World War II. The conflict of war within the novel is based on the Second Sino-Japanese War, which occurred between 1937 and 1945. This war was one of the many isolated wars that were ongoing throughout the world during the second quarter of the 20thCentury. While The Poppy Warstarts off with the protagonist wanting an education in order to have a better life, the author follows up that education with an actual war, which changes the mood rather quickly. By the end of the novel, readers understand the tone of the story as well as the decision Rin makes and why it is necessary. 

            The appeal surrounding The Poppy Waris interesting. I say interesting because while I understood both the story and its acclaim, I know readers whom either disliked it, or did not finish it. The reason usually was either “it got too slow,” or “I thought this was a story about a school like Hogwarts.” First of all, not every fantasy book is going to be similar to Harry Potterbecause a “school” is mentioned in its synopsis! Second, Harry Potteris a YA series and The Poppy Waris for adults—go back and re-read Chapter 5! Last, if anyone read either the title, or the synopsis, then you would know that a war breaks out a third of the way within the novel. Instead, think of The Poppy Waras a military fantasy with folklore elements. Both Chinese culture and folklore are explained as part of the world building and the historical context are based on real life events. The explanation of Eastern Shamanism demonstrates the differences and the consequences of having this ability. I have neither read all of the fantasy books with its own version of shamanism, nor know the beliefs of similar concepts throughout the world. But, I can say that this explanation of the Chinese Pantheon is one of the most interesting presentations I have read in a long time. The Poppy Waris nominated for several upcoming literary fantasy awards including the Nebula Award and the Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Award (the Hugo Nominations have not been made during the time of this publication). The sequel, The Dragon Republic, will be released in August 2019. This means readers and critics will be able to enjoy more of R.F. Kuang’s story. 

            The Poppy Waris one of the most critically acclaimed debut novels in the speculative fiction genre in recent years. Fans of Asian history and fiction, military, silkpunk and folklore will enjoy this novel. The Poppy Warmade My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2018, which should make you aware of how I feel about this book. It definitely deserves the hype and the award nominations, and I’m looking forward to reading more stories from R.F. Kuang. 

The criticism of the book is not deserved because there are some readers who want all of the books within a genre to be similar to one or two, and that is not fair to the authors and everyone else interested in the genre. One of the purposes of speculative fiction is for authors to tell their stories that go beyond literary fiction and what’s been done before. This allows for both the diversity and the inclusion of many stories, which allows for the expansion of the genre. Kuang is one of those authors and that is why you need to read The Poppy War.

My rating: MUST READ IT NOW! (5 out of 5)