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)

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Why You Need to Read…My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2018

2018 has been an amazing year for writers, editors, publishers, and readers of speculative fiction. Throughout this year, I’ve caught up with my reading of various genres in the print and digital formats. Also, I managed to read many of 2018’s new releases, and they were amazing reads. In fact, there were so many anticipated novels, novellas, short stories, non-fiction, and anthologies that I neither read, nor completed many of the books released in 2018. 

            There are two things I learned throughout all of this year’s readings. One, speculative fiction’s spectrum continues to lengthen including stories of all sorts from authors of multiple demographic backgrounds. Two, readers and publishers are becoming more and more aware of the sort of stories that could emerge from this broader genre of literature than the ‘older’ and ‘more rigid’ structures of the previous separate binary genres of the past.

            The award winners and nominees of all the literature prizes demonstrate how the mainstream is starting to publicize these authors more and more. N.K. Jemisin’s historic win at the Hugo Awards made the news on several major news networks. And, Haruki Murakami withdrew his nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature so he could, “stay focused on his writing.” These big moments in the literary community captured the attention of non-speculative fiction readers and everyone else. Maybe literary scholars will begin to pay more attention to this genre the way Americans are starting to pay attention to football (a.k.a. soccer). 

            Although I did NOT get to read and/or to finish many of the 2018 releases—Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett; Circe by Madeline Miller; Children of Blood and Bone by Toni Adeyemi; Head On by John Scalzi; Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce;How Long ‘til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin, etc.—I managed to read many books of all formats (and in other genres). Obviously, my focus for this posting is what I consider to be the best releases in speculative fiction of 2018. If you are curious as to the other books I’ve read or started reading in 2018, then you can checkout my list on my Goodreads page. 

               Originally, I was not going to do a ranking. There were many books I wanted to mention and I was going to categorize my list based on: debut novels, novels with distinctive narratives, novellas, and anthologies. However, when I spoke to my friends and other readers, I realized that I kept mentioning the same books over and over again. These books stood out to me the most, so a Top Ten list came together. 

            Once again, this is a list of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2018. There won’t be any “Honorable Mentions” here, and this list will be descending (#10-#1). If you believe I missed a book, or if you wish to comment on my choices, then please leave a message in the comments section.

#10 The Armored Saint (The Sacred Throne #1) by Myke Cole

            As I mentioned in my review of this novella on Goodreads, this novella is a good start to what will eventually be a series. And, since I have not read The Queen of Crowsyet, I can only assume that both the story and the pace will pick up in that book. Don’t get me wrong, the story is worth reading and is different from other stories I’ve read, but I wanted more from it, which is a good thing. For this reason, I cannot put this book any higher on my list. 

            That being said, The Armored Saintis an interesting medieval fantasy tale, which takes the notions of religion and combines it with the idea of technological warfare. In this case, giant armored bots (look at the cover) are the weapons of power. The story begins with the protagonist, Heloise, getting into trouble with those in power and she witnesses the death and the destruction of those she cares about. However, Myke Cole does not use tropes in the ‘clichéd’ way. Instead, readers are surprised at what happens to everyone within the protagonist’s inner circle. And, while this story ends with you wanting for more, you will believe you were cheated due to the slow pace of this novella.

#9Empire of Sandby Tasha Suri

            2018 was a year containing many amazing debut books by authors—many of whom are not Caucasian—and managed to reintroduce readers to the notions of “old magic” and the treatment of the individuals who have the innate ability to wield it. Empire of Sandtakes a look into a society in which clans of tribesmen and tribeswomen are abducted for “the good of the Empire.” 

            Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of one of the Imperial Governors who defies her family’s wishes and paranoia, and performs the magical rites of her mother’s family. When the Religious Order notices her, she is forced to become a ‘tool’ for the Empire. As I read this novel, the characters are what kept my attention the most. The protagonist’s love for her family and her mixed heritage are what drives the story. The story gets really interesting during the last 100 pages, and it’ll make you want the next book in the series sooner rather than later. 

#8Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World #1)by Rebecca Roanhorse

            This debut novel written by the 2018 Recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer takes place on a dystopian Earth, which ended due to climate change. The aftermath includes the return of Navajo deities and monsters. Maggie, a monster hunter with supernatural abilities, is hired to locate a missing girl. From there, the story turns into a scavenger hunt in what remains of the Southwestern region of the United States.

            This is the first fantasy novel involving Native American characters that I’ve read. Plus, I can see why Rebecca Roanhorse has been nominated for all the literary awards, and winning some of them. It’s not just about the idea that climate change is responsible for the dystopian society, but it includes the reminder that the ancient deities—no matter where they’re from and/or located—always have their desires over those of humans. The idea that the ‘end of the world’ leads to the return of the gods, so they can reform the world makes for a very intriguing story. 

#7Rosewaterby Tade Thompson

            I received an ARC of this book and I should have read it sooner, but I managed to read it all the same! This Afrocentric book tells an interesting story of individuals who use their innate abilities as part of their jobs, while residing near an alien dome. Yes, there was an alien invasion and every year people travel to Nigeria in order to be blessed with the healing powers of the dome. 

            This novel catches your attention with the reminder that a futuristic world will continue to have some of the same issues as we do in present society. In this case, cyber-hacking is a concern to the point where Kaaro, the protagonist, and others use their psychic abilities as part of their job description for both the local bank and (in Kaaro’s case) the government. After the annual healing ceremony, things go well and poorly for Kaaro. While he gets into an intimate relationship, Kaaro realizes that there is more happening to him and to those in his community. Some of it involves his past and some of it involves the changes occurring within his society. The blend of science, fantasy, and religion makes Rosewaterstand out from the rest of 2018’s speculative fiction releases. And, like the previous mentions, readers can expect a follow up book to be released in 2019. 

#6 The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

            I mentioned pacing as being essential to telling a story and Clark does an excellent job incorporating it into his novella, The Black God’s Drums. The setting is Post Civil War Louisiana where the technology is advanced and dangerous. Gender roles and terrorism are at the center of this steampunk thriller in which a young woman, Creeper, overhears a plot to bomb New Orleans during Mardi Gras. 

            The best thing about this novella is that I forget I was reading a novella! Creeper’s adventure in New Orleans does not occur through the span of a few weeks. Instead, the story and the dilemma occur and resolve within approximately 24-48 hours! The way Clark presents this story has you realizing that you are reading the action in real-time! For anyone who wants a quick and a fun tale, then I highly recommend The Black God’s Drums. I can’t wait to read more from this author!

#5Vengeful (Villains #2)by V.E. Schwab

            Recently, I started reading Schwab’s books, and I can say that my interest in her other books and series continues to increase. Vengeful is the second book in the Villains series, and it lives up to both the fans’ expectations, and its title. Vengeful begins where Viciousends, and it’s a marvelous continuation of what happens to the characters from the first story. In addition, Schwab introduces us to new characters that either are EO’s, or know about them.

            What I enjoyed the most about Vengefulis that Schwab continues to incorporate her take on the concept of ‘superheroes.’ In Schwab’s world, anyone can become an EO, but not everyone receives an ability worthy of awe. In addition, there are consequences pertaining to EO’s, and it reminds readers that anything involving magic, the supernatural, or the unknown comes at a cost. The new characters readers follow is another reminder regarding the name of the series. There are no ‘good superheroes’ in this story. 

#4The Poppy Warby R.F. Kuang

            This debut novel is based on the history of the Sino-Japanese War and the culture of China until that war. Readers learn about Chinese schooling, Chinese warfare, and shamanism. Rin is an orphan who decides that her only chance at a better life is an admission into Sinegard, the most elite military school in her country. While she does get into the university, Rin will have to train harder in order to remain a student there. Unfortunately, by the time Rin completes her training and her education, war breaks out and she’ll have to use everything she’s learned for her survival. 

            I enjoyed The Poppy Warbecause of the blending of history and fantasy. It’s interesting to read a book, which is influenced by another country’s history and culture. It’s a reminder that there are more aspects to our world than we know about. The best part of reading The Poppy Waris learning about the protagonist and the other characters who are learning and putting their training into action. Yes, the battle scenes and its aftermath are brutal reminders of war, but the scenes at the school are brutal reminders of the risks people take in order to achieve their goals. 

#3 Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

            I received an ARC for this novel, too; and, I couldn’t help it, but I started reading Spinning Silver, as soon as I got it. Spinning Silveris a companion novel to Novik’s award winning, Uprooted. This time, the tale is a retelling of Rumpelstiltskinand a cautionary tale of saying a ‘few harmless words.’ While Miryem is the main focus in Spinning Silver, she is not the only protagonist. For this reason, it makes the story all the more interesting. What will all the female characters (and one young male character)—from various backgrounds, with different dilemmas—do when the odds continue to buildup against them?

            I knew that I would love Spinning Silvereven before I received it! Naomi Novik does an amazing job blending folklore into her fantasy tales. Folklore is the idea of customs, traditions and practices that get pass along through generations without keep any formal track of them, such as stories. Novik provides examples of such practices in Spinning Silver. It gives her readers something familiar while reading her fantasy stories!

#2 The Murderbot Diaries (#1-4) by Martha Wells

            This series was going to be my #1 pick of 2018 until I read the book that would push it back to #2. And, I know I’m cheating because the first novella, All Systems Red, was released in 2017, but since it won all of the awards in 2018, and you need to read the first novella in order to read the rest of them, so I rest my case! All four novellas in this series take place in consecutive order, with Artificial Conditionand Rogue Protocolfollowing the first novella, and the story concludes with Exit Strategy, for now. 

            Before reading Martha Wells’ books, I have not read any books about robot protagonists. However, The Murderbot Diariesare told from the point-of-view of a Security Unit, or SecUnit for short, who is a robot that offers contracted protection. In the case of our SecUnit, readers learn that it chooses to follow orders because it is not under the control of its manufacturers. In other words, the SecUnit went ‘rogue’ before the events of All Systems Red. All of the actions and the decisions our SecUnit makes throughout the novellas are choices it made itself and for its own reasons. I enjoyed every single book in this series and the series is a fun read for all science fiction readers. Yes, the SecUnit knows how to fight! I cannot wait until the upcoming novel is published! 

#1Vita Nostraby Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

            Every once in a while, one comes across a book, or a story, that is so captivating and impacting that it alters your view of literature. Not only does it find its way to your all-time favorite books list, but also has you searching for similar books in the same (sub)genre. I find it shocking that this award-winning novel from Ukraine was published in 2007! Why did it take over 10 years to get this novel in English?

            The way Marina and Sergey Dyachenko tell this story is interesting. Sasha is ‘selected’ to become a candidate to an exclusive vocational school, before the start of her senior year in high school. Throughout that year, Sasha performs and accomplishes all of the tasks presented to her even as she notices some minor changes within herself. Once she becomes a student at the college, Sasha is pushed to her limits to the point of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. Yet, Sasha and her classmates continue with their studies because failure does NOT equate expulsion! Readers learn with Sasha and the other students as to why they were ‘selected’ and what they hope to achieve by the end of their education at ‘that’ school. Vita Nostrais the first book in the Metamorphosisseries; and, I hope we get the translations of those books sooner rather than later.

            This is one of the best books I have ever read! Yes, I enjoy stories—regardless of its genre—that standout; Vita Nostrais an example of a story that takes its genre to a higher level. As I read the story and the events surrounding Sasha’s education, her growth into adulthood, and her disgruntled interactions with her family, I realized Vita Nostra is one of the best examples of what speculative fiction could be! The idea that there is more to our mundane world is nothing new to readers of the genre, but the way the authors present that notion through their writing leaves you in awe of everything you’ll read in this novel!

            My favorites of 2018 contain books within the speculative fiction spectrum ranging from science fiction to fantasy, from folklore to alternative history, and from paranormal to metaphysical. And, while many of my picks are part of a continuing series, each book stood out to me due to the plot, the story, the setting, the characters, the pacing, etc. While there were many other noteworthy books released in 2018 that I have not read yet, I plan on reading those books while reading both other books and new releases in 2019.

            2019 already looks promising with the books being released as well as others that may or may not get the same level of attention. Many of them sound exciting, but reading them will determine which stories get passed along. I hope this list provided some insight as to which books I enjoyed the most in 2018 and why. Let us continue reading in the New Year.