Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication Date: May 1, 2018
Length: 544 pages
Series or Standalone: Series (The Poppy War #1)
Themes: Revenge, Anger, Genocide, War
POV: 3rd Person
Why I Read It: Because there was tons of hype and the setting and premise sounded really interesting. I managed to borrow a review copy from a friend, but I also bought the book in hardcover. Drug-induced magic? Obviously.
Disclaimer: I want to be very clear from the beginning that I am a white dude from the Midwest, in case there was any confusion. See how this figure into the review blow.
I struggled a bit on whether to review this book or not. There was a lot of hype I didn’t feel the book lived up to it. Also the Twitter controversy in which I was partially involved.
However, I realized I was being unfair to the book. The Poppy War is a very solid debut, and I’m really looking forward to what the author does with the sequels and especially with her next step after this series is complete.
I want to start off by saying that the book is certainly grimdark, though not your traditional such novel. And it’s not nearly as “brutal” as advertised. There were only one or two scenes I would describe with that adjective, and most of the brutality in the novel takes place off the page, often relayed to the character after the fact by acquaintances.
But, where the brutality is written, it is very effective, creating in the characters exactly what I would expect to see their reactions be given the situation. Major points for that, even if it was a bit heavy-handed.
The magic system was a delight. I’ve always loved the idea of mixing drugs and addiction with magic, and Kuang has done so extremely well in this book. I would also cite it as a shining example of how you can construct and interesting and useful magic “system” without getting bogged down in the rules and mechanics. Now, you all probably know from here and my blog that I love getting bogged down in the inner workings of magic systems. But when a writer shows how you can add enormous tension and excitement to a story without digging into the gears and shafts, I sit up and take notice.
The main character was interesting. I loved how she was willing to take any measure to succeed at her goals and that she was willing and able to be a pro-active instead of reactive character. A lot of books, fantasy and otherwise, are plagued by reactive characters whose enemies and circumstances drive the plot, but not so with Rin.
Now, although the magic system was top tier, the world-building was a bit shallow and shaky for me. I confess I may just not have the right culture context to really appreciate everything going on in the book. Perhaps someone more immersed in Chinese history and culture would have appreciated Kuang’s work more knowledgably. I do know the history Kuang is referencing in the book, although I learned it mostly from the Japanese perspective in college. And I’ve also read primary sources of the atrocities committed by the Japanese in the Rape of Nanking. But that’s not the same as being raised with the spectre of these atrocities ever in the background of your mind.
That said, I felt that the author maybe relied a little too heavily on the reader knowing the real-world history the novel is based on. There were lots of names and concepts thrown around, but not a lot of meet for the reader to bite into. I did like how the information on all three powers was introduced in political context, almost being war propaganda by default. But I would have liked a bit more detail.
The plot of the novel and the pacing were both problem points for me. I didn’t feel like the military boarding school parts were very fleshed out. They felt like the author leaned heavily on the tropes of that genre to carry the plot. The legacy/aristocratic bully, the harsh teacher, the goofy teacher who teaches the protag how they are special. Etc. I also felt it passed fairly quickly. Then, the war aspects also felt rushed. Although there were some powerful climaxes, they didn’t have the build-up to really make them shine. Which is too bad, because there were the seeds of some great story in here.
Finally, the writing itself was lacking for me. There were some odd repetitions, sometimes in the same paragraph. There were good parts, too. I was invested enough to read the book all in one five-hour sitting. The writing is obviously good enough to be published. I think the book is overall quite competently constructed. But the small holes nonetheless exposed some of the thinness of the frame, and on occasion it threw me out of the story for a bit.
Overall, this was a solid debut. I do look forward both to the sequels and to future work from R.F. Kuang. I sincerely hope the hype drives enough sales to keep her interested in publishing.
ETA: There’s been a lot of conversation on Twitter about the issue of tired tropes and how they may be tired for white cishet people but not for LGBTQIUA or non-white folks. As a cishet white person, I can’t always speak to that issue in my reviews. While I don’t retract my opinion on the novel on that basis, people should take it with a sack of salt when I’m discussing a book by a marginalized author or a marginalized character.
Conclusion: 72/100 (A solid debut, author is one to watch)
Premise: 8/10 (I’m a sucker for magic and drugs mixed)
Plot: 6/10 (A bit formulaic)
Setting: 6/10 (Clear influences, no real originality)
Main Character: 7/10 (Interesting but shallowly drawn and a bit plot-driven)
World-building 7/10 (The concepts rocked, the execution was a bit lackluster)
Magic System 10/10 (Fantastic examples of a rule-less magic system)
Supporting Characters: 6/10 (A few interesting ones, little real development)
Writing: 7/10 (Readable but with some odd flaws)
Themes: 7/10 (Straight-forward, cool ending)
Resolution: 8/10 (Dramatic, but not really explored)
Buy Or Borrow: Definitely worth buying if you’re looking for non-European fantasy or fantasy with a good female protagonist.