No no, scratch that understatement. Ladies and gentlemen, let me present to you a review for The Poppy War, a book that will go down as one of the best grimdark/military fantasy debuts of all time.
Once in a while, there comes a book that you just know will be a fantastic book just from the premise or the cover; this was one of those books for me. I’ve been eyeing this book ever since I stumbled upon the gorgeous attention-grabbing cover by Jung Shan. (Seriously, check out her artworks. They’re incredible.) Reading that the book is highly inspired by Second Sino-Japanese War and also the Rape of Nanking—please look this up if you don't know about it so you’ll have an idea of how dark the book will get—sparked my interest even more. However, although I had a good feeling about this debut, I certainly didn’t expect it to be THIS incredible. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that this is literally THE best grimdark/military fantasy debut I've ever read; even better than The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie or Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher, and this author only turns 21 years old this year! How awesomely talented is she!?
Before I begin my long review, I will clarify that I’m an Asian and my review for this book will be affected by my experience growing up as one. Then, I need you to consider these two questions:
- Do you enjoy or are you okay with reading books with a lot of violence? Because this book contains plenty of vividly brutal scenes. The author doesn’t pull any punches and the violence was handled splendidly, not only for the purpose of showing the horror and tragedy of war but also to let these scenes become a huge part of characters’ developments.
- If the answer to question one is an absolute yes, I’ll ask you this: "are you ready for this book to go into your favorites of all time shelf?" because there’s an incredibly high chance that it WILL happen.
The Poppy War is a debut by R.F. Kuang and it's a coming-of-age grimdark military fantasy. It's a book about empires, drugs, shamanism, and gods, and it's highly inspired by Second Sino-Japanese War, which is one of the darkest and bloodiest periods in Chinese history. I grew up learning about this war and it gave me great satisfaction to read an epic fantasy book inspired by it; one that was written exceptionally well, too. Considering the root of inspiration for the book, it's obvious that there will be a lot of allusions to China and Japan (I’ll get into them more later) and that this will be a violent book. This is not a YA book; there are a lot of scenes that are definitely only appropriate for adults to read and there are tons of content warnings (I’ll list them at the end of my review) in part III. This is also not a happy-go-lucky story to read. Also, this is literally the first time I’ve read a fantasy book written by a female author that doesn’t feature ANY romance in it. (Thank God!)
“If there is a divine creator, some ultimate moral authority, then why do bad things happen to good people? And why would this deity create people at all, since people are such imperfect beings?”
As a Chinese myself, I have my own reasons for believing that The Poppy War is an Asian inspired coming-of-age grimdark military fantasy done absolutely right with finesse. Part I (roughly 40%) of the book may lead you to think this will be strictly an epic/high fantasy with a complete focus on learning, but this isn’t really true. Yes, the story does start with our main character, Fang Runin (Rin), learning tons of skills and forming friendships in a military academy called Sinegard. However, the storyline immediately took a different approach and became a complete grimdark/military fantasy in Part II and III. This won’t be a situation like Kvothe from The Kingkiller Chronicle where after two installments he’s still in the University (I love this series so much though). Story structure wise, this book actually reminds me a lot of Blood Song (another of my favorite debuts of all time), where the first half revolves around the character in a battle school and the second half revolves more around war and battles. This book alone feels like a trilogy in itself due to the sheer amount of monumental events that take place. Kuang did what a lot of authors try to do in the scope of a trilogy within the span of ONE book. Kuang’s prose was easy to read, simple, and most importantly, VERY engaging. Her writing never gets in the way of her story and it was truly compelling to read.
I need to give another reminder that part III in particular was filled with brutal scenes. These scenes are written exceptionally well; the author clearly shows the horrors of war and please do remember, like I said before, these scenes aren’t just there for the sake of making the book darker. The scenes are all there for the purpose of the story, characters development, and world building. In fact, this book just wouldn’t hold the same powerful impact without these scenes. The pacing was also brilliant. There wasn’t any chapter that bored me, none whatsoever. This is truly a story with a fine balance of heart, emotion, brutality, and action scenes that were only possible because of how magnificently written the author wrote all the characters, action sequences, and world-building.
“Children ceased to be children when you put a sword in their hands. When you taught them to fight a war, then you armed them and put them on the front lines, they were not children anymore. They were soldiers.”
Rin has seriously become one of the best female heroines I’ve ever had the chance to encounter. She’s a highly well-developed character, multi-faceted and simply kickass. Her rise from a mere peasant, oppressed and hated by everyone because of the color of her dark skin and her low status, to becoming what she has to be as the story progressed. This was one of the most well-written developments of a heroine or any character I’ve ever read. She makes brutally tough choices, she rises to any challenge that comes her way, and she never gives up. She’s fierce, she’s badass, and she demonstrates that being a strong woman character doesn’t only mean being physically powerful but mentally powerful, as well. Even though we see the story unfolds solely from Rin’s perspective in third person narration, the author does a fantastic job in making sure we’re really inside Rin’s head at all times. At one point, I actually forgot that I was reading the book in third person point of view as Rin’s character and personality were so well explored that I felt like her story was being told in first person POV. Besides that, all the other supporting characters' personalities were so well fleshed out because Part I was used VERY effectively to establish the characters’ introductions and world-building, making rooms for developments in the second half despite the story being in the middle of all the chaos. There’s always something new to discover on every page, and no words are wasted.
No military fantasy will ever reach greatness without intricate war tactics or extraordinary action scenes, and this book simply scored wonderfully on both counts. Every action sequence, whether it’s the martial arts battle or the magic system, was vividly written. The scale and scope of the action relentlessly escalate with each page turned. The magic users in this book are called Shaman—those who commune with the Gods to use their power—and Kuang did a terrific job researching Shamanism. Coincidentally, during my time reading this book, I received an email from one of my favorite artists, Noah Bradley, on his new art piece for Magic: the Gathering and somehow, it completely fits some of the action scenes in this book. Check out this picture below to give you an idea of how wildly the action scenes escalated.
Picture: Jaya’s Immolating Inferno by Noah Bradley
Lastly, I want to talk about the world-building. The history in the world of this book is filled with constant warfare, and this is also where the Asian influences really prevailed. There are TONS of Chinese and Asian influences in this book; I’m going to mention only a few of them here so you can experience the rest on your own:
- The provinces in this book are named after the twelve Chinese Zodiacs.
- The four cardinal mythological Gods are named exactly after the same Four Symbols of Chinese constellations creatures: the White Tiger of the West (Byakko), the Black Tortoise of the North (Genbu), the Azure Dragon of the East (Seiryu), and the Vermilion Bird of the South (Suzaku).
- The creator of the military tactics book named Principles of War in the story is called Sunzi, obviously named after the famous Sun Tzu and his Art of War.
- I’m a Buddhist (I think this is the first time I mention my religion in a review) and I’m pretty sure that Kuang used the name Bodhidharma intentionally to harken to Buddhism. In Buddhism, Bodhi means enlightenment and dharma means cosmic law. Considering the nature of Shamanism in this book, this naming and its meaning is very appropriate.
- Ki derives from Qi/Chi which means life force.
- Federation of Mugen, the name of the group of antagonists in this book, in Japanese means Infinite/Fantasy/Dream and they resembled the Japanese code of war where they are simply tools for the Emperor to use.
- Just one look at the map and you’ll also know that the world is based on China and Japan.
- Then there’s also talk of the legend of Monkey King from Journey to the West.
Believe me, I’m holding myself back here; I’m pretty sure I found almost all the Asian influences in this book and I could talk about them in detail but I want you to experience them for yourself too. I spent four hours writing this review and it has been long enough already. In fact, this is actually my second longest review of all time. I really wish I could talk about how amazing this book is but I have to make sure my review is spoiler-free enough for readers to experience this debut with maximum results. You simply have to read and experience this greatness for yourself.
The Poppy War is an astounding debut and one of the greatest starts to a series I’ve ever read. It’s a shining treasure of fantasy, literature, history, and culture. R.F. Kuang is truly a new author to watch. If this doesn’t become a one-hit wonder and she continues writing as her career, I have absolutely no doubt that her name will be up there with the likes of Robin Hobb and N.K. Jemisin, and maybe even better. I’m already waiting for the second book eagerly. I don’t even know how Kuang will top this debut; it’s a magnificently written debut that will stay in the heart of readers. By this point in my reviewing career, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to my followers that I’m quite stingy with giving a full five-star rating, but this book simply deserves a full five stars. The Poppy War is a book truly worth every second of your time. It’s a profound blending of history into military fantasy. It’s a relentlessly tension-packed book. Rin will capture your heart, embrace it. The Poppy will make you high, accept it. The War will break you, face it. The Poppy War will most likely be included in your favorite books of all-time list, get it. Come May, buy and read this superlative page turner immediately. This is the beginning for a new queen of fantasy and you should consider yourself damn lucky to have the chance to witness it.
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
Trigger Warnings: Rape, self-harm, drug abuse, genital mutilations, and many more. Basically, you name it and there's a chance it's here.
Official release date: May 1st, 2018 (US) and May 3rd, 2018 (UK).
You can pre-order the book HERE!