Here’s a snippet from the blurb:
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.
Before I talk about what didn’t work for me, I should mention that most of this book is really good. In fact, some of the things that bothered me probably won’t affect many readers. It’s easy to see why this series is popular. So… the good stuff. Kuang has constructed a unique and convincing world. This medieval Chinese inspired empire is thoughtfully articulated and nuanced in many convincing ways. It is different from most fantasy settings, with a very unique magic system that is central to the story.
The characters are also compelling. I feel like Rin starts out as unique and interesting but her voice starts to fade as the book progresses, she gets a little monotone by the end. But in general, the characters are distinct and intriguing. I liked Jiang, the crotchety mentor is one of my favorite tropes, and Kuang does it well. The training montage and magic academy tropes are also very well done and make for an addictive read.
There are historical allusions that underscore Kuang’s treatment of the horrors of war. I really enjoyed this aspect of the novel. It added a dimension that is sometimes lacking in fantasy. This book has something to say. This facet of the narrative, while intriguing, ended up dovetailing with one of the issues I found to be a detraction from the overall story. The wrongness of war is beaten over the head a bit until it loses its effect. As I said earlier, Rin eventually starts to feel a little monotone. This is all interrelated as, over and over again, we are told that something is beautiful, but horrible. That Rin should feel the beauty of something but only feels rage. Where guilt should reside, only rage… and on and on. The same formula simply repeated too many times, I started to roll my eyes whenever I came across a passage where something was beautiful but also horrible, where Rin should feel wonder but only felt rage.
Another thing that should be minor but really ended up diminishing my immersion in the story was the belief in magic. In the first half of the story, magic is relegated to the realm of folklore. Sure, the reader knows it’s coming, but everyone in the novel acts as if it is just a silly story. Then quite suddenly everyone has magic, and clearly visible displays of magic take place. Yet many in the narrative continue to act like magic is a farce, despite the evidence of their senses. There is a character made of water, he is literally made of water, and yet the warlords don’t take the shamans seriously because they don’t believe in magic… but its also alluded that they may have their own shamans. It just doesn’t quite add up. Frankly, it felt like the reality of the novel was being warped in order to graft two disparate pieces together.
I should get back to some good stuff, because, despite these gripes, this really was a good book on the whole. I really enjoyed the shamanism. This magic system fit the setting perfectly, it fit the themes perfectly too. I’m intrigued by where this goes from here. The best fantasy novels connect the magic to the plot, the themes, and the character, and Kuang has managed that ably. So, I’m curious, after so much is wrapped up, but a few tantalizing threads remain unresolved, where will the story go next?
All in all, the Poppy War was an engrossing read. I tore through the first half. Some issues crept up that affected my enjoyment, but I remain convinced they may be a bigger deal for me than for many readers. Despite these issues I still enjoyed this book, and I’ll keep reading this series. Four stars?