Book Review of The Poppy War – an Adult Fantasy Novel by R.F. Kuang

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RRKReads the poppy war review

Namo Namaha friends, I finally read The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. The first book from an adult fantasy series, based on the Sino-Japanese war during the World War II era.

Booktube adores this book. This book must have made it to all kinds of Award lists in 2018. The word “hyped” is inadequate to describe the craze this book has managed to generate.

Even after two solid years since its release, talk about this book hasn’t died down. So what’s so special about this book? Other than the fact that the author was a mere 19-year-old teenager when she wrote this epic fantasy? ๐Ÿ˜ฒ

This book series comes with every possible trigger warning. It has gore, rape, abuse, and so on. People who have read this book have displayed some extreme reactions on their channels, so be careful of your mental and emotional states before checking this out.

Book Name – The Poppy War
Author – R.F. Kuang
Genre – Fiction
Category – Adult Fantasy
Year of publication – 2018
Type – Series / Trilogy
Goodreads rating – 4.01
Trigger Warning – Rape, serious self-harm, abuse, and drug use

Synopsis

Rin, an orphan decides to get into the elite Sinegard military academy to escape her marriage to an old man, her foster parents are forcing on her. This almost unachievable feat of getting into the academy makes life at school harder than ever before. Despite the harshness, she diligently trains and also learns of her shamanic powers.
But an inopportune war changes everybody’s fates and pushes them into situations far beyond their control. Caught up as pawns between invisible forces, will Rin call upon her deity only to lose her humanity?

๐Ÿ‘ Favorable points

I immensely enjoyed the first part of this novel. It was fast-paced, nationalistic, and unique.

  • The challenges Rin faced at her foster parents’ home or the academy.
  • Her do or die spirit.
  • Her school friends and classmates.

I loved all of it. But after the first part, the story took a sharp turn and moved in a completely different direction. My interest levels dipped drastically post that.

  • I also enjoyed the unique plotline in the first half of the book.
  • I especially liked Jiang, Rin’s master’s character.

But, that’s the end of it. I couldn’t get attached to any of the other characters. Especially, Rin. Supposedly, her character’s based on Mao Zedong. No wonder she isn’t the least bit likable/relatable/inspirational.
I would have loved to see more of Kesegi, Rin’s foster brother, but I realize there was no scope for him in this story.

 ๐Ÿค”Ruminations

I liked the way the author has weaved in shamanism and deities into the modern storyline. That was the fantasy element in an otherwise historical plot. 

I also was surprised and pleased by the part where she mentions Bodhidharma

Martial arts came to the empire by way of a warrior named Bodhidharma from the southeastern continent.

Unfortunately, in a sea of purely fictional characters, the mention of a real-life character makes him seem more fictional than real. Hence I want to set the record straight.

Bodhidharma was a monk from ancient India who traveled to China and introduced martial arts and several other spiritual practices there. He is also revered as the father of Chan Buddhism. 

In the novel the author mentions him to be from the Southeastern continent and since the world she’s created in this book is fictional, maybe we can let the complete erasure of India as a subcontinent, slide. ๐Ÿค”

But, instead of misrepresenting a real and revered saint such as Bodhidharma, I would have preferred her to give a tiny reference or credit somewhere in the book. 

๐Ÿ‘Ž Pain points

1. Characters

The characters were simply plucked and dropped around randomly. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for the character choices the author made. Just as we were getting used to the characters at the academy, they were made irrelevant. And, we were given a new set of characters that we were supposed to care about. For example:

The director of the academy was given a royal and intimidating introduction, after that nothing! what was the point of setting her up so high if she’s not relevant at all? (Ignore this if she’s relevant in the next books in the series, is she?)

2. Rin’s choices

Uggh! sometimes she was infuriatingly dense. I especially detested the way she treated her body. She has zero reverence for anything in her life and she’s a shaman? Laughable isn’t it? The way she takes a life-altering decision based on an inconvenience (people who have read the book might know the part I am talking about). ๐Ÿ˜ฒ

I kind of get Rin’s choices. As an orphan and a person who’s never had a single sympathetic female influence in her life, the feminine qualities of prakruti (nature) and a woman, might seem like an inconvenience and probably useless in the scheme of things. Still, it makes me uncomfortable to see somebody act so out of their core nature and it being accepted as normal.

3. Second part of the book

Ok, let me be frank here. It read like a news article or a historical thesis rather than a fictional tale.

********************************************** Spoiler content begins******************************************

One scene from the Nanjing massacre, that read very much like the Wikipedia article on that horrendous genocide. Another scene inspired by the Hiroshima, Nagasaki bombing, and that about sums up the second part and covers most of the triggering and move-the-story-forward kind of scenes in the novel. Seriously? I am aware of retellings and reimaginings of real-life incidents, but, this? This is just lazy writing where the author simply stitched up the most horrendous bits of an inhumane war with a slightly fantastical twist and called it a day!

******************************************* Spoiler content ends *******************************************

If the intention was to let the world know of the horrific atrocities committed during the war, I understand that. I also acknowledge that fiction is an excellent vehicle for the facts to reach an audience, that otherwise would be completely unaware of such historical events.

But, I also feel there is a delicate balance between mixing facts and fictional elements in a tale. For example, I read this incredible article online about the devious art of lying by telling the truth.

Now, why am I mentioning this article? that’s because, as humans, if facts are mixed with fiction in an article, we lose trust in the entire piece. Just as a drop of poison is enough to make an entire jar of milk undrinkable. The piece also risks being called, propaganda!

In the case of this novel, I found myself wondering where the facts end and where the fiction begins. Part of me wanted to disbelieve everything & dismiss everything as fiction, but I couldn’t, as most of the scenes are bonafide events from history that cannot and shouldn’t be dismissed.

I don’t need that kind of a forced conundrum while reading a fictional novel.

If I wanted information and facts, I would have looked for an authentic non-fiction not a pathetic copy of it in fictional form. As a reader, I don’t like misrepresentation and subterfuge. Non-fiction masquerading as fiction is a no-no for me.

Conclusion

Overall, I have conflicting thoughts about this book. I was wowed by the first part, sorely disappointed by the second.

The highlight of this book though is a strangely true statement I have given below. This statement just gutted me right in the stomach. It felt true, even to this day.

“They didn’t teach you?” Shiro looked amused. “But of course, Of course, they wouldn’t. Nikan likes to scrub out all that is embarrassing about its past.”

By the way, Nikan is the reimagined China in this story. Dare I say, this trend is continuing even in the present? Covid 19? just saying, rest, you can infer.

This book has excellent honest gems like the ones above. Another one of my favorite quotes.

“You are blind sister,” said Erlang Shen. “You think too highly of mortals. They give nothing to the universe, and the universe owes them nothing in return. If they cannot survive, then let them die.”

In a way, this year, this is the ultimatum, we as humans received.

So, despite me having some sincere and serious problems with this book. Though it feels like two different people have written it, I still am giving it 4 โญs because the read was worth it. I am intrigued to know how much more madder Rin gets. If she is truly inspired by Mao, a lot more, am sure.

Review, Recommendation, and Rating

Borrow grade book rrkreads
Borrow – book worth borrowing from the library or trading with friends

And that’s a wrap of my longish rant review guys. Have you read this book/series. What are your thoughts about it?

Do let me know your thoughts on my SM channels @twitter, @instagram, or @goodreads

You can even join me at my book club in discord or @ bookclubz, and buddy read some books with me. Let’s keep the bookish conversation going. 

Till then, stay safe and blessed. Om Shanti. ๐Ÿ™

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