All Time Favorites #4 – The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

all time favorites

As some of you know, I used to have a blog that I deleted without thinking it through because… Well, because my ADHD brain takes this kind of frustrating decisions sometimes?

Note to self: don’t you ever do that again

As a result, all my absolute favorites don’t appear on this new blog, and that just won’t do. That’s why I’ve decided to create this new feature in which I’ll get to introduce the books that forged me as a reader, one Saturday at a time. Who knows, perhaps you’ll love them too?

For a book to be featured:

  • Its rating must be either a 5 or (more rarely) a 4.5 ;
  • I must have read it at least one year ago ;
  • Its review mustn’t have been posted already on this blog.

Now, let’s talk about a Fantasy novel I LOVED in February, 2019!

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
The Poppy War cover
War doesn’t determine who’s right.
War determines who

Wow. The Poppy War consumed me. You know, fantasy has been my favourite genre for as long as I can remember, but I have to admit that it has become harder and harder to find favourites for the past few years. When we read a lot of books from a genre, stories, magical systems and characters start blending together in some kind of indiscernible mush. It’s goddamn awful.

The writing and the plot

I can count on the fingers of one hand the fantasy novels I’ve loved in the past 3 years and that tells me something : I’m just so very tired of white middle aged cishet dudes fantasy. Seriously, my interest for Medieval European settings has shrunk so badly that it’s now close to zero. Because guess what? There are only so many variations of the same story I can take.

I mean what have Jade CityThe Fifth Season and The Poppy War in common, to cite but a few examples of recent favourites?

✔ They’re written by women of color;
✔ they explore the complexities of human nature in fantasy worlds filled with fascinating NON-WESTERN mythology;
✔ their characters are diverse, complex, at times somewhat unlikeable but very much lovable and
✔ women have agency and aren’t solely used as props for some dude – that doesn’t mean that they’re living their best life, but at least they’re not portrayed either as pure love interests or whores.

PS. The title of that part is false advertising: in no way will I deal with the plot in my review, I love readers too damn much for that. Honestly, it’s fantastic, wonderfully well-written, thrilling, I couldn’t put it down and these are the only things you need to know.

Please keep in mind though that this story’s been inspired by the Nanking Massacre and explores the unspeakable horrors of war. Therefore some passages are extremely violent and contain depictions of death (including child death), mutilation, dismemberment, animal cruelty, rape, drug addiction, ableism, colourism, racism, medical experiments on people and genocide.

And perhaps more importantly – at no moment can we hide behind the false assurance that what’s depicted here is taken from an unbelievable horror story, because those wars were very much real. Human beings did this – denied the humanity of their opponents because it was so damn convenient and served their imperialist agenda. Human beings are still doing this, and if you’re from a western country – mine included – you can very much count on the fact that your country is still doing a version of this in some part of the world that most of our medias blissfully ignore.

Finally, I’ll say something : enjoy the first 200 pages and the delightful banter between Jiang and Rin. No, really, you go and enjoy it, because afterwards your heart is gonna die.

The characters and their relationships

I’ve complained about the intense boredom most fantasy novels now awake in me (that would be because they’re so fucking generic), yet that does not mean that I’m allergic to tropes. No! Tropes are good! Well- found family, mentor/apprentice fun dynamics and enemy-to-friendship in particular and GOOD NEWS, The Poppy War have those and I was THRILLED.

“This is the Widow Maung,” Jiang said. “She sells me things.”
“Drugs,” clarified the Widow Maung. “I am his drug dealer.”
“She means ginseng, and roots and such,” Kiang said. “For my health.”
The Widow Maung rolled her eyes.”

The dynamics between the characters are fucking fantastic and if you’re not laughing at Jian’s banter I just… I don’t know what to tell you. I’m sorry for your loss??? For a story filled with so much hate, I found myself smiling pretty often, especially through the first 200 pages. Admittedly, my heart was too full of fury and heartbreak to make it possible for me to stop wailing when came the last hundred pages, BUT I regret nothing.

Really though? Rin is the heroine the world deserves. Of course she’s ruthless and lets her rage guide her. Yet even though we readers cringe at times at her decisions – how could we not? – her behaviour makes so much sense.The Poppy War sets itself apart by its refusal to resort to cop-outs. There’s no easy path making it possible for Rin to win without losing something along the way. There’s no magical solution or deus-ex-machina that will prevent her from breaking apart.

There are only choices and the unbearable consequences they bring. It rings so true when it breaks your heart in one million sharp pieces. It rings so true when you’re screaming wild eyed and your tears run over your cheeks. You might hate it as much as you love it but it fucking rings.

God, I respect this book so much.

This review has been written on February 6, 2019.

A brilliantly imaginative talent makes her exciting debut with this epic historical military fantasy, inspired by the bloody history of China’s twentieth century and filled with treachery and magic, in the tradition of Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away…

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.

9 thoughts on “All Time Favorites #4 – The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

  1. still so sad for you and your blog woes. looking forward to this feature because what a great way to boost some serotinin by recapping and reliving all the feels of one’s favourite books!! – H

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