Sunday, January 05, 2020

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

The first book I read this year is The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang, the first book in The Poppy War Trilogy. It’s a great fantasy debut set in a culture that greatly resembles ancient China, with an enemy empire across the sea on a bow shaped island that is obviously Japan.

The premise seems like a run-of-the-mill chosen-one story: an orphan is accepted to a prestigious military academy where she excels against the odds, studies arts no one else does, and discovers she has powers unlike anyone else, so that when a war breaks out, she has the ability to save the nation.

However, the Chinese culture brings a twist to the story. Rin, the heroine, works hard to be accepted to the military school (as opposed to being accepted on a whim/by command of king etc.), works hard to impress her masters, shows respect to her elders, and when her master tells her she cannot use the power of gods, she obeys. When the war breaks out, she is sent to help a besieged town, where she is miserable and frightened, and unable to use her powers because she is afraid of the consequences. Until the moment she isn’t.

During the course of the book, Rin discovers her heritage as a member of people annihilated in the previous Poppy War. Only one other person has survived and he is driven by rage and need for vengeance. She moulds herself after him, with grim consequences. At the climax of the story, she makes a choice out of rage. Unlike in western fantasy, where the hero saves the day in a morally sustainable fashion, Rin chooses differently. When she tries to reason with herself to ease her guilt, she comes to a conclusion that there are no chosen ones; only the choices we make ourselves. The book ends at the point where she has to come to terms with her actions.

Rin is a complex character who struggles with anger issues and insecurity, her low background among the offspring of warlords, and her need for power and revenge. Drugs (opium mostly) play a heavy role in her ability to communicate with gods, which in turn leads to addiction. Side characters are similarly torn by many issues, especially the addiction, which makes them difficult to root for.

The narrative style is slightly distancing, so apart from Rin, I didn’t form a deep connection with other characters. The plot progresses in a steady pace, with no slag (two years in the school is covered in a couple of chapters), and the world comes to life effortlessly with no unnecessary exposition. The point of view is strictly Rin’s, with one exception to show readers who is the true enemy, so that it doesn’t feel like it comes out of the blue when Rin learns of it. The Poppy War was an easy and compelling read that rose far above its premise. And for once, I have no idea how the second book in the trilogy will turn out to be.

Book 1/65

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