This book wouldn’t have even been on my radar if it weren’t for the unrelenting hype. I’ve seen review after review praising it.
…and I’ve seen reviewer after reviewer left broken and scarred after reading it.
Is that a bit of an exaggeration? Sure. But less of one than you’d think.
In the words of author Tom Robbins: Just because something didn’t happen, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The Poppy War was inspired by Kuang’s thesis in Chinese history, specifically the Rape of Nanjing in the 1930s. Kuang has an excellent blog post explaining this choice here. If you feel emotionally devastated after reading this book, that’s the point. War is terrible, and humanity’s worst crimes are often swept under the rug and forgotten by future generations. Even though this is a work of fiction, The Poppy War helps to shine a light on this very real darkness.
Anyways, on to the story.
We first meet Rin, orphan peasant from the Rooster Province, as she is preparing to take the Keju exam. Her entire future hangs in the balance: If she does well in the exam, she will enter one of the nation’s prestigious Academies. And she needs to do well, since her foster parents (and black market opium merchants) plan to marry her off to further their criminal enterprise.
Unsurprisingly—or where would the story be?—Rin aces the test. She scores so highly that she is accepted into Sinegard, the Academy that trains the future war generals. From here, the story has much in common with Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind. Rin makes a few close friends, pisses off a rich and influential student, and begins training under a young master that everyone believes to be crazy. She becomes an expert in martial arts, and even begins to learn the basics of shamanism, a magical art now believed to be the stuff of myths and legends.
Throughout this all, war is brewing on the horizon. Rin is eventually thrust violently into the midst of it, and things only get darker from there.
I thought there were two areas where this book excelled: the setting and the portrayal of war. Unlike many popular fantasy books rooted in Western European influences, The Poppy War has Asian roots, depicting a fantasy-analogue of China. The shamanism element of the book is fascinating and interweaves tightly with the world’s religion and war on drugs. And, if I haven’t driven this point home yet, Kuang depicts the inhuman nature of war with supreme skill, never shying away from portraying brutal war crimes committed by both sides.
As an added bonus, I thought the audio narration by Emily Woo Zeller was spectacular.
- Fans of Name of the Wind who don’t mind books with graphic violence
- Anyone who enjoys non-western settings and cultures
- People who like magic systems to have serious consequences
- People who enjoy military- or war-focused stories
Recommended Beverage Pairing
Chinese Chill Coffee
- 1/2 tsp. Chinese five-spice powder
- 1/2 cup ice cubes
- 2 tbsp. instant coffee granules
- 1/3 cup low-fat milk
- 1/4 cup low-fat sweetened condensed milk
- 2/3 cup vanilla ice cream
- Combine ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth
- Divide into two cups and enjoy!
In the firey heat of summer, this beverage might help you cool off where everything else fails. Whether you need the extra caffeine to stay up late studying or get an early start on your morning run up a mountain, this drink has you covered.
- Reviewed on /r/Fantasy
- Non-Western Setting
- Goodreads Book of the Month
- Novel Featuring a Library
- Published in 2018 (Hard Mode!)
- Featuring a Mountain (Hard Mode!)