My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Length: 544 pages
Release date: 1 May 2018
Opium runs through the heart of the Nikara Empire, a constant reminder of the war with the Federation of Mugen that brought it to the empire’s shores. A war that only ended thanks to three heroes – the Vipress, the Dragon Emperor and the Gatekeeper – known as the Trifecta. They were legendary figures, each bestowed with god-like powers, who united the warlords of the Empire against the Federation.
Decades have passed. The Trifecta is shattered; the Dragon Emperor is dead, the Gatekeeper is missing, and the Vipress alone sits on the throne at Sinegard. Peace reigns, yet the poppy remains.
War orphan Fang Runin grew up with it. Her adopted family smuggles it throughout the Rooster province, making a living on the misfortune of those addicted to its smoke. But when Rin’s parents force her into an arranged marriage, Rin refuses to accept her fate and fights her way to the prestigious military academy at Sinegard.
There she will learn of drug-fuelled shamanic powers thought to be myth, powers which might defeat the Federation during its third invasion. But the cost of some power is too great to pay, even if it means winning a war that threatens to destroy an entire nation.
“I don’t love you,” Rin said. “And I can kill anything.”
The Poppy War is one of a handful of books that are so astoundingly good, I recommend going into them 100% blind. As such, I’m going to keep my review brief and vague, and just urge you to run as fast as you can to the local bookshop for a copy.
There is one caveat: This book is very dark. I’m not normally one for trigger warnings, but this book merits them. The author goes into deeper detail on specific TWs here; in the spirit of my ‘100% blind’ recommendation, I’ll leave you to decide whether to read the full disclaimer and just note that anything that has happened in history is fair game. Very little happens in The Poppy War that doesn’t have a direct historical parallel, and that doesn’t make the relevant plot elements less appalling. It makes them more so. Honestly, there’s something cathartic and raw in R.F. Kuang’s narration, so much so that I’m tempted to label this book alternate history or retelling.
But of course that’s what’s makes the best speculative fiction so potent–it’s a safe place to explore the darkest parts of a collective consciousness.
A warning of another kind: Don’t get attached to anyone. It won’t end well. (Spoiler-free link)
I can read the sappiest stories and stay dry-eyed, but The Poppy War had me close to tears. Rin, Altan and Nezha are 10/10 characters for me. Especially Rin and Altan. There are so many sides to these characters, and both of them spat on my expectations of who they were again and again.
I could gush about this book forever. However, I really do think you’ll get the most out of it first reading The Poppy War with minimal foreknowledge, then going back and reading the many articles and interviews with the author that provide its background. That extra information has deeply refined my perspective on the book, so I definitely recommend seeking it out. In addition to the TW blog post above, some links I’d suggest are this interview, this other interview which has an awesome and sadly too short Rip it or Ship it round, and this AMA.
Finally, R.F. Kuang’s Twitter is a goldmine of 99% memes and 1% emotional support. Suffice to say that it’s dragged me into renewed fandom hell. I have no regrets.
Everyone who read this book, what do you think? Is there anything you hope will happen in the sequel?