A couple of weeks ago I read The Poppy War, a book that is still haunting my thoughts. A book that put me into a reading slump and managed to make me NOT read properly for over two weeks! So I decided to put my thoughts down. However! As much as I want to do it justice, I don’t know if I’ll be able to put the nuance in my review the way R.F. Kuang did with her characters and her story. So I recommend to just go buy the book and read it for yourselves! It’s just THAT GOOD!!
TW: Self-harm, rape, assault, genocide, warfare, chemical warfare, child deaths, abuse, addiction, drugs, bullying, misogyny, mutilation, racism, violence, (a lot of graphic descriptions!)
You know that feeling where you really start to LOVE a book and you don’t want it to end? I had this with The Poppy War, it’s a lovely feeling but also inconvenient as I quit reading several times because it was SO GOOD and I didn’t want it to end!! Mind you, I devoured the second part of the book in one sitting. The main reason being the accessibility of the writing style. And R.F. Kuang’s ability to keep everything interesting. She’s very to the point in what she’s writing. It’s something I like a lot (but also the very thing that destroyed me).
“Children ceased to be children when you put a sword in their hands. When you taught them to fight a war, then you armed them and put them on the front lines, they were not children anymore. They were soldiers.” – R.F. Kuang, The Poppy War
R.F. Kuang doesn’t skip the gruesome and horrifying details in her descriptions of war. Furthermore, as Minna stated in her review about the violence and how it was depicted (I feel like she put exactly into words what I wanted to say): “….R.F. Kuang does not in any way shy away from the horrible reality of the violence she describes….there was no justification for the violence inflicted (from any sides or characters). Sympathies, certainly. And I think that’s where R.F. Kuang demonstrates (part of) her genius. Because sympathy is not the same as justification.”
Please go read the full review Minna wrote! It’s genius on its own!
This story is heavily based on Asian history (China, Japan, Taiwan, …) and Tiffany from readbytiffany wrote a VERY INTERESTING BLOGPOST about it! It’s something I learned about while reading the book but I decided to first finish The Poppy War and do some research about the history after that. And I’m so glad this blogpost gave me starting point!!
Can we talk for a second about the opening sentence? “Take your clothes off.” Yeah, that right there, that’s the exact moment I knew this was going to be a new favourite. I mean, my mind went the complete opposite direction of what was meant but it’s still a great opening sentence. Because after that we learn about Rin taking one of the most difficult exams in the Empire, the Keju. And “Take your clothes off” was just another way of saying: we don’t tolerate cheaters.
Being a war orphan and to her guardians more of a burden, Rin was to be married off to an old man. However here’s where I started to admire her determination because the only way she could get out of this deal, was to pass for the Keju exam. (TW: self-harm) Not wanting to fail, Rin starts doing everything she can to study, even if it means burning her arms to stay awake or cram everything into her mind all day long while working. She takes the exam, and to everyone’s big surprise, she succeeds. To everyone’s bigger surprise or rather suspicion, she even gets into Nikan’s elite military academy.
Although she succeeded, things don’t go easy for Rin at Sinegard as being a dark skinned girl with a southern accent attracts unwanted attention from racist classmates and teachers. While fighting against these prejudices, she discovers a power which enables her to use the powers of the gods. Therefore she starts to get lessons from a seemingly mad teacher and learns about the art of shamanism. She also learns that having these powers will not only get her through the academy but could be used for other means.
Because as peaceful as many people think the Empire is, it won’t last for long. A threat from the Federation of Mugen is rising. The Federation who had Nikan in its powers during the First Poppy War and barely lost it in the Second. And a few people are very much aware that they’re on the brink of a Third Poppy War.
THE NEXT SECTION OF THE REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS SO IF YOU HAVEN’T READ IT… Honestly, what are you doing? Go buy and read it! And then please come back so we can talk about it!
Rin’s determination to get out of a hopelessly seeming situation is what I admired so much in her! Also, her mind! How can she do that? I would have dropped after two all-nighters of studying. I mean, I do need my sleep.
“Well, fuck the heavenly order of things. If getting married to a gross old man was her preordained role on this earth, then Rin was determined to rewrite it.” ― R.F. Kuang, The Poppy War
Her time at Sinegard doesn’t start easy either. Both with her accent as well as the colour of her skin, she attracts the unwanted attention of racist, prejudiced classmates. Honestly I wanted to punch Nezha so hard, I was glad Rin did it! He deserved it. Although, I hated Nezha’s ass during the whole first part of the book, I started to like him after he and Rin talked about what happened. I liked how they did not ignore it. As Minna put it in her review: “……it was a testament to how war can change how you view others completely. School squabbles seem petty in the face of true violence,….”. This felt indeed like a huge change in Nezha’s character, it’s like they both realized bigger things were happening and their fights were pushed to the side. Though I really liked how Rin demanded Nezha to take responsibility for his actions and how he really did.
“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.” – R.F. Kuang
The graphic scenes were one of the reasons I had to put the book down for several minutes. It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever read. I’ve read some horrific things before, obviously, but this was one gruesome event after the other. (The nauseating scenes Kitay and Venka described)
I did not like Rin’s decisions but seeing everything from her point of view, I can understand it. This rage she carries with her, this urge to take revenge for her people. For everything they did to her and her friends. It is very much human. I’m not going to copy more of Minna’s review in here but she put it perfectly at the end of her review!
So often, we call humans who do terrible things, monsters. They are monsters to us. And they are, but they’re also not? It’s like because they do something terrible, they’re not like us anymore. They’re suddenly something different than human? While they’re not… I think Rin is the perfect example for that. Her hatred was so all encompassing, she couldn’t see anything else. So she decided to do the very thing, she condemned the Federation of doing. Murdering innocents. And here, I understand Kitay.
“They were monsters!” Rin shrieked. “They were not human!”
“Have you ever considered” he said slowly “that that was exactly what they though of us?” – R.F. Kuang, The Poppy War
I have tears in my eyes just by rereading this because this felt like an end to their friendship. I really like Kitay. He’s one of my favourite characters. But there’s this thing I really understand in Rin too. Just not the way she acts on them.
I realized I didn’t talk much about the shamanism part of the book and how the gods are involved but I’d probably write too much if I did. I really want to read the next book: The Dragon Republic, so if I write a blogpost about that book, I’ll make sure to include more about the gods because that part is definitely as interesting as all the rest!!
Thank you for reading all the way through! Check out my Instagram where we can talk even more about books!
Have you read the book? What are your thoughts?