Review: The Poppy War by by R. F. Kuang - 8/10*
The Poppy War is not a book to be missed by fantasy fans and especially those who like it infused with copious amounts of blood, darkness and misery.
This isn’t some fluffy little tale about teenage romance and personal discovery (although it may seem that way in the beginning.) This is a book about reality. Now that’s an odd thing to say isn’t it? Reality? We’re talking about fantasy here. But do let me explain.
This is a book about the realities of war. War isn’t pretty. War isn’t about heroics and grand deeds. War is about men pissing themselves and running away in fear. War is about control. War is about men trying to murder each other; it’s about soldiers brutalising their enemies and terrorising the innocent. War is about rape, raping of the land and of the defenceless. None of us will ever be ready for it. It is so very unsurprising that Rin turns into a cold hearted bitch by the end.
“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.”
Her student days are over before they really began. She only just begins to taste her power (a rage filled magic fuelled by drugs) before she is enlisted and forced to defend her training academy from invaders. Her master taught her to control her power, and trained her only to understand it. He never wanted her to use it, though when backed into a corner Rin unleashes all her fiery fury upon her enemies. It was either that or death. Some will think her character extreme, though I think she is a product of her situation.
Rin is driven to succeed. This is not a woman who will give up. She has done some excessive things to be admitted into the training academy. She has gone without sleep. She has self-harmed (to allow the former) and she has worked harder than most would think possible. The war has shattered her dreams. It has prevented her from finishing her studies and it has turned her into a killer. She wants to finish it and will do absolutely anything possible to do so, vengeance becomes her new goal. By the end she is unrecognisable even to herself. War has killed her in a way, though it has made her very strong.
“War doesn't determine who's right. War determines who remains.”
The Poppy War was not the book I thought it would be. The more fantasy I read, the more I see the same similar plot directions and romances. Some details were predictable (such as The Gatekeeper’s identity) though I did not expect it to go quite the way it did. Initially the book parallels much of the basic plot of The Name of the Wind. It appeared to be going in a similar direction but then the invaders came and everything exploded into a bloody mess of unpredictability. Such is the nature of war.
This was far from a bad thing. I did really like the first part of the story, though my interest peaked as chaos descended. War never comes at the right time. It interrupts lives (and plots.) What the author showed us here is that it destroys everything. It destroys our plans and it destroys the direction we set for ourselves, and that’s why the sharp shift in plot was so necessarily strong.
Believe the hype. Believe the reviewers. This will be the biggest fantasy debut this year: go read it!