The Poppy War – RF Kuang

“‘Take your clothes off.'”

Rin’s life as a war orphan, taken in by opium dealers and used as cheap labour, is far from happy. Rather than face a forced marriage, she studies – boy, does she study! – for the exams that will admit her to the elite national military academy. She shocks everyone, including herself, when she gets in.

But that’s just a beginning. Even the years of training, of new friendships and enemies, is only background to what she’ll learn about the nature of reality, about war, and about herself.

I feel a little ashamed of myself for a slight unconscious assumption that a young female author (having seen Ms Kuang in an online bookish chat) would likely write YA-ish fantasy. Not that there’s anything at all wrong with that – and hey, I was very much looking forward to this book anyway! – but it is absolutely not YA. Gosh, is it dark!! Swearing, violence, war, torture – yup, dark with a vengeance!

But oh, it was also so engrossing! Rin is such a great main character. Flawed and then some, but interesting and believable and lost and strong. The world she inhabits is clearly influenced by history, but with added mysticism – who or what are these ‘gods’ that can grant such immense, terrible power?

The story starts with her not-great life with the Fang family, and her obsessive studying. It’s kind of nice to see – with the studies and the martial training later – no easy short cuts, nothing that comes a little too naturally (although she’s clever enough to have it believable). This girl slogs for what she achieves, and that’s rather good to see – even if she does take it a bit too far.

We then go on to the military school, and this falls into a familiar kind of a feel even as we’re in a very different world. But we have the schoolyard ‘mortal enemy’, the older boy who is hero-worshiped by all, teachers that hate Rin, teachers that no one takes seriously. 

It took me a beat to change pace for the later sections, as school is left rather far behind. The story picks up pace fast, but also this is where 99% of the darkness comes across. There is magic and gods and nothing as evil as people, of course.

I picked this up now as the third in the trilogy is published next month (Nov 2020), and I’m so so glad I did. It feels like a very long time since I read good high fantasy, and this is quite excellent! Onward with book 2.

Kindle: 644 pages / 26 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Poppy War book 1 (of 3)
Read from 19th-10th October 2020

My rating: 9/10

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