‘The Poppy War’ is historical fantasy at its finest – engaging, beautifully written, with its own spin on events but clearly based on established source material. For a debut, it’s incredibly assured, with a style more reminiscent of a master of the fantasy genre. This is a dark story, but for those who enjoy grimdark fantasy there are few better examples.
Fang Runin, known as Rin, is an orphan from Rooster province, raised by an aunt who only cares about marrying her off to further the family’s criminal enterprise. Determined to escape her aunt’s planned fate, Rin studies night and day for the Keju – the test all youths in the empire can take to join a military academy. To her surprise, she aces it, and is accepted into the empire’s most prestigious academy – Sinegard. But being a Southern girl – poor, dark-skinned, lacking grace and connections – is not easy at such a prestigious institution, and it’s even less easy for a girl with an aptitude for the dangerous, half-mythical magic of shamanism. With the threat of war on the horizon, Rin must navigate the twin minefields of Sinegard and Shamanism before her people are destroyed – and before a vengeful god destroys her.
“I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible. Was she now a goddess or a monster? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.”
Rin makes a brilliant protagonist. She’s fiesty and determined, with a ready anger always brewing near the surface. She’s exceptionally morally grey, with many flaws, but her drive makes the reader root for her anyway. She also has the most beautiful friendship with Kitay – it’s unusual to have a central male-female friendship without a hint of romance, and it’s a delight reading about their pure and platonic bond.
Kitay, on the other hand, is an exceptionally sweet character. A scholar, he’s quiet and easily underestimated, and always wants to take the peaceful route. He and Rin are complete opposites yet compliment each other in a strange way.
The other primary characters – Jiang, Nezha, and Altan – are mostly mysteries. Nezha starts unlikeable but goes through exceptional character development. Similarly, Altan starts relatively two-dimensional but the more the reader learns about him the more it becomes clear that he’s suffered hugely and simply does whatever it takes to numb the pain.
This is very much a book of two halves. The first is a standard trope of high fantasy – a poor, orphan girl who unexpectedly finds herself at a prestigious institution and has to navigate the complex politics. This half is well-written, giving a solid background to all the key characters and establishing relationship dynamics. However, it’s the second half which truly makes this book special. Here, there’s an evolution to a full-on military fantasy, with skirmishes and battle plans and deeper exploration of shamanism and the destruction it can cause. Kuang’s writing is exceptional, balancing painting gorgeous pictures of setting with complex military dynamics and huge emotional impact. There are no weak points – it balances three-dimensional, morally grey characters with equally strong plot and utterly believable worldbuilding. Fans of fantasy for many reasons can find something to like here.
“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”
Overall, ‘The Poppy War’ is a remarkable debut and the start of a brilliant, fascinating military fantasy inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese war. Recommended for fans of any fantasy – as long as they don’t mind it on the darker side – along with Asian history and just expertly written books.
My review of the final book in the trilogy, The Burning God, can be found here.
Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: May 1st 2018 / Paperback: April 23rd 2019