Review of The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
This novel is incredibly engaging. I found myself desperate to read it as often as I could, because I was involved by the story Kuang has so vividly rendered.
The storyline might seem a bit predictable at first – orphan goes to a special school, discovers ‘uncanny’ abilities, yadda yadda – but the way in which Kuang delivers this trope-y story made it seem anything but clichéd.
It might sound daft but one of the aspects that pulled me into this story is that Kuang made me believe in Rin and her tumultuous and often hostile world. The many physical and inner conflicts she faces made me deeply weary. I grew increasingly apprehensive. Kuang does not sugar coat the brutality of war and the inevitable horrors brought by such conflicts. Yet, Kuang’s prose could deliver such beautiful and elegant phrases that I could not find anything she wrote distasteful. Her style would often come across as simple but it is this apparent simplicity that makes Kuang’s words all the more effective. There is a raw almost visceral aspect to her writing that makes it hard not to be affected by what she writes of.
The Poppy War makes you constantly re-think and re-evaluate what you read of.
As much as I loved this book there are a few things that I thought could have been “better” or that I hope can be more developed in the next instalments.
Here are a few thoughts:
✔The way in which Kung depicts a moving body is simply captivating. I was in awe of her descriptions of combat. Even when during these fighting scenes the “eyes” seem to be a bit overdone (everyone seems to have very arresting eyes, especially those who fight well or are shamans).
✔Rin, this girl, this young woman, frustrated the hell out of me. She is a act first, think later, kind of person. Also, you know how some say that there is no such thing as a stupid question? Well, I disagree, because Rin asks a helluva of stupid questions. And the she is ‘stunned’ or suprised by the unfavourable reactions these often insubordinate questions illicit. She enragers her peers, and her superiors, with her words and her obtuseness. Yet, in spite of my not liking her or her attitude, I still cared for her. Especially since she seems to be treated like a pinata by most of the characters.
And yes, I do mean that she is treated as something that should be bashed about. Her mentors are not upfront enough, pushing her to make stupid decisions. Her friends…well, I don’t think that there is one healthy relationship or friendship in this book. ,b>The relationships she has verge on or are of an abusive (physical and non) nature. Given the world Rin lives in it’s hardly surprising that this should be the case….still
The path that she takes feels sadly unavoidable. It’s refreshing to read about a female character who longs for power….but the damage caused by Rin’s newfound thirst for revenge…well…mmmh…there is no coming back from that.
✖A lot of characters tell Rin the classic “you don’t know what I’ve been through” line. I mean, they are all living through a war, so I don’t think Rin should just let others bemoan their own tragedies, especially since before this new explosion of violence, Rin was already an outcast.
✖The few female characters that make an appearance are all very negative depictions of femininity. They are shrill and or unnecessary mean, especially towards – surprise surprise – Rin. They seemed very “flat”. They were either jealous or callous, treating Rin in a cold or aggressive manner. Hopefully new female characters in the following instalments will change this but…
✖I think the novel would have benefited from having a few more descriptions of the characters’ surroundings. I know it is an action focused novel but a more delineated landscape would have made Rin’s world all the more vivid.
Overall, I recommend this very much to both historical and fantasy fans. If you love the trope of the “tragic hero/ine” whose thirst for revenge and power bring about their own destruction…look no further. Rin is an Anakin Skywalker in the makings…
I know quite a lot of people are worried by the “trigger warnings” but this book is never gratuitously violent. The violence depicted is both brutal and necessary, and because of it, we can better understand Rin and those around her.