R.F. Kuang

The Poppy War


Review by Aja Todd 

A Gritty Coming-of-Age Fantasy Novel for All Ages

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang is a fantasy adventure novel unlike any other. Re-telling and fictionalizing old Chinese history (centered on the 1937 Raping of Nanjing), it focuses on the story of a fourteen-year-old girl named Rin, a poor orphan from a southern province in Tikany. She is constantly abused by her foster parents, working for their store with no rest or pay, while criminalizing herself by involvement in the sales of opium. When these parents decide to marry her off to further their business and profits, Rin decides to study for an elite exam called the Keju. It is a test only the most talented, prestigious, and determined students can take and succeed, children who have spent years studying. When she aces and makes it to the top of her class, she is sent to the most elite school in the Nikara empire — Sinegard. Through this, she shocks the world. No one expected a war orphan to have the brains or will to pass the dreaded Keju. 

And although a novel could be made out of her journey and ambition through her studies in Sinegard, this story instead tackles several different issues at once and pushes the story further. As a dark-skinned, poor southern girl, she is ostracized from her entire class. She has to prove herself — past colorism, classism, and sexism — that she has a right to be at the academy. Even though teachers attempts to thwart her advances, she pushes through them with her own means and grit. When she finally shows her potential to her peers and teachers, she learns that she is meant for even greater things — to end war itself, through her innate abilities of old shamanism. 

 R.F Kuang crafts the story of Rin with a careful eye and unabashed intensity. While some authors may have dialed back on their brutality of war and its practices, Kuang shapes her world around it and in Rin’s classroom. When Rin reaches the capital for her military schooling, she immediately witnesses harsh poverty, crazed merchants, and a child being run over by a cart within a blink of an eye. At the academy, she is put through rigorous training of complex courses, martial arts, and gruesome fights. What’s more, Kuang also has complex characters within the school, from Nezha — the son of a warlord who lived life with a golden spoon in his mouth, to Kitay — the person she befriends who, despite his history, doesn’t judge Rin by her background. It’s hard to not look at the parallels Kuang paints in this story to Chinese history, and in fact, the world. The social issues Rin faces, as well as her tackling grander and more difficult feats in the political spectrum, The Poppy War, the first book of a fantastical trilogy, becomes more than just a good read. It’s a book that frankly doesn’t even need its fantasy elements of shamanism and old Gods; however, this aspect makes the story even larger and more purposeful, creating a third leg to Kuang’s writing. 

 And this novel isn’t for the faint-hearted. It deals with torture, abuse, sexual violence, and genocide. However, to quote the author herself about why she writes grueling fiction, Kuang writes on her website: 

“I’m not interested in writing utopias. I don’t like writing the alternate histories where gender equality is taken for granted. I love readingthem — I understand why some like to write them and I understand their importance — we must be able to envision alternate futures for ourselves if we can shift from the present.

But healing comes only after a stark analysis of the past. And as long as these women’s stories are elided, disputed, ignored, mocked–we can’t heal.”
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In summary,The Poppy War is an intense, intelligent, and well-crafted debut novel by R.F Kuang. It’s a wonderful yet dark tale that brings diversity into the fantasy realm; it grants an asian girl the spotlight of a future trilogy, while also bringing in discussion of China’s past. Although the contents are grim, what comes forth from it will be nothing but extraordinary. 

April 23, 2018
Published by HARPER Voyager
ISBN: 978-0-06-266256-9
527 Pages 


R.F Kuang’s Social Media: 
Instagram: Kuangrf 
Twitter: @kuangrf