REVIEW: THE POPPY WAR BY R.F. KUANG

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Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F Kuang
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Adult
Pages: 544
My Rating: 2 stars

 

TWO_CATS

 

I can’t believe how long it took me to finish this book; I just couldn’t get through it! There were some great new concepts and likeable characters, but pages and pages of war talk and strategy held back the plot, and I didn’t find myself enjoying The Poppy War half as much as I thought I would. Although I appreciated the world the author created and the fact that she portrayed the gruesome realities of war in a realistic way, the story’s pacing was off and there wasn’t enough to keep me engrossed in the story throughout.

 

Pros:
– rich history to the world and story that is presented in ways that are easy to consume
– a garden of psychedelics and a whimsical teacher who tends and consumes them
– a likeable main character that has to work hard and prove herself

Cons:
– chapters and long and dense with way too much war tactics and strategy
– too many characters; a lot of them come in and out of the main storyline and it takes away from the depth they could have had
– strange pacing and a disjointed focus

 

This is a fantasy novel, but it is a believable fantasy with authentic characters going through challenging events and facing situations that could realistically happen to someone. Rin grew up as a war orphan and had to prove to everyone that she was worth more and was better than the station she was born into. She worked hard to prove herself and when life didn’t present her with the opportunities she wanted, she created opportunities for herself. Rin isn’t a natural and she wasn’t brought up learning history and martial arts from the time she could walk like almost all of the other students were. Instead, she has to put in effort beyond anything she’s ever done before, even to the point of harming and abusing herself and her body. I love the author’s comparison of receiving praise to consuming drugs:

 

“She adored praise—craved it, needed it, and realized she found relief only when she finally had it. She realized, too, that she felt about praise the way that addicts felt about opium. Each time she received a fresh infusion of flattery, she could think only about how to get more of it. Achievement was a high. Failure was worse than withdrawal.”

 

Almost no one was on Rin’s side, including many of the other students and teachers, but she didn’t let them break her will with their taunts and punishments. I liked this beginning-of-the-book version of Rin much better than what she ended up turning into, though. Once Rin starts to succeed and gain power, she seems to be in things just for the sake of becoming powerful, and she makes decisions based on what will gain her the most power, instead of what the smartest or most logical decision would have been. She is warned countless times about the dangers of a power she doesn’t understand and can’t handle, but she never listens to any of the advice she is given.

 

“You will be asked to do what I refused to do,” said the Woman. “You will be offered power beyond your imagination. But I warn you, little warrior. The price of power is pain.”

 

This story contains a lot of world building and much of this is done through history lessons, which is to be expected when the main character is attending school. Instead of being presented in the form of an infodump, we are given details about the events of the past in increments and through stories that are told, which I found a much better medium than throwing it all at us at once. The story of the Trifecta, for example, is told to us through a shadow puppet play that Rin is watching, and I was just as absorbed in the story telling as she was.

 

The other side of this story being heavy on world building is that the military planning and politics can get very dense at times. I struggled with the plot being dragged down with in depth descriptions of military strategies, troop placement, and movements by the different forces. At times I would catch myself zoning out during these moments and having to go back and reread the section. For a book that covered years of events, the plot sure did drag. I had to seriously consider if I was willing to finish the book around the halfway mark. Numerous reviews seemed to say that the story picked up in the second half, and I’d made it halfway through already, so I ended up sticking with it and finishing the novel.

 

“When had she last been this scared? Had she felt this paralysis, this numbing dread before she stepped into the ring with Nezha two years ago? No, she had been angry then, and proud. She had thought she was invincible. She had been looking forward to the fight, anticipating the bloodlust. That felt stupid now. So, so stupid. War was not a game, where one fought for honor and admiration, where masters would keep her from sustaining any real harm. War was a nightmare.”

 

The rest of this book was a bit all over the place, and I was disappointed in the main characters and the irresponsible decisions they made. Aside from Rin and Altan, I had trouble keeping any of the characters straight because none of them really stood out from the others; they all had bland personalities and characteristics that blended together. There wasn’t anything anchoring me to the story, and some events felt like they were thrown in as after thoughts that didn’t fit with the way the rest of the story was unfolding. I really don’t think that I will be continuing with the series. Unfortunately I only ended up liking the very beginning of the novel, and things went consistently down hill for me from there.

 

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