First of all, yes, I know that’s not a poppy in the picture. There aren’t any growing in my neighborhood this year, unfortunately.⠀
Secondly, this review is a little spoiler-y. I won’t give away any major character-based plot points, but I will allude to a major event in the plot without giving any details. I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t think of a way to talk about the book without giving away a little something. Proceed at your own risk. ⠀
⠀So, The Poppy War. This massively popular, award-winning epic fantasy series based on Chinese history has launched a thousand fandoms and a thousand and one trigger warnings. I had no idea what I was in for when I opened this book but the tale of brilliant orphan girl Rin, who aces a national exam and escapes a life of indenture by going to the nation’s most elite military academy and winning over her spoiled new peers, did not disappoint me at all. I’m a sucker for homely woman, crouching badass stories in fantasy fiction and Rin’s stubbornness, intelligence and drive kept me immersed in the story until the last page. ⠀
However, I also had no idea that the book is a fantasy retelling(and moral re-examining) of the Sino-Japanese Wars, specifically the Nanking Massacre. Yep, you read that right. If you’re not familar with that episode of history, just focus on the word “massacre” and you’ll have enough of the general idea. Rin’s studies are cut short by invaders from a nearby island nation, and she, her friends and their teachers are all sent off to fight in a terrible war. This is where all those trigger warnings come in. This book gets dark. Pitch-black. Jet. Inky. Our characters are confronted by greater and greater atrocities, and there are enough references to reality sprinkled into the text to make me think I might feel quite differently about this book if I were Chinese or Japanese.
⠀⠀Add to that the fact that our heroes spend most of the time after they leave school literally getting high before battles and things get really dark. I won’t spoil the reason for you but Rin does a lot of drugs and so do all her friends. What starts as a seemingly inspiring tale of an underdog rising through the ranks of society quickly turns into a violent tale of an elite martial artist drug addict breaking bones and cutting throats in order to root out treachery. Ip Man, eat your heart out.⠀
⠀Having said all that, I’m not sure how I enjoyed this book but I really did. The plotting and worldbuilding are so crisp and use tropes so innovatively that I was riveted despite some of the more horrifying moments. The magic system is really unique and draws on inspiration from Chinese mythology very well. Kuang knows how to tell a story by endearing you to her characters even at their most unlikable, and there are some unexpected twists and turns that have me excited to read the next book. ⠀
⠀If I have one real criticism of this book, it’s the prose. This is emphatically NOT YA fiction due to its grim and graphic content, but the prose isn’t very sophisticated and sometimes is oddly juvenile and light, given the immensity of the concepts and events being described.⠀
⠀Four and a half stars and some intense trauma counseling to The Poppy War.
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