Book: The Poppy War (The Poppy War #1)
Author: RF Kuang
Narrator: Emily Woo Zeller
BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Rin talks with the other girls about getting a chemical hysterectomy.
Content Warnings: Ableism, child abuse, physical and mental abuse, drug addiction, self-harm, body horror & gore, graphic violence, slavery, genocide, medical experimentation, animal cruelty/death, war crimes, rape, sexism, colourism, ethnic cleansing, self-sterilisation, trauma, racism, chemical warfare, bullying, discussion of suicide, human experimentation
I’d been seeing The Poppy War everywhere on Book Twitter over the past year, and back in June (because I am super behind on my reviews, sorry guys!) I finally decided to see what all the hype was about. I was a little apprehensive because I’d heard how violent the book was, but I’d heard nothing but praise about it so I thought it was worth the try. Unfortunately it really wasn’t for me, the violence felt incredibly gratuitous, the pacing was definitely off and the characters were underdeveloped. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
A brilliantly imaginative talent makes her exciting debut with this epic historical military fantasy, inspired by the bloody history of China’s 20th century and filled with treachery and magic, in the tradition of Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings and N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.
When Rin aced the Keju, the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies, it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard, the most elite military school in Nikan, was even more surprising.
But surprises aren’t always good.
Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.
For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .
Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.
So as I mentioned at the top of the review, the violence in this book really bothered me. I’m usually fine with violent content in books, I read a lot of fantasy with big battles and death, but this was definitely on a whole different level of detail. There’s a description of a pregnant woman being torn in half, incredibly detailed descriptions of corpses, and one character describing her violent rape in detail, it was all too much for me and parts actually made me feel physically sick. It all felt very gratuitous as well, like it was just violent to that extreme to shock the reader, rather than serving any particular purpose. I get it, war is awful and violent, but you can get that across without being detailed to the extreme. Venka’s rape particularly bothered me, because the character is literally just brought back after chapters of absence, to describe in detail her brutal rape and then disappears again. That just didn’t sit right with me, rape is a super traumatic experience, and it felt like Venka was exploited for her trauma and then just faded into the background. I think part of this is because Rin feels very detached from all of it, the suffering doesn’t seem very personal so as a reader you feel disconnected from it all, it has no real impact. I also found that I got kind of bored of the war, because it lasted for so much of the book, and again, the battles lose their impact if they’re happening all the time.
I also wasn’t a massive fan of the narrator, which is a bit of an issue when you’re listening to an audiobook! I didn’t find her the most engaging reader, and her voices for the characters lacked differentiation which made the dialogue hard to follow because I was always a little confused about which character was speaking.
The book is split into three parts, and the first part seems incredibly disconnected from the second and third. The first part is your classic boarding school story, but then the second and third part were all war stuff. It gave me whiplash going from Part One to Part Two because they felt like entirely different books! It was also fairly slow paced and much longer than it needed to be. There were also random time skips in Part Two, Rin’s second and third year at Sinegard get skipped over super quickly so suddenly you’re three years ahead in time, but all of that happens within like two sentences.
I really hated the main character Rin, and whilst that’s not always an insurmountable obstacle, it doesn’t really help. She’s super stubborn, she’s massively insubordinate, she does whatever she wants whenever she wants without thinking about consequences & she always gets what she wants even when she shouldn’t. Also she’s bigged up as being massively good at strategy but she makes dumb decisions over and over again that harm the war effort, so it doesn’t seem like she’s actually all that good at it. She also reads much younger than she’s meant to be, she’s supposed to be 16 at the start and 19 towards the end, but I thought she read more as 14/15 all the way through. Everything also always seems massively easy for her, she passes top in the insanely hard test, gets into the top school in the country, is picked to be mentored by the teacher who never picks anyone, so the stakes always feel very low because you know that everything is always going to work out for her.
Rin’s motivations are also very murky which makes it hard to pin down why she does what she does, and hard to root for her, because you never really know what she wants. Like the fact that she goes to Sinegard in the first place, she doesn’t seem to have any real passion for the military, it’s more a means to an end for her, which makes it hard to understand why she’s killing herself to stay when she doesn’t seem to like it much, the only reason she wants to be there is because it’s free.
She’s also incredibly hypocritical, like she’s incredibly judgey of people who are dependent on opium, particularly Altan and then by the end of the book she’s perfectly happy taking tons of drugs herself?
Then we have the events at the end of the book, which I can’t really go into without being massively spoilery, but Rin takes an incredibly drastic action at the end of the book that is completely unforgivable and if I’d liked her from the start, then that end part of the book would have completely ruined it for me.
There was one particular bit that really bothered me: when Rin gets a chemical hysterectomy basically because she gets her first period and finds it inconvenient. Now don’t get me wrong, I totally understand the feeling, I hate my period too, but it does seem like a wild overreaction. My issue with it isn’t that she doesn’t want kids, I actually really appreciated that representation as a person who doesn’t want kids myself. No my issue is that Rin isn’t given enough information to make an informed choice, the only options she is given are either destroy your uterus and therefore have no periods and not have to take time out of class for period pain, or just deal with your periods and everything that comes with that. There’s no indication that there’s any kind of option for managing period pain, which seems odd given that there’s a potion for leaving you infertile, it stands to reason that there should be something that reduces or eliminates period pain. She’s also not given any information about potential long term side effects of the hysterectomy, so she’s taking this potion with no idea what it might do to her body in the long term. I also felt like the story looks down on the other girls who haven’t decided to stop their periods because it implies that Rin is better than they are for making the opposite choice and I think the implication that women who have periods are inferior warriors and the only way that you can succeed is by stopping that part of yourself is quite a damaging message to send and felt like an attack on the other female characters. It also just felt like a very lazy way of dealing with periods, like the author wanted to include periods in her book, but didn’t want to have to deal with the consequences of them so just magicked the problem away.
I also didn’t love that Rin had no female friends. Don’t get me wrong, Kitay was a cinnamon roll who must be protected at all costs, and I did appreciate a platonic male/female friendship, but Rin seemed to view all other women as her competition and there was no camaraderie there, and I really hate when authors go down the route of having few women in a male dominated environment treating each other like the enemy. It may be realistic, but this is fiction! We can have our women in male dominated environments getting along! I also found it super unrealistic that Nezha and Rin go from being enemies to friends with very little explanation in the second half of the book.
Speaking of characters, they all seemed to be pretty underdeveloped. I think this is mostly down to the sheer number of characters, there are far too many for them to all be fully developed and it doesn’t help that the cast almost entirely changes in the second part. I think the book would have been better if it had had fewer but more developed characters and stuck with the same cast the whole way through. The one character I did quite like was Jiang, he’s the quirky mentor character, and he added a bit of levity to an otherwise dark book. I enjoyed his and Rin’s mentor/mentee relationship and was kind of sad it wasn’t utilised more.
I liked the Asian inspirations and the diverse cast of characters, but I did feel that the worldbuilding & magic system left something to be desired. The magic system is essentially using drugs to channel the world’s gods, and all of the scenes where Rin is using poppy were extremely confusing. I didn’t really understand the pantheon of gods and their history, and everything to do with the magic system felt extremely vague. The places in the book are hardly described and whilst I don’t visualise what I read, I do need a little more of a sense of place than Kuang gives us. The setting was also very confusing because at first it seemed very medievally but then it mentions 20th century technology and it pulls from 20th century events so it seems like a sort of mish-mash of time periods. There’s also a lot of modern Americanisms used that don’t seem to fit with the setting. I also didn’t really understand the politics with the warlords. Basically I found it all a bit confusing!
The Mugen, the villains are also incredibly underdeveloped, so it’s hard to tell exactly why they hate the Nikara so much.
Kuang’s writing is fine, but she definitely has a tendency of telling and not showing, you get a lot of montages, of training, of war etc, but the details are missing, which makes it feel like the entire book is just skimming the surface rather than going into any depth. This was her debut though, and I’m sure she’s improved a lot in her more recent releases. There’s a lot of infodumping, particularly when it comes to the explanations of the Poppy Wars.
I did appreciate that there was no romance in this book, that’s definitely something that there needs to be more of, the furthest Rin gets to romantic involvement with anyone is a crush. However, the guy she had a crush on, Altan, was incredibly abusive towards her and the book definitely romanticises him and blames his abusive behaviour on his trauma which is not okay. Dealing with trauma does not excuse you being abusive, ever.
In the end I was really disappointed with this book, I’d heard so much good stuff about it, but I found the characters underdeveloped, the worldbuilding somewhat lacking, and the incredibly gratuitous violence really bothered me. I don’t think that I will be coming back for the sequels, it just wasn’t for me.
My Rating: 2.5/5
My next review will be of my July audiobook read, The Alice Network by Kate Quinn (I’m going to be slowly chipping away at these on my days off so hopefully I’ll be able to catch up fairly soon!).