(Book Review of) The Poppy War: Context is Everything

Oooh nice cover. I’m assuming this is Qara? I don’t remember Rin picking up a bow.

Oooof. This was not a light read. But I think perhaps it is an important one. I picked it up because it is the first installment in The Poppy War series by R.F. Kuang which has been nominated for the Hugo Award category ‘Best Series’ (also take a look at the other Hugo Finalists I’ve reviewed).

I didn’t really do much other research into it than that. I vaguely remember when it was nominated for the 2018 Nebula Award and the 2019 World Fantasy Award, but for whatever reason I hadn’t really been following the coverage, and so I didn’t know what to expect.

As such, my blind (and perhaps rather ignorant) first impression of the book was that it was set in a truly intricate (if grim) world which was expertly realized and beautifully written, but the meandering plot was at times confusing and frustrating, mostly when large periods of time would pass mid chapter or without some kind of climatic event that would clue the reader that we were coming to a new phase of the book.

The Fantasy Hive writes that The Poppy War is . . .

“A coming of age epic that leads on to a magic school section of mayhem and mysticism, before spiraling into a grimdark no-holds-barred military fantasy that’d make Sun Tzu roll over in his grave to rewrite The Art of War, with Joe Abercrombie writing the foreword. The Poppy War delivers what most trilogies aspire to – in ONE BOOK.”

https://fantasy-hive.co.uk/2018/11/the-poppy-war-by-r-f-kuang-book-review/

To me, it was too much. As soon as I felt like I was beginning to understand Rin’s struggles at Sinegard (the “magic” school) we were off joining the Cike in a kind of ensemble-style cast which seemed like it was about to set up for a heist, only to be thrown into an all out war which is when the book got exceedingly dark and gruesome.

But through all of this, I think what I was failing to understand, was the context needed to really see what this book was trying to do, namely, use a fantasy setting to explore the violence and brutality of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Opium Wars which followed, and reflect on some of the darkest parts of Chinese history.

(I want to say a quick thank you and shoutout to Read By Tiffany who did a deep dive and explained all of this context in her post: Everything You Need to Know Before You Read The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. Truly an amazing post. If you haven’t read it, please do!)

Looking at the book in this light, and with this context, it seems quite remarkable in its achievement. If the book’s motivation was to capture the elements of history I mentioned above, then it really did so in a way that was compelling and interesting.

And so that’s why I feel this book was an important read if not a light one. It got me questioning. At first, those questions were simply: “What is everyone else taking away from this book that I’m not?” But now that I’ve found that answer, it’s become “Well what really happened during that period in history?” or “What is Investiture of the Gods as opposed to Journey to the West?”

With these questions rattling around in my brain, I’m now looking forward to reading the next book in the series, The Dragon Republic.

Although, I must admit, I will probably do some more research before continuing on. I’m assuming it can only help.

Anyway, that’s it for the review. If you read this one, please let me know what you thought in the comments. If you haven’t? Well still let me know your thoughts, I’m always up for chatting book things. See you next time!

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