Book Review – The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Genre: Dark Fantasy; Fiction

Note: There are NO spoilers in this review. When discussing in the comments, please provide a spoiler warning if needed.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang blew me away. I loved every moment I spent reading but will admit the content makes for a difficult read at times. In my opinion, that’s a testament to Kuang – her writing is so descriptive and real it elicits a deeply emotional response. 

Please note— this is not Young Adult Fiction. There are parts of this book covering heavy topics. Before diving in, please look up the trigger warnings. I would list them here, but things I would consider a trigger warning may not be the same for everyone. 

The novel centers around Rin, a poverty stricken orphan who spends her days working for her adoptive family. In an effort to escape her situation, Rin begins studying in secret in hopes of being accepted into the elite Sinegard Academy where she starts to learn she may have the ability to tap into the powers of a Shaman. 

From the moment we meet our protagonist she’s struggling and fighting to make her own way. Rin faces an uphill climb both externally with her teachers and peers and internally as she battles with the decision to let her powers as a Shaman fly free. 

While Rin deals with these personal conflicts, the Federation of Mugen invades the Nikara Empire (Rin’s home country).. Despite being a student at Singard Academy, Rin and her fellow students fight on the front lines. Her power could end the war but might also end with the loss of her humanity.

“You humans always think you’re destined for things, for tragedy or for greatness. Destiny is a myth. Destiny is the only myth. The gods choose nothing. You choose.”

R.F. Kuang, The Poppy War

The Poppy War is violent and graphic, but it paints such a beautifully tragic story, I couldn’t look away. I also prefer books a little more on the graphic side, even if my husband swears it makes me more jumpy and gives me nightmares. In fact, he’s been home for hours and I jumped when he walked into the kitchen earlier. 

While the novel touches on the subjects of trauma, genocide, addiction, and self-harm – it was done in a humanizing and raw way. We see the impact war can have on a country and the horrible past of a government who is just trying to hold their empire together. Pair that with Rin’s journey to discovering the true extent of her powers, and you have a powerful and emotional story.

“I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible. Was she now a goddess or a monster? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.”

R.F. Kuang, The Poppy War

Some authors include brutal descriptions and violence for the sake of those things, but in The Poppy War every scene is included for the purpose of character development, world building, and story development. I can’t think of a single scene that felt like “filler violence.” 

The descriptive writing used by Kuang to bring the brutality to life throughout the novel, also paints a vivid and clear picture of the Nikara Empire and all the provinces visited as the story unfolds. The reader witnesses the poverty in the Rooster Province, where Rin is from, and the overwhelming wealth of Sinegard along with everything in between. It truly is a gorgeous novel. 

This is a novel for people who enjoy fantasy stories about an underdog who claws her way to the top, only to find new and more life-threatening challenges when she gets there. Rin is not a hero, but she’s also not a villain – at least not yet. I’m anxious to see where her story takes us and watch as her decisions unfold. The magic (and god who has chosen her) that resides inside of her carries terrifying power.