The Poppy War
by R. F. Kuang
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This is the first advance title I've received from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. I had been looking for it on Net Galley since I heard about it, but they never offered it. It is due to be released in two weeks, May 1, 2018.
The Poppy War is one of the longer books I've read recently, in three parts, and by the end of Part 1 I was convinced it would be the best book I had read so far this year, and I was in love with the main character, Fang Runin, or Rin for short. Part 2 took the plot in directions I hadn't anticipated, and featured some unpleasant, gruesome events, but I was still enthusiastic overall. By the end, I wasn't sure I even liked Rin, but I was fascinated with her narrative arc, and am anxious to follow it in subsequent books. I wish I was more familiar with Chinese history, customs, and spiritual beliefs, but I know Ms. Kuang is. I have not read any other reviews, and just the beginning of the synopsis on Amazon, which says it's based on 20th Century China. That may be true about some elements, particularly parallels to the Opium Wars, but I'd bet there were influences from earlier periods, and would be surprised if the mystical world described isn't from more ancient sources. In another recent review I said that most of the world's religions shared similarities, that dieties were mirrored in many countries and beliefs. Then again, maybe that's just in the West. This book presents something I don't recall reading anywhere else, a pantheon of sixty-four dieties, with a corresponding zodiac.
There had already been two Poppy Wars, the main adversaries being Nikan and Mugen, which I am sure are based on China and Japan, respectively. Rin was an orphan from the most recent war. She was adopted into a family of opium smugglers, and worked in a shop that was a cover for their operations. Auntie Fang is a ruthless business woman, and a cruel step-mother. At the age of fourteen, Rin is told she is to be married off to a man three times her age. She wants to attend one of Nikan's academies instead, but for that she has to pass rigorous tests. She enlists the aid of her tutor, reads as many books as possible, remaining awake long hours by burning herself with candle wax. When the test results are posted, everyone, including Rin, is surprised to find she has placed higher than anyone else in Rooster Province, accepted into the elite Sinegard Military Academy. A poor peasant girl from a Southern province gets a harsh welcome from the other recruits, most of whom are sons and daughters of military and political leaders. She makes only a couple of friends, but many rivals. Her test scores mean nothing now, she will have to prove herself all over again. She's smart, has a good memory and is quick to learn, but she has had no martial arts training. The Combat Master bans her from training after several incidents with the class favorite, her major rival, whom she had given a black eye on the first day. Maybe she can be accepted as apprentice to the Strategy Master, whom she impressed with several scenarios presented in class. Instead, she decides to pledge to the Lore Master, Jiang Ziya, an eccentric teacher of the esoteric arts of mysticism. I was beginning to lean toward Jiang as my favorite character, but then he abandoned Rin when she needed him most. Granted, she may have been too impetuous and unpredictable for him to train her the way he preferred, but leaving her to her own devices proved just as reckless.
That doesn't even get us to the end of Part 1, but I'll refrain from too many other details because the plot, back-stories, and cultural history are too complex to deal with in a review. Any more and I'd spoil too much, and still wouldn't do it justice. The world-building is impressive, the characters vivid and believable, the plot intricate and unpredictable. Overall, my reaction is very positive, but there are a couple of things I could criticize. Later into the story, there were reappearances of characters Rin (and I) believed to be dead, or at least completely incapacitated and out of the story. It made me wonder if a couple others might show up again in the next book. As long as it is, it's still just the beginning of a trilogy. But that's okay, I'm still intrigued and interested in continuing the journey. It's an exciting, compelling, thought-provoking read. The mystical parts are fantasy, everything else is applicable to real world scenarios; duty, honor, faith, honesty, trust, in conflict with lust for power, revenge, hatred, cruelty. Man against man, man against the gods. I expect Rin to change even more in future events, but she'll probably still do bad things from time to time. She will likely be the ultimate victor, but I have to wonder if it will be deserved. She is an orphan, and we've gotten a hint as to her origins, but I suspect that might be misdirection, and I hope the full truth is not too clichéd.
It is the best new book I've read this year. Highly recommended.
EDIT: I read this in April '18, and with everything else I read after that, it's still my favorite. It has received two award nominations so far, the Nebula, and Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Memorial Award.
UPDATE: April 15, 2019: It won the Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Memorial Award at Balticon, which is for Best First Novel. More recently it has been nominated for Locus and Kitschies awards.
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