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The Poppy War Series
by R. F. Kuang

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 17, 2018
Edits and Addenda on July 10, 2019 & October 26, 2020

1. The Poppy War / The Dragon Republic / The Burning God

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The Poppy War is the first advance title I 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.

It is one of the longer books I've read recently, nearly 600 pages in three major parts. By the end of Part One 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 Two took the plot in directions I hadn't anticipated, and featured some unpleasant, gruesome events, but I was still enthusiastic overall. Part Three continued in that vein, perhaps even more brutal, and 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, but it seems to be a mashup of the 19th Century Opium Wars and the Sino-Japanese Wars of the early 20th. I'd bet there are influences from earlier periods, and would be surprised if the mystical world described isn't from more ancient sources. Of course the fantasy elements could be original and unique to this book. 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 64 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 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 One, 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. My overall 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 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.

UPDATE: April 15, 2019: I read this in April '18, and with everything else I read after that, it's still my favorite of the year. It won the Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Memorial Award at Balticon, which is for Best First Novel, and also the Crawford Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts. It was also a finalist for Nebula, World Fantasy, Kitschies, and Locus, for which it came in second for First Novel.


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Posted July 10, 2019
This time I received ARCs from both Net Galley and Edelweiss. The Dragon Republic will be released next month, August 6, 2019. It is more than 100 pages longer than The Poppy War, but that is only one of the reasons it took me longer to read than it should. The first book contained disturbing scenes of battles and their aftermath, and while that continues, sometimes with even more graphic detail, there are other elements just as depressing. Number one is Rin's reliance on opium to control her powers, and what that does to her relationships with those close to her, as well as giving her enemies a means to control her. I tried to keep previous comments as spoiler free as possible, and I'd like to continue that here too, but I should give you a clue as to Rin's powers. She has channeled one of the 64 dieties of the Nikara pantheon, that of the Phoenix. I won't go into further detail, only say she uses opium to control inadvertent outbursts of her ability, as Mugenese doctors had previously used heroin and laudanum against her. She is eventually able to kick the habit, compelled to do so after the Empress Su Daji does something to inhibit her connection to the Phoenix. It takes another shaman to help her remove that block.

The title is misleading. The ruler of Dragon Province is at war with the Empire, with the stated aim being the establishment of a representative republic, but that goal has not been reached, at least not by the end of this book. He has won a major battle, with Rin's help, and the Empress is in retreat, but it seems he was more interested in laying claim to the Empire for himself. In order to accomplish that he allied with the Hesperians (a fictional stand-in for Great Britain), but that might actually be his downfall. That, plus the fact Rin is now against him. She reaches the conclusion the major conflicts within Nikan have always been North versus South, with her allegiance now to the South, even though she previously couldn't wait to leave her poor province and mingle with Northern nobility. Her major rival at Sinegard Academy had been Nezha, second son to the Dragon Warlord, although her feelings for him did become more positive, up to the point he fell in battle. Nezha was one of the characters I had a suspicion would pop up again, and I was right, although the explanation for that did make sense. Rin gets to the point she claims that she loves him, and she thinks he might feel the same, and yet that changes again by the end, with Rin declaring him a sworn enemy.

There will be at least one more book in this sequence, and I will want to read it, even though I fear it might be as brutal and depressing as the previous two. The Dragon Republic is a good book, just be aware it's not at all a light read. It's full of action and dramatic character confrontations, with several surprising twists along the way. My feelings toward Rin kept changing between respect and revulsion, and that's likely to continue through the next book. Now that she's poised to be a leader rather than someone else's weapon, she may grow into her powers, but also temper that with wisdom and restraint, so maybe respect will win out in the end. I'm anxious to find out, but I'm also glad it will be a while before I have to follow Rin into battle again.


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Posted October 26, 2020
Again, I was fortunate to receive an advance e-book from Net Galley. It will be published in about three weeks, November 17. Without question, I will also purchase the hardcover, as I have with the first two books. I don't know if I'll be nominating and voting for Hugos next year, but even if not I am sure it will be on the minds of others, and all three books should be in the running for Best Series. I have to repeat what I've said a couple of times already. In this case 'Best' does not necessarily mean most enjoyable. I don't like several things that happen along the way, including the ending, although I'll conceed that on re-reading I may change my mind. It is Kuang's story to tell, not mine. I don't want to spoil anything, so comments will be brief.

Rin was driven by revenge, while others wanted power, prestige, or wealth. The Hesperians wanted trade, but more than that, they wanted to proselytize for their monotheistic beliefs of the Great Architect. They considered Nikarans and Mugenese to be sub-human, tolerated only for what they could produce as laborers. There are only one or two characters that might be considered good and honorable, but Rin is not one of them, no matter how much I liked and admired her in the beginning. That changed to fear and revulsion as she allowed her revenge to direct her actions. Everyone in a leadership postition betrayed those beneath them, shifting loyalties with rival factions within Nikan, or aligning with foreign adversaries. In the end, Rin was a victor of sorts, although she had no idea how to govern. Previously she only knew how to fight, and that mostly on her own. She became paranoid, not knowing if there was anyone she could trust.

Historical inspirations for the first book were the Opium Wars and the Sino-Japanese Wars. It's possible she intended the events in books two and three to parallel the Chinese Civil War and the Communist Revolution, but it would be hard for a non-scholar like me to assign any one-to-one correspondence to specific events or people. There are also steampunk elements, with the Hesperian dirigibles, but also more modern weapons. One only mentioned, not directly experienced in the narrative, is something similar to napalm, which I only knew about during the Vietnam conflict, but it was developed during World War Two. All of that is merely window-dressing, not pertinent to the overall theme of the futility of war. There were multiple times Rin questioned her decisions, usually settling on the notion she wouldn't have done anything differently, she had just reacted to the circumstances presented to her. In the Nikaran mystical sense, her destiny had been written long before she was born, when the Red Emperor annexed her home island and declared its people slaves. Hundreds of years later that island was destroyed through betrayal, leading Rin to be orphaned, to be where she needed to be to test for Sinegard, to be trained by Jiang Ziya, to channel the Phoenix, to sweep across Nikan in a blaze of glory. The only thing left to ponder is how history would remember her. Was she the savior of Nikan, or yet another vengeful god that left devastation in her wake?

Perhaps I'll be able to answer that question after re-reading. I've already read The Poppy War three times, The Dragon Republic twice, and will read them all again one of these days. No matter how much heartache and pain are involved, what has impressed me the most is Ms. Kuang's ability to get me to care about people I probably should despise. Highly recommended for those who can handle it, but absolutely not for those who want their fantasy light and positive. You alone can decide whether these books are for you.


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R. F. Kuang

Poppy War - 5/1/18
Dragon - 8/6/19
Burning - 11/17/20

Poppy War won: Compton Crook

Finalist for:
World Fantasy

Amazon Links:
Poppy War
Dragon Republic
Burning God

Bookshop Links:
Poppy War
Dragon Republic
Burning God

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