Review: THE POPPY WAR by R. F. Kuang

Publisher: Harper Voyager
Page Count: 544
Release Date:  May 1st, 2018
Series: THE POPPY WAR, Book 1
Rating: 4/5 Stars – Really Liked It

51m7aelj3sl-_sx313_bo1204203200_Rin is a fourteen-year-old war orphan facing the fate of becoming a child bride when she decides to take matters into her own hands.  Studying for and passing a daunting entrance exam, she manages to enroll in Nikara’s top military academy.  Her life is classes, snobby students, and fierce studying until an incident reveals that Rin can channel a power so rare, most people believe it a myth.  After only a few years training how to manage this power, life throws her another curveball: a rival nation has invaded, sending the country into war. Rin is determined to use her power to fight off the invaders, but as she gets deeper into the horrors of war, she slowly comes to realize the secrets her nation is keeping – and that she is a small player in a much bigger game.

Reading THE POPPY WAR is akin to being the frog placed in a pot of water that is slowly being brought to a boil.  At first, everything is comfortable.  You see your classic tropes of young orphan fighting against all odds to be allowed into the most prestigious school in the land, surviving the bullies, discovering their magical gifts.  Then suddenly the author lifts back a curtain and you realize that there are much bigger things happening in the world.  You begin to get uncomfortable, but you stay because you think you know where the story is going.  When the book finishes, everything has come to a boil, the world is a disaster, and yet you know in your heart it was always going to end this way.  It’s magnificent in the way it slowly ratchets up the stakes and the pressure on the characters.

I will say before I go further that this book is not for the squeamish or those who avoid books with trigger warnings for rape or violence.  While the beginning of the book is relatively tame, the second half is steeped in the horrors of war, particularly when you have an enemy that doesn’t view your populace as human.  I had to skim over some particularly brutal passages describing what Rin found when she came to a town that had been sacked. There is no glory in this war, just a cycle of death.

Balancing out some of the more soul-crushing elements of this book are the characters themselves.  Rin herself is a fascinating character.  While you’re not always sure you’re rooting for her, you always understand where she’s coming from, even if she’s crossing lines you wouldn’t.  Her friend Kitay is the spark of light this book desperately needs at times, and the other magic users Rin is introduced to in the second half of the book is a delightful crew of oddballs.  Even characters I began the book hating matured over time, as war made them realize how petty earlier grudges were.

THE POPPY WAR is an engrossing read, even while it depicts some of the most brutal scenes of violence I’ve encountered in a while.  Rin is a character of raw emotion, and the book pushes her in almost every way possible.  I look forward to seeing how she copes with the ramifications of her actions in the upcoming sequel, THE DRAGON REPUBLIC.  I can guarantee you, Rin has more tough times ahead.

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