Book Review | SBPT Guest Review — The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Today’s SBPT post is a review from Katie at A Cup of Cyanide, and she read/reviewed The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang! We’ve been hearing amazing things for this one, and it’s definitely on our radar!

From the moment I saw this book in a bookstore, I knew I had to read it. From the gorgeous watercolor cover to the fantasy China-based setting to the promise of dark themes and brutal action, it was everything I could wish for in a book. I was amazed by how quickly I was drawn into the world. I ended up finishing this around 1 AM, less than 24 hours after I’d started it. Yes it’s over 500 pages, but those pages go by fast.

My favorite part of this book is how brutal the writing is. That may be an odd thing to say, but really I love how Kuang doesn’t shy away from the bloodiness of melee combat. This is, after all, a story about war. She manages to successfully toe the line between visceral descriptions and being overly gratuitous. For the majority of the book, the brutality is at a reasonably normal level. However, there is one chapter (chapter 21) that just blows the others out of the water. My horror and disgust at the events in that one chapter just grew and grew as I kept reading.

The worst part is, this chapter was based on an event that happened in real life. The Rape of Nanking. This was a horrible massacre in Chinese history, committed by the Japanese. Had I not known that chapter was based on real events, I could have dismissed it as excessive and gratuitous fictional violence. But this did happen, less than a century ago. And that made it all the more poignant. Naturally, major trigger warnings for physical and sexual violence (not to the MC) for the entire book, but mainly for this chapter. The author has a more in-depth post which can be read here.

Another strong point in this book was the main character, Rin. She starts out as a young, naive, but ambitious teenager, attempting to slip out of a loveless arranged marriage, and manages to grow oh-so-much throughout the course of this book. However, her growth is not always in a positive manner. Instead, I see this story as her corruption; it’s constantly asking, how much more will she sacrifice for herself and her country. First, she’s dripping hot candle wax on herself to stay awake, next she’s destroying her womb because her period is in the way of her training. What next? The book is written from her PoV, and I think you can really see her shifts in perspective over time. As a bonus, there is no romance!

The only minor issues I had were in the worldbuilding and the writing. The Nikara Empire, Rin’s home, is heavily based on China and the Mugen Federation, the main antagonists, is heavily based on Japan. While I don’t usually mind worldbuilding based on real countries and cultures, I felt like at times, the similarities were so close that they may as well have been China and Japan under different names. On the other hand, the supernatural elements, with the Chinese gods and the shamanisms, were fantastic. My other complaint was that the dialog just occasionally felt too modern. I can’t point to anything in particular, but there were times where I felt like the words being used could have been pulled from a conversation in 2018, and not a conversation taking place in fantasy China before guns were a common weapon.

Overall, I rate this book a 5/5. While this book is bloody and brutal, the storytelling and development of Rin’s character make this book such an amazing read. Once again, hard trigger warnings for physical and sexual violence, with a full detailed list on the author’s website.

/r/Fantasy Bingo 2018 Squares:

  • Novel reviewed on /r/Fantasy
  • novel Featuring a Non-Western Setting
  • /r/Fantasy Goodreads group of the Month book
  • Novel Published in 2018
  • Novel Featuring a Mountain Setting (albeit briefly)
  • Novel Featuring a God as a Character (kinda?)

We think Katie did an awesome review, and tune in next week to see another collab with her!


What would you like to see us work on together for next week? Let us know in the comments below!

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