The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang| a complex, brutally honest depiction of war

OVERALL: ★★★½/5 

(Goodreads summary here.)

I picked up The Poppy War based solely on the fact that so many people read and liked it when it came out last year. I’ve been trying to delve a little bit more into adult novels, and this was one that really seemed up my alley. I am happy to report that I was right. There were aspects of it that I absolutely loved and that hit really hard, although there were some parts of the writing that threw me just a bit.

The real standout in The Poppy War for me was Rin. I just thought she was a wonderfully complex protagonist. I’ll admit that it did take me a while to warm up to her, but once I did, she constantly grew on me. She is imperfect, and knows it, makes poor choices but stands by them, and is just so human in the most refreshing way, for all that entails. She is an honest portrayal of a soldier, and one who has been marginalized and works for everything she gets. Rin does what she must but still questions it, and all in all was the epitome of a complex character, one who you can root for while still criticizing their choices.

On a similar note, I really appreciated the fact that there was a lack of a romantic subplot. I’ll be honest and say that there were times when I was half expecting, half hoping for something to emerge, but I kicked myself every time I thought it. I hate that I’m conditioned to expect female leads to partner with male leads. Also, romance is 100% not what this story is about, and I think it’s really important that Kuang opted to not include romance, even though there was certainly potential for it. I hope she maintains that in the sequel.

The thing I loved (hated? Hated to love?) about The Poppy War is how it depicted the realities of war. Kuang does not pull any punches, which I think is the proper route to take. I think there a lot of novels out there that brush off the most horrific acts, but it seems like an injustice to me to do that. It’s so important for people to see the realities or potential realities so that they truly understand what war means for everyone, not just those directly involved. There were moments and scenes where I had to pause and take a moment because what was described was so terrible and they hit as hard as they should. It was constantly jarring and did everything it was supposed to.

I didn’t fully know what to expect when I started this book, so I was really pleasantly surprised to find that it’s more historical in nature and inspiration, not hardcore Hugh fantasy like I thought it was going to be. Sure, it’s set in its own world, but it’s a world that’s a version of our own. I really liked how it’s a reimagining of actual world history, especially a period and place I don’t know much about. I know enough about Chinese history to recognize that it was paralleling Chinese history, but that’s really the extent of my knowledge. It made it that much more interesting, since I knew I was learning a bit of history, even if it is a bit warped to fit the fantasy.

Now onto some things I didn’t especially like. I was a little disappointed in the consistency of the writing quality. There were times when I was completely riveted and the writing moved itself forward, and then there were times when I had to really force myself to keep reading. It’s so unfortunate because Kuang clearly has the capacity to write the way I find most engaging, but it just didn’t happen every page or chapter. I will say that the best writing when it mattered most, which is vastly better than the alternative, but I guess I wouldn’t have really noticed the contrast of the strong bits hasn’t been so strong and really drew out the poorer sections.

In kind of the same vein, I was continually thrown by the dialogue style. Like I said, it may be because I was expecting a more traditional, medieval-style high fantasy, but I kept getting lost in how generally normal and informal the style of speech was. It was easy to follow, which is a plus, but it also kind of dragged me out of the story at times. I’ll be honest and say I can’t really put my finger on precisely why it bothered me so much, I just know that it did.

The pacing of the book also seemed a bit off at times, especially in the beginning. I really wasn’t sure what to make of the book for the first 50 pages or so, to the point where I almost put it down. I’m very happy I didn’t, but those first pages were a bit too much of a struggle to get through. I completely understand the purpose they served, but it doesn’t change the fact that they were pretty dull and exposition-y.

In general, I thought The Poppy War had some very strong characters and character dynamics, but lacked the writing style that really would take it to the next level in my opinion. The story had me hooked once it go going, but it did take a bit of work to get going in the first place. I will definitely be picking up The Dragon Republic when it comes out.

What books do you think depict war exceptionally well? Are there any books that taught you something about history that you didn’t expect them to?

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