The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. New York: Harper Voyager, 2018. 530 pages
“I can make you fearless. I can make you a legend.”
R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War will engross readers with its rich blend of historical fiction, military and fantasy themes. This first book of the trilogy draws much of its historical aspects from the Second Sino-Japanese war, the Nanjing massacre, and the Opium wars.
Rin is a poor war orphan who lives in the small village of Tikany. She works for her adoptive family, the Fangs, in a shop that secretly smuggles and sells the illegal drug poppy. If she stays, her destiny is to be married off to a rich man in town who would provide more money and drugs for the Fangs. Rin, who has dealt with the Fangs treating her terribly since she was little, has other ideas. Her ticket out is to pass the Keju, a national exam to gain entrance into Sinegard, the most prestigious and elite military training academy in all of Nikara. With help from her tutor, Feyrik, she surprises everyone and aces the examination.
Currently the nation is living in a prolonged period of peace, yet in the background the gears of war have started to turn. The Federation of Mugen lies in wait, ready to spark a new war. Meanwhile, at Sinegard, Rin is an outcast. Ostracized and bullied because she is poor, and she happens to be darker skinned compared to the rest of the students, nothing comes easy for her. First years are required to pass a martial arts exam tournament at the end of the year, and in a confrontation with a bully named Nezha during class, she gets expelled from the only martial arts class with no hopes of staying at the school past her first year. Her saving grace comes in the form of Jiang, the notoriously weird and unconventional lore professor, who offers to tutor her in martial arts. At the end of the year, Rin encounters Nezha again in the tournament, but something inexplicable happens during their match. When the dust settles, the professors make bids on the top students to continue to train for year two, and unable to comprehend what happened to her during the match, Rin accepts Jiang’s tutelage.
Thrust into highly unusual training methods, Rin finds herself understanding more about who she really is and learns that there is more to lore and the gods than most people can comprehend. Finally, the dam breaks, and the Mugenese invade Nikara during her third year, leading to a full-blown war. Rin gets assigned to a special division of soldiers led by the famous Altan Trengsin, one of the best students to come through Sinegard’s halls. Not shying away from the gruesome parts of war, Kuang vividly describes some horrendous scenes and crimes that the reader experiences with Rin. These may not be for the faint of heart.
Certain to please fans of fantasy and historically-based fiction, readers will be fully engrossed in Rin’s epic journey from start to finish.
Ray King is a circulation assistant at the Graham Library. He can be reached at email@example.com.