the poppy war – r. f. kuang | review

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Series: The Poppy War #1
Published May 1st 2018 by Harper Voyager
Age Range: Adult
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, War, Grimdark
Rep: author of color, POC cast (chinese & japanese-inspired)


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.


When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.


trigger and content warnings:
  • physical and emotional abuse, addiction and drug abuse, self-harm, suicide, rape, sexual assault, murder, death, genocide, massacres, torture, mutilation, human experimentation, misogyny, racism, war, animal cruelty

the poppy war put me through a rollercoaster, and then proceeded to wreck me. where do i even begin? the first half of the poppy war portrayed fang runin preserving in one of the most prestigious schools. in the second half, war erupted. r.f. kuang was inspired by the horrors that happened during the Second Sino-Japanese War including the atrocities during the Rape of Nanjing.

rin has a fiery personality with a relentless attitude and persistent drive that’s admirable. she doesn’t stop until she gets what she wants. refusing to be another girl who got married off to an older man for money that goes into her foster parents’s pocket, she studied her arse off and got into the most prestigious school.

Well, fuck the heavenly order of things. If getting married to a gross old man was her preordained role on this earth, then Rin was determined to rewrite it.

not sure what to expect of rin’s character, i was kept on edge every time she reached a crossroad. oftentimes, rin can be as ruthless as she is compassionate. this morally gray characteristic scared me but, at the same time, kept things interesting. through her thinking, actions and military strategies, rin seemed power-hungry and ambitious. her reckless and rashness mostly showed with her desire for revenge and anger towards the federation.

on top of the complex political world, r.f. kuang designed many interesting side characters that played varying roles and held different degree of importance in the poppy war. at the academy, teachers had no qualms in telling you that you suck. the people around rin were confusing as well. because of the competitiveness, naturally, there was never knowing who to trust.

nezha and rin’s dynamic caught my attention from the beginning because they could never see eye to eye. they fought, bickered, and almost tore each other’s throat out. kitay’s non-confrontational, extremely studious and hardworking. contrasting nezha and rin’s strong personalities, kitay is on the gentler and softer side. while they continued being competitive, they still learned to depend on one another when the situation required it.

iconic moment: kitay smashing the magistrate’s teapots.

reading rin’s perspective on learning martial arts and its history felt both nostalgic and fresh. jiang taught her martial arts via the authentic way as compared to the watered-down martial arts jun was teaching to the rest of the class. a mysterious figure he is, jiang is a fascinating character to read about. because of how often he was high on psychedelics, people didn’t take him seriously despite him being a knowledgeable mentor.

“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.” 

once the war begun, shamanism became one of the focal points that went from theoretical to practical. basically, the practice of shamanism is how people communicate to gods on a spiritual level and draw powers from their respective gods. this component added a mystic element to the war and modified military strategies. though rin may have a talent for it, the advantageous to achieving the connection with the gods may backfire on her. as for my opinions on altan, i understood his agony and pain but his actions were extreme. rin’s relationship with him started off as a hero worship but gradually grew more toxic.

also, r.f. kuang weaved the mythologies and legends from the chinese culture into the poppy war beautifully. the twelve provinces derived from the twelve zodiac signs, the gods that characters drew powers from, and ancient divination methods. i was surprised at how common psychedelic drugs were used to commune with the gods. that’s something that i didn’t expect was considered typical.

all in all, though i was terrified by how vivid and real the portrayal of war was, i couldn’t stop reading the poppy war. before finding out that r.f. kuang was inspired from the real life Second Sino-Japanese War, everything felt more distanced and fictional. now, it’s something that i’ll always remember. the characters are complex and multilayered people who felt human because they do make selfish choices and mistakes.

it’s a grimdark historical fantasy so be sure to check all the trigger warnings before proceeding.

“Great danger is always associated with great power. The difference between the great and the mediocre is that the great are willing to take the risk.” 

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13 thoughts on “the poppy war – r. f. kuang | review”

    1. all i want are kitay’s scenes. he’s a great balance for rin’s chaos. i’m so happy to hear that you love the poppy war. thank you for your kind words, katie 💖

      Liked by 1 person

    1. i agree! i adored how kitay is always able to balance rin and how rin depends on kitay. their friendship is amazing. i refuse to imagine what the world would be like if kitay weren’t there to counter rin’s personality.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I haven’t read The Poppy War yet, but wow this review is inspiring me to pick it up as soon as possible! Looking forward to immersing myself in the politics and mythology and learning more about these characters! Just discovered your blog and this is a wonderful review!

    Liked by 1 person

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