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Book Review

Book Cover

The Poppy War (Hardback)


Author: R.F. Kuang
Publisher: Harper Voyager
RRP: £16.99
ISBN: 978 0 00 823980 0
Publication Date: 03 May 2018

Born a war orphan and fostered by a family who smuggle heroin, Fang Runin is seen as little more than an asset to her adopted family. When they try and marry her off she strikes a bargain. If she can get into the prestigious military academy at Sinegard they will let her go. Its an easy bargain as the academy only takes the best and the best usually comes from the noble families. As a peasant, Rin's chances are slim...

The Poppy War (2018. 527 pages) is the first fantasy novel from Rebecca F. Kuang.

The book is set in a fictional version of China. The book comes with a map and its pretty plain to see that the Nikara Empire is China with the enemy, Federation of Mugen is analogous to Japan. It’s a little difficult to say at just what point of time the book is supposed to be set and it seems that the author has cherry picked differing elements from various points in time.

Politically, it seems to be set around the time of the First Sino-Japanese War after the Meiji restoration in Japan, or the Federation as its named in the book. This sees the Nikara Empire less technologically advanced to the point of having lost the last poppy war and having to rely on intervention from the west to survive, but not before the peoples of the island of Speer have suffered genocide.

Rin is an interesting character, however if the book has a weakness it’s her lack of progression. She starts the book as a single-minded young woman who is unwilling to listen to advice in her quest for power. She ends the book in the same psychological space.

The book is delineated by being broken into three sections. The first sees Rin achieve her desire to enter the academy. Unfortunately, due to the overwhelming success of Harry Potter every fantasy story which involves attendance at a school will draw comparisons. Rin is the outsider, disliked by the rich kids and befriended by few. She idolises the last surviving warrior of Speer seeing in him a fighting fluidity and power she wants for herself. She dreams to be a great warrior but is sought out by the strange and erratic master of Lore. During a fight Rin manifests a power she did not know she had, power that threatens to overwhelm her.

In part two Rin has survived school, but the Poppy War is upon the country. Much of this section revolves around the siege of Khurdalain after Rin has been conscripted to a group of misfits, who also have wild powers. The third part of the story moves the action on to the imminent collapse of the Nikara Empire and a foolishly daring plan for a final victory which may just tear the world apart.

Kuang has created a good character in Rin, its just a shame that she remains resolutely immature in her decisions even after all the horror she must experience. The first section of the book lulls the reader into thinking that the subject matter would be light, but this is a book about war and war is ugly. The second section does not shy away from describing some of the horrors which follow in wars wake. So, there are dark descriptions of rape, torture and murder of civilians.

It’s a great start to a series and if Kuang can engender some growth in her central character the rest should be compelling reading.


Charles Packer

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