Monday, May 21, 2018

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
Harper Voyager, 2018
Hardcover, 544 pages

So this book... I truly don't even know where to begin with this review. This was absolutely insane and incredible and I can't stop thinking about it. Basically, I've been looking forward to this book for quite a while, and then when it finally came out I started seeing rave reviews for it everywhere about how wonderful and brutal this book was, so my excitement skyrocketed up and I ended up picking it up way sooner than I expected to. 

If you've seen anything about this book, then you have probably already seen people calling it extremely dark and intense, and well, they're not wrong. It's also incredibly riveting and an exceptionally exhilarating experience. The Poppy War spends the first portion of the book in the sort of school setting that we all tend to love in fantasy books. There are, of course, rivalries among other students and the protagonist, Rin, since she isn't overly welcome and doesn't fit in, which leads to very few real friends. However, this school setting is still very fresh and exciting and it works really well with the atmosphere of the book. There's a lot of variety within the school itself and what is taught and it's not your average 'fun school setting,' but rather is a harsh environment where you're sort of left to fend for yourself for the most part. I really liked that the rivalries among the students didn't take up too much time and energy and that the school period wasn't just filled with savagery and revenge like in a lot of books. Instead of focusing on this, everyone was too busy actually studying and trying to focus on their own work and grades, which was oddly nice to see As mentioned, this school setting only lasts for the first half or so of the book, so if you don't like school settings then don't worry because it's not the whole thing, but if you do like school settings then I promise you'll enjoy it. 

The Poppy War takes inspiration from China's brutal 20th century history and draws many similarities between various events and themes/ideas between the two. I liked knowing about this inspiration before reading the book because it added some extra curiosity to my reading and actually inspired me to get back into learning more about China's history. The world itself that Kuang crafted in The Poppy War is incredibly realistic and it truly felt like it was a place that actually existed. There were strong mythical and cultural elements that built up this world extremely well and added so much to it. I love when there are such strong elements like these in books that allow the culture to bleed into the story through a variety of ways that, again, make this world feel so real and interesting. 

As with many fantasy books, there is a pretty decent sized cast of characters. Every character had really strong characterization and development overall and I really didn't think that there were any characters that were purely one-note; each one had many different sides that were interesting to explore. Rin, our protagonist, is truly an interesting person that constantly had me wondering what she was going to do next. She's a bit reckless, but this didn't annoy me as much as in other books because I sort of understood where her recklessness came from based upon where she grew up and what the current stakes in her life were. I loved watching her grow throughout this book and I think Kuang did an excellent job at creating such a fascinating character that, although we might not always agree with what she's doing, still has an engrossing journey that I am fully invested in.

Among other characters are Altan, a top student at Sinegard and the last known member of the Speerly race still alive; Kitay, one of Rin's only friends; Jiang, a professor at Sinegard who is not widely respected and is a bit of a wild card, and Nezha, Rin's immediate enemy. Kitay and Jiang were easily some of my favorite characters. I felt that they both had such interesting personalities that were explored in very different ways. Kitay comes across as a rather normal type of student, but there's much more to him than expected. Jiang is a very complicated person, but he's also an especially intriguing person and is one of those that you can't help but be drawn to due to his great mystique and many unpredictable and strange actions. There are honestly a lot more characters that I could touch on, but I fear discussing them could give away minor spoilers about future plot points in this book, so I am going to refrain from doing so in this review.

Although there are some dark elements in the beginning of the book, it isn't until the second half of the book that things really take a turn for the truly dark and difficult. There are some images described that are so hard to imagine--and honestly, I didn't want to imagine them most of the time-- and really make you wonder at the depravity of humans and how low they can get. At times, the last part of the book actually felt like a completely different story from the first half, almost as if I was reading multiple books in a series instead of just one, and I actually loved that. There is so much going on that you hardly ever even have a chance to feel bored or think that the book is dragging; something new or intriguing was almost always going on. 

Overall, I loved The Poppy War. This book is beyond thrilling, fully compelling, and one that I once again cannot recommend enough. I've given The Poppy War five stars.

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