Many book bloggers talk about The Poppy War. Overcome with curiosity, I read the book myself and now, I can see why they’re so obsessed with the book because I’m obsessed with it myself. If you’re thinking about reading it or haven’t even heard of The Poppy War, here are 10 reasons (aka 10 chances) why you should pick it up.
Its author R.F. Kuang doesn’t hide the fact that The Poppy War is inspired by Chinese mythology as well as other East Asian religions that Kuang herself stated in an interview:
“The shamanism and mythology are a syncretic mix of Daoism, (a little bit of) Buddhism, ancient Chinese divination methods, and cultures like the Neolithic Hongshan culture. I also consulted texts and ethnographic studies of more modern Tibetan and Mongolian shamanic traditions, but I tried to root everything in China proper as much as possible. A ton of the theological theory comes from the Yijing, or the Book of Changes, which is an ancient Chinese divination text that’s still used widely today.” (Source)
Asian-inspired fantasies have been at the forefront for YA stories, thus it is only right that we celebrate diversity in what once was a dominantly Eurocentric industry.
*I’m not entirely sure if The Poppy War is a standalone or part of a series. On Goodreads, it does not say there is a sequel, but I’ve read some interviews where it says The Poppy War is volume 1 of a trilogy.
Masterful writing style
The Poppy War is a comprehensive book that covers a lot of space and time. Not every author can command such a narrative so smoothly the way R.F. Kuang did. It normally takes me one day to finish one book, but it took me three to finish this because of the material. It is heavy, it is moving, and it is wonderful.
Historical basis and Warfare
This book was based on the 1937 Rape of Nanjing (Source), Unit 731, and many more so I’m putting a trigger warning on those who might be sensitive to rape, violence, torture, and gore. There are a lot of heartbreaking scenes in this book that make us aware of the reality of war. We are currently living in what’s known to be the most peaceful era in human history, thus the violence of warfare is probably something foreign to us. The Poppy War intimately brings us to the process and the aftermaths of warfare.
Most fictional books also show us the glorious side of warfare. This book shows us the opposite. It shows us what it’s like to lose, to be desperate, to want something but have no way of achieving it. The moral dilemma is an especially present theme that makes readers uncomfortable about what differentiates us from our enemies.
With warfare comes politics. Although it’s not as dominant, it is still present within chapters that include the warlords. It’s disturbing how those in charge can be so selfish and haphazardly put the lives of civilians at risk for their own means. But that’s the reality of warfare for you.
Like I said, the book covers a lot of space and time. We follow the main character Rin for about 3-4 years. We see her mature and come of age. Things that mattered to her in chapter 9 no longer matter to her in chapter 20. You can see the subtle developments in her character as well as the people around her. Once treated as a child, she’s not treated as a warrior.
Children ceased to be children when you put a sword in their hands. When you taught them to fight a war, then you armed them and put them in the front lines, they were not children anymore. They were soldiers.
A lot of East Asian stories have a sense of magic in it. The magic system in The Poppy War is nothing short of amazing. It’s very profound and complex, with an entire history dedicated to it throughout the story.
The gods also play a heavy part on the plot and magic system. It’s less of a magic system and more of a god-inhabiting-a-mortal-body kind of thing. The gods are amoral, take control of what they wish, and cannot be controlled. Readers have a direct encounter with the gods every few chapters, and it’s nice to see their nature, motivations, and history.
As much as we are reading the story of Rin, we are also reading the story of Altan. Hailed as a mortal god in the Sinegard Academy, Altan has known nothing but commands and praise. When he becomes the commander of the Cike, we see his downfall of a journey.
Lastly, I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing the world building is when it comes to this book. It is so detailed, complete with a map, its own myths, rival histories, the whole shebang. It’s well-founded to the point that had I not known its fictional nature, I would’ve assumed this was based on real life. R.F. Kuang, like I said, commands the narrative in such an awe-inspiring way that I brought to tears so many times with the bonds between the characters and the history of the setting.
I immigrated to the US from Guangzhou, China in 2000. I have a BA in International History from Georgetown, where my research focused on Chinese military strategy, collective trauma, and war memorials. I’m a 2018 Marshall Scholar, and I’ll be heading to the University of Cambridge this fall to do my MPhil in Chinese Studies.
Writing-wise, I graduated from Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016 and attended the CSSF Novel Writing Workshop in 2017. My debut novel, The Poppy War, is the first installment in a trilogy that grapples with drugs, shamanism, and China’s bloody twentieth century.
I really love corgis, drinking nice wines I know nothing about, and rewatching The Office! When I’m not writing, I co-run the review blog Journey to the BEST! with Farah Naz Rishi.
Have you read The Poppy War? Tell me what you think of it in the comments!