Fantasy has been one of my favourite genres for as long as I can remember. I love getting caught up in the rich and imaginative worlds, losing myself in the pages for hours at a time.
Some of my most beloved books include fantasy classics such as The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by Tolkien. There’s something truly magical and breathtaking about them.
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang was first published in 2018 and received wide praise for its brilliance as a debut novel. The story is inspired by Chinese history, particularly the Second Sino-Japenese War, and tackles the gritty reality of warfare, addiction, and empire — all with a fantastical twist.
I knew the book would be a five-star read after a mere 50 pages. That’s how good it is. Now, I’m quite an easily pleased reader but not every book joins my exclusive group of all-time favourite reads — and this one certainly does.
It knocked my socks off, and it will be hard to top. I feel a little sorry for the book I pick up following the trilogy as I’m not sure how it can compete.
The Poppy War follows Rin, a war orphan from the rural Rooster province, who stuns everyone when she aces the Empire-wide test for talented youth and secures herself a spot at the elite military academy, Sinegard.
The threat of war from their neighbours, the Federation of Mugen, looms over the country, but Rin’s life is further complicated by her newfound connection to the mysterious pantheon of gods.
The characters are well developed, the dialogue is witty and quick, and you’ll be sure to feel every emotion under the sun. The world-building is immense — Kuang paints a truly unique environment with an impressive magic system in place.
I studied military history at university, so combining my love of fantasy with my interest in the subject matter made this book an instant win for me. However, as the plot might suggest, I will warn any future readers that it is very dark, very gritty, and very gory.
Kuang doesn’t hold back or shy away from difficult topics, so just be aware before you get stuck into reading it.
The Washington Post and The Guardian actually featured the book in their best picks for 2018, noting that though it “begins as a familiar enough coming-of-age adventure in a magical China, [it] builds into a scorching, ultra-violent portrait of war’s horrors.”
Ultra-violent is definitely the keyword here, but Kuang does balance it out with humour, strong character relationships and moments of tenderness.
The fantasy genre isn’t for everyone, and quite often the books are giant in comparison to some of their peers in contemporary literature or thriller, for example.
However, The Poppy War — though a whopping 544 pages — is a real page-turner. I devoured it in days. Always thinking about it, always itching to pick it back up. The sign of an incredible book.
The good news is that if you love the book, there’s a whole trilogy to dive into. Finish The Poppy War and quickly grab the sequels, The Dragon Republic and The Burning God, because I assure you, you won’t want to stay away from the world for long. Kuang also released three additional short scenes on her website, allowing us insight into a different character’s perspective.
It was also announced at the end of 2020 that the TV rights for the trilogy have been picked up by Starlight Media, whose previous credits include Crazy Rich Asians and Midway. Whilst seeing the books on screen is still likely a way off, I can’t wait to see what they do with this thrilling trilogy.
And if you do end up loving Kuang’s work like I do, she’s got a new book coming out later this year. Babel, a dark academic fantasy set in Oxford, is set to release in August 2022 and is sure to be as immersive and brilliant as The Poppy War trilogy.
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