“Her destiny had not been written in the stars, or in the registers of the Pantheon. She had made her choices fully and autonomously. And though she called upon the gods to aid her in battle, they were her tools from beginning to end.
She was no victim of destiny.”
R. F. Kuang nails not one, but two sub-genres in The Poppy War. I was drawn in by the initial magic/military school premise, a trope I’m quite fond of, and was impressed by the explosive and action-packed second half. Although the start-up may be slow by some standards, the latter half of the book is a sprint!
This is a novel about sacrifice. Rin has chosen her goals. At every turn, she takes control of her life and shapes her future as she sees fit. It’s wonderful to see a female protagonist with this degree of agency – it’s almost oozing off her. I love it!
Although her choices are her own, that doesn’t mean they’re easy or that she is able to glide through life – far from it, in fact. Rin is born to parents who trade illegally in opium and is set to married off to a local government official as a bribe to keep her parents in the industry without fuss. She is not particularly thrilled by this, and decides she will study and pass the Keju in the top percentile, earning a spot on scholarship at the premier war university, Sinegard. She uses candles to burn herself to stay up late to study, thinking of the rape she will have to endure if she is forced to marry the village import inspector. She bribes a local tutor to help her with opium stolen from her parents’ ledgers. And she does this for years, without a break.
She squeezed her write, fingers closing over pale burn scars, and inhaled. Focus.
In the corner, a water clock rang softly.
“Begin,” said the examiner.
A hundred test booklets were opened with a flapping noise, like a flock of sparrows taking off at once.
Naturally, of course, this is not the biggest challenge Rin will face. While school has its own challenges and factions, especially coming from a common family, the nation is attacked and finds itself at war in the second half of the novel. Rin is forced to make choices which will fundamentally alter not only her future but who she is as a person.
She must accept the changes power demands, and stoke her fury lest she quail at the last moment. In most stories following a revenge trope, revenge is presented as the only option. Rin, however, always has the option to step away. She could choose not to act. She could preserve that human aspect of herself, indulge in mercy, spare lives… but that’s not the story she’s chosen to make of herself.
If I have any complaint, it’s solely that I tend to prefer a slightly more flowery and poetic prose style. Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t consider the prose workmanlike or Sanderson-y. It’s simply not a feature that stood out to me either positively or negatively. Had the prose been a bit more lyrical, this would likely have been bumped up to a five star novel for me. It felt like there was a bit of untapped potential, despite the prose being perfectly good at telling the story it needed to tell. That said, unless you’re a huge fan of lyrical prose like I am, I doubt a typical reader would be bothered by this lack.
I’m thoroughly looking forward to getting started on the sequel, The Dragon Republic.
Thank you to the publisher for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review!
About the Author
Rebecca F. Kuang is a Marshall Scholar, Chinese-English translator, and the Astounding Award-winning and Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award nominated author of the Poppy War trilogy. Her work has won the Crawford Award and the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford; she is now pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale.