For my older readers, you know how, when you turn on the Olympics and see these 18 year old athletes achieving tremendous success, you start to feel incredibly old? This month I got to experience that for the first time with a book. The Poppy War, by R. F. Kuang, is a Chinese inspired fantasy about a magical school. Kuang is in her early 20’s and I am astounded that an author this young created something of this quality. Before I start heaping on more praise, let’s talk about the plot of the book.
The Poppy War follows Rin, a war orphan raised by a pair of drug lords because they were legally obligated to take her in after the last conflict. To escape being sold as a bride, Rin tests into the most prestigious military academy in land where she will be trained alongside the children of aristocrats on how to be a general. Upon arriving at the school, Rin realizes that even though she tested in – her orphan background and peasant upbringing does not endear her to her teachers or classmates, and she has a lot of work to do to succeed at the school. The one advantage she has is she seems to have a connection to a mysterious teacher that no one else talks to and he may be able to teach her the art of shamanism.
There is a distinct Harry Potter vibe going on here: orphan with terrible step-family goes to magical school to escape terrible previous life. However, that is where the direct comparisons end for me, and I am happy that Kuang did a good job of making The Poppy War her own book. Rin is a likeable character with an interesting story. Watching her explore the world and master challenges thrown at her is very satisfying. I love all the time we spend in her classes learning about the world, and she is surrounded by a host of interesting side characters that made the book more fun to read. The school itself is awesome, feeling like a place I myself want to attend. The shamanism teacher is great, on par with a number of my other favorite teacher characters throughout fantasy. All of this creates an engrossing backdrop for an exciting and fun plot that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
The world itself is also fascinating. I love the history of the empire where Rin lives. As I mentioned, the school that Rin tests into is an extremely prestigious military academy to train generals. While famous schools in books are not new, Kuang’s angle for its importance was very original. The school is not prestigious for training the greatest military minds of all time or because it has a history of greatness. Instead, the school is elevated above its peers because it is seen by the governing leadership as a chance to finally stop losing wars. The empire does not have the best track record in its poppy wars (for which the book is named). They have been on the losing side twice, and are getting rather tired of it. To combat this, they established a premier school with the hopes of distilling the best and brightest to win the coming conflicts. All of this adds a deep feeling of genuine urgency to the classes and lessons. These are not kids taking abstract classes with no application or stakes, these are people trying to distinguish themselves to be the leaders in a war that is right around the corner. This was a fascinating change to the magical school formula and I loved it.
For all my praise, The Poppy War is not without faults. The two issues I had with the book were its prose and its pacing. At times the prose could feel rather rough. There were repeated phrases or responses in the same paragraph occasionally and the dialogue could feel wooden and awkward once in awhile. In addition, while the pacing was good for the majority of the time – there were clear sections where the book moved way too fast to fully grasp events and lost me as a reader. There were scenes I had to read multiple times to understand what was happening and scenes that felt like they had little to no emotional payoff because they moved too fast. However, both of these problems are things that authors tend to improve on as they write more, and with her powerful skills in tons of other areas I expect Kuang to only get better.
The Poppy War was a fun, engrossing, journey to a world I wish I could visit and a school I wish I could attend. With its strong characters, interesting world building, and intriguing plot it is a great read that I would recommend to anyone. I look forward to seeing what R. F. Kuang has in store for us next, as I expect her next book will be even better.
Rating: The Poppy War – 8.0/10