The Poppy War

by R. F. Kuang

Other authorsDominic Forbes (Cover designer), Paula Russell Szafranski (Designer), Eric Gunther (Map), Mariyana Lozanova (Illustrator)
Hardcover, 2018



Call number

PS3611 .U17



Harper Voyager (New York, 2018). 1st edition, 1st printing. 544 pages. $26.99.


A war orphan rises from her humble beginnings to become a powerful military commander, and perhaps her country's only hope for survival.

User reviews

LibraryThing member wyvernfriend
Opium is an undercurrent of the Nikara empire. The war with the Federation of Mugen brought it to these shores and only the powers of the Trifecta, the Vipress; The Dragon Emperor and the Gatekeeper who went to the gods and begged for power, have kept the Mugen Federation at bay.

The Dragon Emperor is dead, decades later, the Gatekeeper is missing and the Vipress sits on the throne and the Mugen Federation is still a threat.

In this world war orphan Fang Runin finds herself having to make a choice. She can marry or she can fight for her right to be in the Military Academy in Sinegard. There she finds a lot of obstacles and powers she didn't realise existed. Powers that are officially forbidden.

There's a lot in here and a lot of things that you can see will have implications later in the series. It led to another bad decision book club moment where I kept "just reading to the end of a chapter" until I finished the book. There were a few moments where the bad decisions felt more plot driven than character driven but I'm sure this will be worked out in later books. It's going to be an interesting ride. There were interesting philosophical moments where the author was looking at belief and how magic and belief could be linked and how it could have implications when you didn't believe. The magic is very shamanistic in nature which is an interesting change.

I hope there's a more human side of the Mugen Federation in later books because so far they're very single-minded and not very nice.
… (more)
LibraryThing member seitherin
The book is about the single-minded pursuit of power to achieve the personal ambition of revenge.
LibraryThing member jdifelice
I really liked the first half of this book. I love training montages and going to boarding school with characters. I really enjoyed watching Rin grow and prove herself and deal with a super brutal, no holds bar school life and world. The second half was still really good, but some of the decisions that Rin made just didn't make sense to me. I mean, I get why she made them, but they were really shitty decisions to make.
I enjoyed the author's portrayal of Rin and how she made me like a very flawed character, even if I thought she was nutso for most of the second half of the book. The development and character depth we got to see in Rin was amazing, and I felt like I understood her.

I really enjoyed the other characters in this book as well, especially Kitay and Jiang. They were great, and even though Jiang was mysterious, he still felt like he had a depth to his character that we don't often get to see.
The world building was really great as well. I liked that we got to see different parts of the Empire and learn about it's history - however messed up it is. It was really interesting, and I'd like to see more and see the different territories as well.

Everyone is also talking about the ruthlessness of this world and how battles depicted and things that happen are kind of reconstructions of actual historical events - which is true - so I'm not going to go into too much detail here. What I really got out of this and the fact that the author put it into the book was that war is terrible, and humans can do atrocious things to each other, but that doesn't mean we should do them back. The retribution and revenge tales going on in this novel, I think, are meant to demonstrate that just because someone did something horrific to you, doesn't mean you should do something horrific back to them. You then have to live with the consequences and aftermath of it.

Overall, this was a great novel and depiction of the brutalities of war. I enjoyed the character growth and development and the world created. Will definitely continue with this series.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Strider66
Pros: brilliant worldbuilding, compelling characters, thought-provoking

Cons: some brutal descriptions of wartime atrocities

Fang Runin knows the Keju exam is her only way out of a miserable village life working as shopkeep for her adoptive opium smuggling parents. And only Sinegard charges no tuition. But getting into the Empire’s preeminent military academy is just the first hurdle she must overcome, for war is coming to the Empire. And she’s going to use everything she’s learned to win it, even the power of the gods themselves.

This book is absolutely brilliant. The writing is lyric and feels so effortless you know the author worked HARD on it.

The book is predominantly character driven, which I normally don’t like, but Rin is such a fascinating character that I loved it. With so much intricate history to learn with Rin as she goes through her classes, I never felt bored. The supporting cast was equally interesting from the eidetic memoried Kitay, the other two girls in her year, and her rival, Nezha.

When the war starts there’s little talk of heroism, it’s a realistic portrayal of fear and butchery. There are some brutal descriptions of wartime atrocities committed by the enemy. Seriously horrific stuff. Like, nightmare fodder if you think about it too much.

The worldbuilding was solid. There’s multiple branches of history, various races with their own customs, the people on the mainland have different dialects. The politics even in the Nikara Empire were messy and complex, not to mention the relationship they had with their neighbouring countries. There are some WWII reference with regards to the naming of characters and some of the horrors that happen at the end.

While I’m not a fan of swearing in fantasy (or books in general) I’d say it was handled well here. It’s not excessive, and when it shows up it’s appropriate to the situation.

There are several philosophical questions the book asks, especially towards the end. I love books that make me think.

This book was brilliant. Pick it up if you haven’t already.
… (more)
LibraryThing member ladycato
This is a book with substantial buzz this year, with reason. Kuang takes many tropes of fantasy--the chosen one with a humble start, a boarding school with nasty classmates, chaotic gods--and gives them a fresh twist inspired by Chinese history and mythology. The book is also daaaaaark. It's on the way-dark side of grimdark. As excellent as the writing it, that level of darkness isn't necessarily my thing, and as the book neared end and became even darker, I felt that even more strongly.… (more)
LibraryThing member StormRaven
The Poppy War is R.F. Kuang's debut novel, and it is a magnificent debut. Set in a thinly disguised fantasy version of China (called Nikara in the novel) the story follows Rin as she goes from being an impoverished and despised war orphan to being a powerful and despised war leader. Along the way, Rin faces obstacles stemming from her poverty and social standing, overcoming them with a dogged single-mindedness that draws the reader in and conceals the fact that Rin is, ultimately, really a frightening and in many ways unpleasant person. The true brilliance of this book is that Kuang guides the reader along Rin's path in such a skillful manner, making every step seem so perfectly reasonable that one doesn't realize how terrible the destination is until it is imminent and inevitable.


[More forthcoming]
… (more)
LibraryThing member empress8411
With a heavy dose of Asian Mythology (particular Chinese) this story is actually a thinly veiled fantasy retelling of the Japanese Invasion of China during the 1930s, with particular reference to the Rape of Nanking. This is not a happy book. Taking its tone from this historical era has given this book a sharp, bloody, terrible tone. There is no happy ending, no joy. In the end, the characters emerge, broken and bloody, ready to move on to the next battle. I will be reading the next book, eve as this one broke my hear.t.… (more)
LibraryThing member rivkat
Fantasy with realistic atrocities, bringing comparisons with N.K. Jemisin’s work. Rin is a war orphan—the Second Poppy War has brought her China-analogue country to difficult straits, and she claws her way out of the provincies to the premier military academy by raw force of will. But once there she’s a despised outsider, even after she discovers her connection to the gods and the great powers they can offer. When Japan-analogue invades, she has to decide how much destruction she’s willing to unleash, and it’s a lot. Multiple genocides, mass rape, and other large-scale destruction leaving readers to ponder whether salvation is even possible after such horror.… (more)
LibraryThing member quondame
This poor orphan girl wins place in elite military academy tale starts out well enough and then gets bogged down and completely blows credibility in a horrific war and reprisals of staggering (mid-20th century++) levels. And worse it gets tedious with no particular flavor or value.
LibraryThing member Shrike58
It's hard for me to say something that has not already been said about this novel but I will say that it was something of a stroke of genius to transmute the actual history of China into an epic fantasy and Kuang deserves every credit for not pulling any punches in the tragedy that she's telling. That said I'm not nearly as emotionally touched as I was by Bennett's "City of Blades," and that might be a function of how some of these characters we barely get to know before they're carried away. Then again, Bennett has had longer to hone his craft and this work is still damn amazing for a first novel.… (more)
LibraryThing member Jonez

R.F Kuang's the Poppy War is my favorite book of this year. (At least so far...) It is so many other things, though. It is fantasy genre fiction that is epic in scale and chocked full of historical context that has been drawn from Kuang's research on The Rape of Nanjing. It is literary fiction in its accomplishments with symbolism and the often lyrical descriptions of a brutal and dark (so brutal and so very very dark) portrait of war. It is Xianxia fiction in its depiction of immortal heroes, martial arts and it's constructs of shamanism/wuism. Mostly, this book is amazing coming from such a young writer who, if this introductory novel is her cutting her teeth, I can't wait to see take a chomp out of the literary world.

The world is so vivid, at times you beg for rose-tinted glasses. The main character was also well developed by Kuang. She (Rin) had to work hard for everything she had. Unlike many genre fiction novels where the main character is just "special," Rin's failures and successes are both shown under an equal microscope. As a reader you watch Rin become a part of this war and watch her tread the line from attachment and detachment from the absolute merciless conflict she is surrounded by and ultimately a large part of. She is often times confident, at times incompetent, and merciless in her need for vengeance. I deducted a mere quarter of a star because I would have loved to see some of the supporting characters fleshed out as fully as Rin was.

I am eagerly awaiting the second book in this trilogy, though I fear where we will go from here. Given the ending note (which I won't spoil), the next book will have so much to live up to.
… (more)
LibraryThing member antao
“When Rin aced the Keju, the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies, it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard, the most elite military school in Nikan, was even more surprising.”

In “The Poppy War” by R. F. Kuang

I’m going all metaphorical on this one...

Take the following entirely fictitious example:

Side character: "The key was inside you all along."

Hero: walks away

Side character: "Wait? Where are you going?"

Hero: "I'm off to dig a hole and find a bush with a lot of leaves."

A writer could take any of these weaker tropes and turn them on their heads. For example, that "you were the key this whole time" bullshit...let's say our protagonist has been suffering a lot on his journey to find this key. Everyone around him keeps dying, he's nearly died himself more than a couple times, and he's starting to wear down. By the end of his quest, he's tired, he's discouraged, he's grieving, and he's wondering how all of this could possibly be worth it. Then, the mystical priest or whomever, tells him, "you were the thing you've been seeking this entire time. Sorry all your loved ones are dead." The protagonist then proceeds to kill the priest, everyone in the temple, and even takes out a small village for good measure. When we meet him again in the second book, he's pretty much the villain. With magical key powers. Everybody's screwed. Enter new hero, who may or may not be connected to the former hero in some way.

It's not perfect, but if people want to use abused tropes, they need to utilize twists and a little more creativity to keep them interesting. Problem is, "turning tropes on their heads" is not a new concept and normally it's always done in the same 2 or 3 ways, so those "inverted tropes" have become new tropes end up with the same problem. Also, tropes are not inherently bad; it's how you use them, how many of them you use and if you add anything to them. You take a stop by SF Tropes in Clute’s SF Encyclopedia, search for your favourite, most immaculate perfect book and you'll be treated to a list of 300+ tropes they've used.

That every use of the trope is bad, just when they're used uncreatively. Yeah, when tropes are abused it is bad and pretty obvious sometimes, but twisting the tropes can be fun too. For example in some Fantasy novels male protagonists are sometimes a dick to women but everyone still wants his body- turns out he is actually gay and he was cursed to be irresistible to the opposite sex. Or maybe the key dude is a leader of a group. When the leader decides the journey is too tough and not worth it, his group reveals to him he's the key himself and orders to go home but his followers restrain him and force him to lead on. I call this ”Bullshit Fantasy”

I was thinking in amusement of a dude going through so much shit and then a wizard coming along like “Oh yeah! You was the key all along!” Only for the hero to be mortified like “I WAS THE KEY????” Plus the guy has been so mentally screwed up he can’t take it anymore and stabs himself. Meanwhile the wizard just stares down at him like “Welp! We’re fucked.” And then it ends with the villain winning and messing shit up.

In some cases, a few cliches aren’t bad, their good even, they give the audience something familiar to entertain them. It’s the over reliance on cliches and stereotypes that is bad; you should have more original ideas in your story than cliched ones, and you shouldn’t take too long to incorporate your original ideas into a story either. Some authors will take you on a long cliched story only to upend the tropes at the end, but by that point you’ve taken too long. One of my favourite fantasy series has a mystical swordsman as the hero, and instead of going on the cliched heroes journey of every man peasant to king, he learns how to meditate and draw on a zen state of mind to resist being possessed by demon spirits. This power is necessary because he hunts a demon who killed his mother. He kills the demon, but by seeking revenge over protecting the innocent he allows a good person to be killed. Then his enemies manage to subvert his zen training by making him angry with the knowledge that the demon he killed was a victim of another worse evil, and he is possessed by a demon and attacks his friends. It’s a pretty cool arc and its unlike anything I’ve seen in fantasy before.

What about “The Poppy War”? Cliches left and right. Moreover, if I want to read Inhumane Stuff I’ll go watch the news. Honestly, half way through I couldn't stand it anymore. Got sick of Rin, of the little character development, the random flows in the pages. I started loosing interest when the characters stopped developing and they just kind of started doing things just to move the plot forward. By the end of the book I really had no idea what was driving the characters to do what they were doing. I'm still confused as to whether all those history lessons were actually important or just fillers because if they did have any importance to the story it was definitely lost on me. Why can't protagonists be characters and their gender not be the focal point of the book? I want Depth, I want insight! And I don’t want a frigging mainstream novel disguised as Fantasy! It's an easy marketing ploy to loop in gullible readers. But don’t mind me. I’m just a cynical cantankerous bastard...

This is not Grimdark. It´s utter crap.

SF = Speculative Fiction.
… (more)
LibraryThing member bookworm148
This book starts off in a really good place. We see the protagonist escape her old life and begin to build a new one. However, things get dark very fast and never seem to get better. Kuang retells history in a very distinct way, making sure that readers know what historical events she is mirroring, while maintaining the frame for the universe she has created.

I believe that the author has done a wonderful job pacing the story out, especially because she covers so many years in one book. At first, it was hard to read because I felt like we were skipping too many years, but Kuang chose to include and flesh out the significant events and fast-forward through the mundane bits.

The characters we are introduced to seem to grow and change throughout the story and alter their mindsets when they are thrown into new situations. It is refreshing to read about a group of characters who are not rigid in all of their beliefs and who alter their reactions based on the information they are given. Though there were times I wanted to shake Rin in Part II because I didn't agree with her choices, but they made sense for the person her character had become.
… (more)
LibraryThing member KWharton
Don't read the blurb on the back cover! And definitely don't read the Goodreads summary. Spoilers all over the place.

It's absorbing and fascinating, but be warned, there are really nasty bits.

I am quite surprised to find that it is part of a series and that there are two more books.
LibraryThing member SarahRichards
*I finished reading this back in November 2019*

I am conflicted.

I definitely enjoyed the first half of this book a lot more than the last half. I feel like the writing and character development got sloppy in the second half. This isn't a bad book. Is it the greatest book out there hell no. Was I expecting more than what I got? You bet your bunches of oats I was. But this is also a debut novel so imperfections or weakness in writing in some areas are unsurprising. I think I'd still recommend it just don't over sike yourself up for it as I did. It was one of the few books I was very excited to read this year.

What Did I LIke?
I like when authors take a potential calculated risk when it comes to not only the language used but the topics they discuss or lightly touch on in their novels. For the most part, I think Kuang did an okay job with how she brought in some real-world issues such as substance abuse, self-harm, genocide, etc. Books with no love triangles or a distinct need to create love interests for all of their characters give me hope for humanity. Kitay, and Jiang are also the best characters, just saying. Gotta love those crazy drug addicted teachers.

What Was "Meh"?
The way that MC Rin was written in the second half was almost like a deflated balloon version of her previous self. I understand that the timeline in this book is a couple of years we first meet her when she was 15 (I think) and the novel ends with her at the age of 19. She just got pretty complaining and though I will admit some of her tendencies are warranted considering her upbringing, she got a little annoying. Her changed demeanor didn't quite match what happens, in the end, I didn't quite make out the certain distinct feeling she was "feeling" during that interesting moment during the last 30pgs *wink wink nudge nudge*. Some of the tropes were extra bad. For example, when only the main character is the only person who can save the day even though they may not be the most experienced person in the room but oooooooohhhh how powerful they are.

Overall, The Poppy war and I had some fun times we also had some not so fantastic times. I don't regret the time I spent reading this novel, which in the end is all that matters.
… (more)
LibraryThing member tronella
Too gruesome for me to give it five stars, but excellent.
I'm glad I had recently been reading about the Nanking Massacre (in A Public Betrayed), as it helped me pick up on more of the real-world parallels.
LibraryThing member hatpin
Bailed out at 82%. I understand what the author is trying to do, but removing most of the characters that I had any investment in made the final third of the book meaningless.

I'm probably not the right audience for this.
LibraryThing member dmturner
I’m conflicted about this book. The first half was an appealing hero’s journey. The book as a whole is highly readable and the world is interesting. But its protagonist is progressively less easy to tolerate, and makes decisions I just don’t buy, plus the book descends into a bloodbath of war crimes and atrocity porn. Also the cosmology is muddled. Probably won’t read the sequel.… (more)
LibraryThing member artdamnit_reads
I recently read The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang and I have a feeling I’m going to have an unpopular opinion about it....and that’s this...

It wasn’t great.

Don’t get me wrong - I enjoyed it enough (mostly) to finish it, but I just couldn’t really get INTO it and the main reason why I couldn’t get INTO it was because i’ve already read this book before....

What I liked

I liked the mythology of the book - i am a mythology NERD and love seeing authors incorporate that into their worlds

What I didn’t like

The main reason why i didn’t like this book is because it’s almost as if the author found EVERY trope in fantasy and threw it in her book.

The main character is a Mary Sue - she’s not one of those goodie two-shoes Mary Sues, but she can still do no wrong, is pretty much perfect in everyone’s eyes, possesses special powers etc etc etc

The Academy - Both Jay Kristoff and Patrick Rothfuss did this MUCH better, and during the first half of the book I feel like i was reading The Name of the Wind again but with a watered down whiney version of Jay Kristoff’s Mia from Nevernight... (there’s also a brief appearance of Draco Malfoy who starts out as canon Draco and then turns into the fan-fiction redeemed Draco later in the book...)

Plot - this one is hard to NOT replicate - Fantasy needs some kind of BIG EPIC THING to move things along, but the behind the scenes politics that are going on are VERY Game of Thrones and could have been handled less obviously

Other things i didn’t really care for

The cover has a image of a girl with a bow and arrow...the main character never once picked up a bow and arrow...

How the author deals with “womanhood” - basically the main character gets her first period at 16 and then proceeds to have her uterus chemically “killed”. I’m all for a woman doing what she wants with her body and all - but to me that method of dealing with her period just shows that being a woman brings you down in life and that your period is what prevents you from advancement in life. ALSO there were no adverse side effects from killing her uterus - she just goes through life as if she didn’t just create a HUGE hormonal imbalance in her body.

I must admit that I am honestly a little surprised at how many RAVING reviews this book has received so far. The plot is tired, the main character unlikable, and the violence and gore are just there for shock value

Happy Reading!

… (more)
LibraryThing member xiaomarlo
Yeah, it gets pretty dark! But the darkness is earned. The protagonist's journey is epic. The character writing is so good. I'm super curious what is going to happen in the next book! Also, there is one character who died who I suspect might come back in the next book. We'll see. L


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

544 p.; 6 inches


Page: 0.3541 seconds