The Poppy War is dark and dreamlike at its best


Although some improvements could be made in the narration, when it’s at its best, R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War is a wonderfully dark fantasy novel.

Books like The Poppy War, sent this writer’s way by Harper Voyager, seem rare. It’s a fantasy based in an actual historical period… but one that isn’t represented as often as others. R.F. Kuang’s debut actually takes its leads from Chinese history, but her specialty as revealed by her bio is modern Chinese history. When you realize that and know a little something about the 19th-century Opium Wars… then the book gets particularly interesting (although no real familiarity is needed to actually enjoy the book). And since this is a book that involves its protagonist using poppy-derived drugs to basically ascend to an astral plane, you’d expect a dreamlike quality, too.

When Kuang’s writing is on, that’s exactly what The Poppy War is. This is a fantasy that doesn’t play around, that expects you to be okay with moral ambiguity and that doesn’t worry about getting a bit weird when it has to.

But by saying that there are parts where it’s on effectively implies that there are parts when it is not. That’s true. Kuang has beautifully lyrical sections — and then others that are clunkier. But the good outweighs the bad, and the book ends on the kind of note that’s usually reserved for second books in trilogies, not the first book in what is almost certainly going to be a series. At the risk of sounding a bit cliché, that’s bold.

While Kuang’s Fang Runin has some positive qualities, The Poppy War doesn’t try and make us like her and doesn’t seem concerned if we do or not. What matters more is that Rin has some complexities to her beyond the standard chip on the shoulder expected from a character like her, who works her way up to testing into the best military academy in the Nikara Empire. She’s fascinating, and that matters more, at least to this reviewer.

But even as Kuang gives us a pretty solid lesson in military strategy, she also leans into the fantasy side of things. Rin’s particular gift is a connection to the Phoenix, one of 64 gods that shamans like her can have ties to. And if you’re guessing that the Phoenix is maybe not the nicest god out there… well, then you’ve been paying attention. Very little about The Poppy War is black or white, and this is no exception.

Although it seems like the obvious recommendation, fans of Game of Thrones would probably like The Poppy War, but to ensure that yours truly covers more bases, this reminds me quite a bit of From Unseen Fire.

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