5 stars · book review

book review: The Poppy War by RF Kuang

4.5 out of 5 stars. Basically a 5 stars with only a minor deduction.

Guys, I’ve been excited for TPW by Rebecca Kuang for a very short time because it was on my radar breifly before it came out! But jfc when I heard about it I immediately jumped onto goodreads and marked as to-read because I swear this was like the kind of book I’ve always wanted to read/write. As a Chinese reader, I was BEYOND STOKED to be the first person to get my hands on this from my local library and right after I finished it, I bought my own copy. I’m in no way completely coherent in my review of this. There was just so much to talk about I don’t feel like my review as it is paints a picture of how good this book is.

First of all, idk WHY this is an issue, but y’all should know this is not a young adult book. It just isn’t. A lot of the brutality and grotesque things that happen in TPW are based off of real events (Rape of Nanjing, Unit 731, comfort women, etc.). They aren’t written in there for shock value or just for the sake of being grimdark as a backdrop. I don’t speak for all Chinese readers, but I feel like this book is a different read entirely if you are Chinese or if you know the historical context of the events this novel borrows from. It was especially important to me because I definitely get the feeling the West generally doesn’t get why there’s strained relations amongst east asian countries. They’re just like “why are China and Korea so butthurt over Japan omg.” Uh, google what I put in parentheses above. Literal war crimes, basically. What sucks is people (e.g. some Japanese scholars and politicians) like to sweep this history under the rug and pretend like it never happened. To my knowledge, they generally don’t teach this history in Japanese schools, if they do it’s not in great detail. This shit isn’t exactly easy or possible to forgive if it affected your family directly. You can’t change the past. It seems counter productive to hold this against anybody forever. What’s important is to acknowledge that it happened, not erase it. It’s not hard to be like “This is what happened. It’s horrific but it’s part of our history. We’ll remember it and we’ll do whatever it takes to make sure it never happens again.” But alas.

Rebecca definitely doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to writing about war and genocide. I’m being non-descript with this, but I feel like it’s best to just let Rebecca Kuang herself explain. The author herself wrote a post of all the trigger warnings and why she included them on her blog here.

Actually it’s really timely that I read this book because I was watching some videos where people interviewed random people on the streets of China and Japan asking what they think of one another. I’ll link you to a couple of videos by Asian Boss on youtube. They also have a similar set of videos for Korea and Japan.

How do the Japanese feel about China?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_Gz0…
How do the Chinese feel about Japan?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hfR9p…
How do the Japanese feel about S. Korea?:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNISt…
How do Koreans feel about Japan?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLOi-…

What I love about this book aside from references to Chinese culture is that it explores what it’s like to slowly become consumed by your hatred and desire for revenge with the character Rin (aka Fang Runin). There is definitely a message against hatred and revenge by showing the dire consequences of LITERALLY being consumed by it (in a way heh, you’ll see when you read that part of the book). Just because the characters choose to give into hate doesn’t mean the book is advocating for it. Rin and her classmate Kitay talk about looking into the eyes and humanity of the enemy with a couple of times in the book and that’s purposefully placed in the narrative to reflect how Rin is slowly becoming what she fought against.

Ok I rambled a lot here’s my review from goodreads. Spoilers below.


Nothing is written…Destiny is a myth. Destiny is the only myth.


Ok really, I was wavering between 4 and 5 stars mostly because of part 2. The ending sealed the deal for me. I can’t believe this book had the balls to do THAT in the last chapters.

What a fucking experience. What a fucking experience, let me tell you. I feel like this book is an entirely different experience for Chinese readers than it is for general readers. It felt very familiar though I’ve only read this book the one time. It was delightful to read through TPW and catch most if not all the references to Chinese culture, even the ones I vaguely knew but couldn’t name (like bao lian deng!). Also Suni and Baji being refs to Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie A+++. Does that mean the water guy is the 3rd pilgrim from the journey to the west whose name escapes me? I caught onto that late.

From the grueling entrance exams in part 1 to Golyn Niis in part 2/3 that shooketh me, to the inevitable human experimentation I damn well expected was coming but not in the way that went down. Also fuck Dr. Shiro and his scummy ass. Bye, B I T C H., it’s like Rebecca was fucking targeting me (I tweeted her and she confirmed she was definitely coming for me). I’m also attracted to tragedy in my books, so I was doomed form the start. I’m being very non-descript with the gruesomeness about the content of this book. One because I can’t bring myself to personally recount it without unpacking a LOT of unpleasant imagery. Two, because I know exactly what Rebecca is referencing historically, and a lot of it is just lifted from real history. Not everyone comes in with that contextual knowledge, but for those who do know it, the words feel a lot heavier to read when you get to certain points in the book.

tbh google Nanjing 1937 and Unit 731. Just know it ain’t pretty. Also don’t at me with your history-denying asses and tell me this is propaganda. I see you. (I’m being shady and passive aggressive, let me live.). This book literally warns against letting hatred and vengeance consume you. To a very LITERAL degree. Some characters give into that and it shows the consequences of those choices. Jeez it’s like I read an entirely different book than the guy who said he read propaganda, but that’s my salty self being salty about factual incorrectness. There is a very important exchange between Kitay and Rin that explores the reality of letting rage and hatred consume you and how it makes you view the enemy.

Just the fury and resentment and misery that brews within Altan and Rin is depicted so well, I don’t think I can put it into words properly. It’s not that I didn’t expect to see it. I think subconsciously, I knew it would always be there, but I didn’t expect it to be described in such a succinct and poignant manner. It sort of shakes me to my core how that was incorporated into their characters as we learned more about what happened Speer and in the Phoenix god. A lot of things from the beginning of this novel is echoed near the end like Kitay talking about looking into the faces of the enemy and seeing them as human or not; Rin’s dam battle strategy; and Jiang’s warnings against being consumed by the gods, hatred and seeking revenge.

Loved them. Not everyone gets equal page-time, but what we got was pretty great. I didn’t expect to get a band of misfit assassins, but I’m glad we did. I do love the Hinterland twins and Ramsa the most. Qara was the stand-out fave for me. I do love an take-no-shit archer who can talk to birds. Her last convo with Rin solidified her position as Fave. Chaghan was good too. He’s not particularly in the foreground most of the time. I’ve always liked other-worldly characters in the background.

Ramsa made literal shit bombs. What a cheeky little brother type character. I also didn’t expect Nezha to go from an entitled shadist little turdling to Nezha-demption. Is he really dead? Chaghan did mention that Nezha was a shaman or something.

Altan was extremely well-written. I had some problems with the way we were never directly told stuff about Altan FROM Altan, only from hearsay from Chaghan, Jiang and others, BUT in retrospect, I understand Kuang’s choice in doing that until the very end where shit went down with Altan. He played many roles for a character that was sort of held at an arm’s length away from the reader because Rin had put him on a pedestal as a school-idol, big-brother, commander, etc., but yet he was so close to her because of  that shared Speerly heritage. In a way, Rin went from idolizing Altan to becoming a second Altan to going beyond Altan. It’s my personal preference that I get closer to the characters and into their minds as the story progresses (i.e. UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL). I can excuse that for Altan just as the type of character he was written to be. I don’t wanna believe he’s gone, but Chaghan gives me hope? It was interesting to see Rin pull away from Jiang’s teachings to Altan’s. There are so many layers to the Rin and Altan relationship.

Rin. Jfc I loved Rin in part 1. She was a character with few attachments to the world looking for a way out of a bad situation into a better life and she WORKED for it. She studied hard to show hey, maybe she does belong in Sinegard. She faces oppression and discrimination because of her darker skin and socio-economic status (war orphan from a rural area in the south) from teachers and classmates. Rin is well-written just like Altan is. She has to make some really difficult choices and confront a lot thrown her way. Whether it was a conscious decision or not to make her want to latch onto something or someone for stability, I felt this was something consistent in Rin’s character. In part 2 she took more of a backseat/observer role. It made sense that she had only learned about war in theory and wasn’t used to war in practice. Idk it felt like she stopped trying to keep what she earned in part 1 BUT since it’s wartime, there isn’t time to mind your ego.

The Rest
Part 2 in general was a mixed bag for me. I didn’t like how little Lore we actually learned from Rin’s Lore lessons. I expected more than “gods this, gods that” and name drops of actual deities and how they influenced Nikara and Speer. We do eventually get that with Speer and the Phoenix. It was a little pedantic how the information about gods was given to us through Jiang and Rin’s exchanges. There was certainly imbalance between telling and showing wtf the gods do (i.e. destroy). Perhaps it was to keep the gods as an abstract concept for Rin because it takes her awhile to tap into her shaman/god-vessel powers. I honestly had a hard time getting through it and if any part of the story would lower my rating, it’s this one. I wish things like the fight with the chimei came earlier so we could be anchored into the more fantastical elements of the book other than the Pantheon, which was mostly saved for near the end. Then again I don’t know much about shamanism. It’s just my preference to know more about the gods in any fantasy novel.

Kuang doesn’t pull punches when it comes to depicting war. And she doesn’t do it in a way that it’s just purely for historical/fantasy backdrop and shock value. There is a purpose to it. There’s care taken to make it obvious (at least to me as a reader) that just because characters choose to give into hatred and revenge, it doesn’t mean that the book is advocating for it. They talk about looking into the eyes and humanity of the enemy with Kitay a couple of times in the book and that’s purposefully placed in the narrative to reflect how Rin is slowly becoming what she fought against.

I like how there were so many different versions of the Tearza story spread throughout Nikara. No one quite knows what happened and it was a nice touch that the story was changed over time to suit the needs of time and whoever was telling the story. That’s what happens in irl too. Qara straight up says all the stories people heard about Tearza are propaganda and gives some insight on what it’s like to be a monarch/ruler. My girl Qara understands government. I wish YA would take a hint from this aspect of the book in terms of having characters have complex understanding of government and the role of a ruler. THIS BOOK IS NOT YA, THOUGH. JUST SAYIN’. I’m so tired of how simplistic “I wanna be Kween and nothing can stand in my way!!!” can be.

The shade @ Hesperia though. “It’s Hesperia. They always think they’re helping” LMAO. *fist bumps Rebecca* I see you. Too real. I honestly wrote that sort of shade in my writing project.

I had some minor nitpicks with some of the names/terms like “Eyimchi” and the choice of kirin over qilin; ki over chi/qi; and when to use Nikara vs. Nikaran. To some extent I could excuse it because it’s fantasy, not everything has to be called/spelled like it is in our world. I tried looking for anyone named Kitay and Ryohai because those are the names that made me double-take the first time I saw them. Other things like Suni and Baji being direct references to Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie were fine. It’d be silly to try/expect to pinyin-ize Altan or the Hinterland twins’ names. And probably some geographical names are maybe non-Mandarin so my lack of linguistic knowledge is showing.

Some other reviews I found that are more eloquent that I am:
Petrik: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2276617449?book_show_action=true
Qiouyi: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/sci-fi-fantasy/the-poppy-war-is-a-fantasy-steeped-in-powerful-painful-historical-fact/



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