Review: The Poppy War (Untitled #1) by R.F. Kuang

July 28, 2018
The Poppy War, R.F. Kuang, InToriLex, Book Review
Published By: Harper Voyager on May 1, 2018
Format Read: Hardback Edition (544 pages)
Genre: Fantasy/ Historical Fiction/ Adult
Series: Book One of Untitled Series
Source: Purchased
The Poppy War
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.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.


Content Warning: Graphic Violence, Rape, Child Death, Genocide, Drug Use & Addiction


This book hooked me immediately. Rin is a head strong protagonist who works really hard to ace the Keju exam and get away from her adoptive family. Her family is trying to force her into a strategic marriage, so the Keju becomes her way out. Rin gets into Sinegard, a prestigious military school, where she has to learn martial arts to compete against peers that have been learning it their whole lives. At Sinegard she makes friends and foes. Rin is outcast because she is from a poor background but she repeatedly shows natural talent and develops supernatural abilities to help her survive. The character development and action was great so I was rooting for Rin and company. Unfortunately Rin has to put her new skills to use far too soon when the Nikara Empire has to go to war.
"You must conflate these concepts. The god outside you. The god within. Once you understand that these are one and the same, once you can hold both concepts in your head and know then to be true, you'll be a shaman."
The fantasy elements are slowly introduced as Rin is immersed into a war where  people are killed indiscriminately. The descriptions of blood and violence was plentiful but disturbing at times. War is hell and this book does not shy away from that at all. Rin has to learn how to control her shaman abilities through the use of poppy to connect with her god. But allowing a god to use you comes with the risk of madness and wide scale destruction.  The pacing and action kept me engaged, but I wanted to know more about the 12 Warlords who rule provinces of the Nikara empire. The political conflict between the Warlords and Empress that rules Nikara was teased at but the details will hopefully emerge more in the series.
"Destiny is a myth. Destiny is only myth. The gods choose nothing. You chose."
I really enjoyed the plot, characters and world building in this book. However towards the end of the book I felt that the pacing and story wasn't as strong. There was a lot of things left unexplained and I really wanted more of the story lines to have been resolved in this book. I don't want to get into issues with certain characters because that would lead to spoilers  Despite my interest tapering off towards the end of the book, it was still a great read. This will be a series I'm interested in continuing and I know most readers will find something here to enjoy.

Recommended for readers who:
- enjoy military fantasy with a strong female lead
- appreciate historical fiction with action and mythology
- can deal with mature topics and graphic descriptions of death


R.F. Kuang, InToriLex
I immigrated to the US from Guangzhou, China in 2000. I have a BA in International History from Georgetown, where my research focused on Chinese military strategy, collective trauma, and war memorials. I’m a 2018 Marshall Scholar, and I’ll be heading to the University of Cambridge this fall to do my MPhil in Chinese Studies.

Writing-wise, I graduated from Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016 and attended the CSSF Novel Writing Workshop in 2017. My debut novel, The Poppy War, is the first installment in a trilogy that grapples with drugs, shamanism, and China’s bloody twentieth century. I really love corgis, drinking nice wines I know nothing about, and rewatching The Office!

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