Book review

The Poppy War

by R.F.Kuang

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The Poppy War is a fantasy novel with a difference. Most such novels are set in a sort-of Lord of The Rings lineage of countries, which all look a lot like medieval England (with greater or lesser degrees of grittiness, but with wizards, and of course lots of men with mighty thews and huge swords.

Instead, here we are in a country like medieval China, with shamans who are linked to sixty-four fantastical god-like creatures, and women with wicked martial arts skills – oh, plus a few mighty-thew’d warriors to round out the numbers. This does give the whole thing a very different flavour, which I have to say I enjoyed. The exploration of this culture, and the way the empires have grown (and are falling), was well done throughout, and definitely deserving of praise.

Better still for me was the main character, Ren, and the portrayal of her inner conflict between duty and vengeance, as she grows from fighting to survive, to fighting for her country, to fighting for her friends. It’s a great piece of character development. We see her start as a young war orphan in a shop in a rural village, then through sheer force of will and determination, we watch her pass the tough exams to attend the prestigious war college – her only way out of this life other than through an arranged marriage to a man 20+ years her senior. From there, we follow her through the college, and into the real war that breaks out before she’s had time to even graduate. It’s then, in many ways, that the really interesting action starts. I did feel a times though that this was a longer book than it might have needed to be, and perhaps some of the build up to this might have been judiciously edited down.

It’s worth warning that some of the writing in the battle scenes in the final third of the book is very dark. One of the themes of the book is about how when we cease to see the “other side” in a war has human, that (a) makes the war easier to fight for the soldiers, and (b) produces extraordinary brutality. You are treated to this in full. I think of myself as mentally quite robust, and am entirely used to high levels of gore in movies, etc, but this gave me some quite unpleasant dreams. Enough said.

So, overall I’m giving this 3-1/2 stars, rounded up to 4 stars. The novelty of the setting and the characters, plus the higher-level themes, elevated this above your normal fantasy novel. Just not for the faint of heart!

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