I was trawling the library’s New Books shelves (as you do when the school year is over, and you can easily read a stack of books in a few weeks), and R.F. Kuang’s debut novel The Poppy War caught my eye. I am trying to read more work by women of color, and science fiction/fantasy is not always the easiest to come by. I decided that this book held an intriguing premise, and I was curious to see how it would pan out. I read this book over my Florida vacation (complete with a Sunday morning where my nephew and niece screamed at each other over a 7 am Lego fight), so there are already some parts that are fading in my mind. I don’t think that’s an entirely good sign.
Rin is an orphan and living with foster parents, who are merchants by day and opium smugglers on the side. Education is her only chance to leave her rural town and make something of herself. To win a full scholarship to the greatest military academy in China, she must sit the national exam and ace it, which she does. At school, she is made fun of for her looks, accent, and naïveté. Yet she perseveres, with the help of odd Lore master Jiang. She makes a pledge to be his mentee, and then war comes to tear the land apart. Rin is fated to be a major cog in the war, but she has to realize that her great power comes with enormous consequences that could separate her from her humanity. And, as the book blurb gravely notes, it may already be too late.
Guys, I’m going to be real with you on this one. I loved the first half of this book and HATED the second half. I’m really disappointed about it, too. The school stuff was interesting and engaging: Kuang is frank about race and gender, and Rin was an engaging student to follow. As a teacher, I always find school novels interesting and entertaining (because I’m a nerd, I guess). So it was a shocking shift to get kick-dropped into a brutally violent war narrative in the second half. Like, it’s GRIM. I think there’s a purpose for talking frankly about violence to innocent people and civilians during times of political upheaval, but this book was dark and the descriptions veered into the gratuitous, in my opinion. I’m giving it three stars, because the first half was so interesting, and the second half so unbearable. Your own mileage may vary, but I do feel responsible for adding a trigger warning to the second half.
Cross-posted to my blog.