The Poppy War is a hard book to say you recommend. It’s well written, for sure. But the last few chapters are, without giving anything away, excruciating. I had been warned this was the case, but yet I still found myself staying up one night, and reading the final section with increasing horror. Reader, be warned, this is a wonderfully written book, with one hell of a trigger warning.
The start of the book is classic enough. Rin is a poor orphan girl from the provinces in early 20th century China (or more precisely, a fantasy country which is essentially early 20th century China, with shamans and other fun things). Much to the astonishment of everyone, she passes a qualifying exam, in order to be sent to the elite military academy in the capital city. What follows, begins as a story about an outsider at an elite school, hitting many similar notes to classic fantasies like Harry Potter, the Magicians, The Name of the Wind, etc. about school bullies, the dangers inherent learning occult arts, etc. Then things get subverted entirely. It’s hard to share too many details, but perhaps it sufficient to say that R.F. Kuang, the author draws heavily on the history of the second Sino-Japanese war for inspiration.
R.F. Kuang is one of those annoyingly talented prodigies that make the rest of us look bad. She wrote The Poppy War at age 19, on a gap year from college (according to Wikipedia) and is just finishing up the third book in a planned trilogy in this universe. I am very much excited to read the next two, but I may have to take a bit of a break first. It’s most certainly not the light fantasy read that I know many people are craving in the context of a pandemic, but if you like your fantasy grim, and rooted strongly in history, then it is certainly a compelling read.