The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang ★★★★☆

Finished 11/30/19 – 12/2/19

This was a great book. I came in to this novel with limited knowledge, and I was worried because it had several things I tend not to connect with. It is a story of war and a fairly historical one at that. It isn’t that this aren’t interesting but rather difficult for me to follow and become immersed. Kuang was able to make each of these a fascinating endeavor.

The writing style was the first thing I quickly came to love. It isn’t overall complicated. I started this expecting the setting to have a unique dialect and way of doing things, but Kuang tells the story in a way that makes it feel modern easier to follow an connect with. The prime example for me is the Victorian with its unique dialect and way of doing things. It can be immersive but distracting for me. I don’t know if this was a creative choice or if it speaks to this setting being much more similar to contemporary western literature.

If it was a creative choice, I could see this being a problem for some readers as it isn’t as true to reality. However, I found the story was still full of ample Chinese culture and history. It was fascinating and original. That is true of the overall setting and story. This is a story of how a young girl evolves and trains to fight for her country. Much like the Books of Earthsea, this is a story of morality and right and wrong. I heard some complaints from other reviewers that the author is to ambiguous as to how we as a reader are suppose to feel about her choices. There were certainly times where this seems very ambiguous, but overall I felt there was a clear theme here. The next paragraph will discuss this further but it may be mildly spoileresk.

Its a story a woman who breaks bad. She claims to do this for the good of her country, but really, it is a desperate need for power. One reviewer suggested she did not truly grow, but I think that is its own form of growing. The fact that after all shes been through, she still chooses power and vengeance, speaks to her not being the hero she wants to be. I like that story, and I am eager to follow up with the next novel. However, I will be disappointed if Kaung backtracks and arbitrarily brings her back. I think she is too far gone, and if it turns out to be otherwise, then it becomes a matter of plot convenience if it isn’t handled appropriately.

I am worried that may be the case because there are some basic problems with the novel. The biggest problem being the pacing. We start the novel with our main character living with her adoptive family. It is a character driven portion of the book that I really enjoyed. Then we abruptly find ourselves in the army. Que slowing down, then fast forward and we are in war then wait lets slow down. It is a lot of arbitrary change of flow that made the novel feel a bit disjointed, and I think it is a little lazy.

Then there are parts that felt convenient (i.e. more lazy writing). Where Kuang needs her characters to do our achieve something despite creating rules restricting it. Then those rules are broken, seemingly without consequence. I would like to think she is playing the long game. That is, the consequence is the long term spiral of our main character into chaos. Again, I am not confident that’s the game shes playing at, and I’m nervous about how the story will progress.

Nevertheless, it stands a very exciting and fun to read book. It pushes ideas about right and wrong, even if it could be clearer on what its trying to say. I can’t promise this series won’t disappoint in the long term, but for now, this is a solid book, problems aside. 4.25/5 stars

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