“I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible.
Was she now a goddess or a monster? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.” - Fang Runin
When opening the first book in R.F. Kuang's trilogy, The Poppy War, it seemed clear what kind of story this would be. I naively believed I would be reading a tale about friendship and schoolwork and the power of love. The beginning depicted our main character anxiously sitting down for a test with fellow students. It seemed normal enough. When I turned to the next page, I realized how wrong I was.
The Poppy War begins with Fang Runin (Rin), a young orphan girl living in impoverished Rooster Province and forced into marriage at age 14. Against all odds, she passes the Empire-wide test and travels to Sinegard, the most elite academy in Nikara. But everything is not what it seems.
Instead of gaining a haven from her old life, Rin tumbles into the world of the cold Nikara nobility. Ridiculed for her dark skin and gender, Rin turns to the crazy Lore master for help and discovers a power she never knew existed: shamanism.
One of the things that made this book so incredible was the characters. Rin, Kitay, Nezha, and Venka are all characters I cared about deeply. I wanted to know what would happen to them next, how they dealt with trauma, their fears, and their triumphs. The connections between characters were engaging, and Kuang's approach to abusive relationships was both heartbreaking and fascinating at the same time.
I related to Rin's desperate need for validation from influential figures. The towering Hesperians reflect Eurocentrism and the influence of Christianity. There are so many examples of real-world issues represented magnificently. The Poppy War discusses humanity, warfare, love, religion, and power so well, especially in a fantasy that could have easily turned into a book about magic and fairy tales.
I emphasize that this is not a YA fantasy novel. The Poppy War contains rape, drug dependency, emotional abuse, genocide, self-harm, torture, etc. It is a novel about warfare and the struggles of humankind. If you plan to read this series, please review the content warnings.