✨ Spoiler Free ✨
Overall rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: R. F. Kuang
Books: #1 The Poppy War;#2 The Dragon Republic; #3 The Burning God
Publication year: 2018-2020
Content warnings: War, genocide, self-harm, drug use, substance addiction, misogyny, abuse, animal cruelty, rape, death, graphic violence, torture, child death, starvation, mutilation, gaslighting, suicide, cannibalism, mental illness, human experimentation, racism and gore. This trilogy contains every single content warning imaginable, so I apologise if I’ve forgotten any. Just be aware this is a very dark series with a lot of disturbing and upsetting content which is often explicit and graphic.
The Poppy War trilogy weaves fantastical elements with twentieth century Chinese history. It follows Rin, a young dark-skinned orphan, soldier and shaman from the south, who has a pivotal role to play in the future of her home as the Nikan Empire enters into the Third Poppy War.
What I liked
- Historical influences
- Realistic depiction of war and its consequences
- Character dynamics
- Ambitious plot
- Combat/fighting scenes
- Interesting magic system
- The darkness of the story
What I disliked
- Unrealised character potential
- The under-utilisation of strong characters
- Redundant plot points
- Limited character POV
- Too plot focused
- Not enough exploration of the magic system
Plot and Structure
This trilogy is very plot focused. Since R. F. Kuang wrote the books based on Chinese history, the timeline is plotted out based around key events in the timeline of that history, drawing specifically on the Second-Sino Japanese War and Chinese Civil War. As a history academic, historical accuracy is important to Kuang and many of the key plot points are pulled straight from history texts but with a fantastical twist. Unfotunately, there are some plot points that are dropped or wrapped up conviniently easy. I also didn’t necessarily like the choices that were made with the plot and felt that with some minor shifts in the focus, it could’ve gone from a great trilogy to a mindblowing trilogy.
Although I wasn’t in love with the plot, I admire how ambitious it is, particularly for a debut series. Kuang expertly takes real history to create a fictional world that has enough parallels with Chinese history to provide valuable insight and commentary on the history of our world, but that also has enough differences that it feels fresh and unique. The ultimate goal of this trilogy is to examine the consequences of colonisation and war in our world through a fantastical, fictional lens and in that she undoubtedly accomplishes what she set out to do.
Structurally, each book is divided into three parts. It’s almost exclusively from the protagonist’s perspective, Rin and generally follows a chronological order with a handful of flashbacks usually in the opening of the book or the start of a chapter. Generally, the structure is clean and easy to follow but I would’ve preferred more flashbacks to get more insight into the back stories of the characters. I also found the choice to have only one POV very limiting. I’m personally a huge fan of multi-POV books, particularly in fantasy, and the way the plot is set up, particularly in the second and third books, meant that we desperately needed other character POV’s.
World Building and Magic
Considering this is Kuang’s debut, the world building was decent. Due to the nature of the book, lots of time was spent developing the history of the world but there was also time given to establish the cultures, politics, social structures and geography. However, since it is based on China, a lot of the world building is heavily reliant on the real-life history, geography, culture and people of China. This means that it cannot be credited with authentic world building, since it is using an existing place and only makes a few minor changes. Personally, I did find the world immersive and imagined the setting vividly in my mind. Unfortunately, other reviewers have commented on the fact that the immersion and appreciation of the world building can be negatively impacted the more familiar the reader is with China which is a huge draw back.
I found the shaman magic system so intriguing. I personally haven’t read many books that have this type of magic system so it was fun for me to learn about it. It’s definitely a soft magic system, which was good for me because I personally prefer soft magic systems. Having said that, I felt like the magic system was played with too fast and loose and there were a lot of inconsistencies about how it works, its limitations, how it’s accessed and used. The concept was fun, but the execution wasn’t quite up to scratch. However, I did like the way that drug use was incorporated into the use of shamanism because it provided the opportunity to explore the impact of drug addiction and substance misuse, which is generally handled well.
Kuang’s writing style is succinct and harsh, fitting the tone of the overall story. The writing is particularly effective for war and combat, and the intricate details around war tactics, strategy and battles are unparalleled. There’s vivid descriptions which enabled me to build tangible images of the setting and scenes. It’s rare for authors to craft a world and scenes that feel so real to me that I can still picture them clearly in my mind months and years later, but I know that this world and certain scenes from all three books will stay with me for a long time. Yet offsetting that, there’s a lot of introspection and emotionality. Striking a balance between description and emotion is difficult to achieve, but Kuang pulls it off. However, the sheer power of the emotions and themes she explores is so powerful that at times it did feel like over-kill. Since Rin is a highly emotional, reckless and intense character, the emotional stakes feel like they’re always at their height and as a reader, that can be emotionally exhausting. Overall, there’s an over-arching intensely passionate tone, which conveys Kuang’s personal attachment to the history and culture of her home-country and heritage which is woven into the books.
I am the force of creation, I am the end and the beginning. The world is a painting and I hold the brush. I am a god.#3 The Burning God
Characters and Relationships
The characters are probably the hardest aspect of this trilogy to review because I have so many mixed feelings. At times, I felt deeply connected to the characters and thought they had great development, and others they felt very vague and underdeveloped. Since Rin is the POV character, her characterisation is given the most time and attention. Rin is a polarising character. She’s an anti-hero that has a corruption arc across the three books and as much as I can see how much time was invested in developing Rin’s every thought, emotion, behaviour and action, I found it very difficult to connect to her or sympathise with her in any way. On paper, she’s a very complex character with a lot of layers but I never felt anything towards her. Her characterisation is complicated and contradictory and I could never truly get a sense of who she was as a person. Her motivations seemed to jump around and change constantly with little explanation and that paired with her utter instability was difficult for me to wrap my head around.
The other characters ranged from “forgettable” to “average” to “had potential” to “great”. There are a lot of characters that have quite a lot of page time but who are one dimensional and/or used as a plot device. My favourites were Altan, Nezha, Kitay and Venka, all of which fluctuate between being in the “had potential” to “great” categories. Mostly they’re in the “had potential” because although I really liked these characters I don’t feel like any of them were fully realised or used to the extent they could’ve within the story. Altan, Nezha and Kitay all could’ve been POV characters and it’s a crime that Nezha wasn’t. Books 2 and 3 could’ve been elevated to an entirely new level if it’d been a dual perspective between Rin and Nezha. There’s so many unanswered questions around these characters, so little backstory and barely any time devoted to developing them beyond a couple of areas.
Admittedly, there’s still some unfulfilled potential in the relationships but not quite as much. The relationships are what connected me to the books and were the reason that I cried at the end of Book 1 and Book 3 (Book 2 almost got me, but not quite). Rin’s relationship with her best friend Kitay was a breath of fresh-air. I have a soft spot for well-written friendships and male-female friendships are so rarely depicted well so I adored Rin and Kitay. Rin’s intense and turbulent relationship with Altan was what first made me fall in love with the trilogy. Likewise, her fraught enemies-to-friends relationship with Nezha was addictive. Rin and Nezha have such an interesting and complex dynamic which does manifest itself particularly in Books 2 and 3, but overall, it’s done a huge disservice and I felt robbed of what we could’ve had. Regardless of that, the relationships are a true highlight of this book. It’s not just Rin’s relationships that I enjoyed, but the bonds of friendship and family between other minor characters too.
The Poppy War is a powerful, intense and emotionally explosive fantasy trilogy which breaks away from traditional Westernised fantasy to provide a world and story inspired by Chinese history and culture. Rin is perhaps one of the most complex and polarising protagonists I’ve read recently in fiction and whether readers hate her or love her, her development is staggering. The world building, plot, characters and relationships all had enjoyable parts to them but overall, I was left feeling that the trilogy failed to reach its full potential. All of the ingredients for a fantastic fantasy story were there but weren’t chopped, combined or cooked in the right order or the right way. Nonetheless, I’m glad I read the trilogy; it took me on a wild ride of highs and lows, the first book blew my head off in the best possible way and the story packed a strong emotional punch. Kuang has demonstrated that she has a flair for writing historical fantasy and I think that with more experience and progression in her writing career, she will overcome these minor flaws and publish books that will absolutely knock my socks off and be 5 star reads across the board.
I’d recommend The Poppy War trilogy if:
You’re looking for an intense, dark, emotional fantasy story inspired by Chinese history with a complex, anti-hero POV.
Have you read The Poppy War or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!
Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.