Monday, 10 December 2018

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Review: The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang (eProof)


Published: 1st May 2018 | Publisher: HarperVoyager
R. F. Kuang's Website

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.
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Trigger Warning: This book features bullying, discussion of suicide, substance abuse, abuse, war, violence, chemical warfare, mass murder, discussion of rape, human experimentation, and discussion of genocide.

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang, a high fantasy inspired by Chinese history, was a book I was hugely looking forward to, but one I, sadly, didn't enjoy. My lack of enjoyment isn't down to the book being a bad book. It is undeniably incredible; well-researched, unflinching in it's honesty of the brutality of war, and it definitely punches you in the gut. It's more of a case of, it's not the book, it's me.

At first, the pacing felt a little odd to me; before you're even half way through the book, three years have gone by, with most of those years brushed over. We only get the highlights of Rin's training at Sinegard. Her relationships with her fellow students - all pretty bad as she's bullied by all except Kitay, but especially Nezha, because she is poor, from the south, is dark skinned, and not unskilled. We see how she is loathed by some some teachers and praised by others, how she is trained in shamanism by Master Jiang, my favourite character of them all, a little out there, quite eccentric, dismissed as useless by all other teachers, but overall, probably the most sane person in this whole book. It just felt really odd to me this YA-feel school training felt quite rushed through, but then it became clear why. This book is not about Rin's training. It is about, as the title suggests, war, and Rin's part in it.

While the first half of the book spans three years, the next half spans months. Months of war when the Federation of Mugen invades Nikara for the third Poppy War. And it is terrible. Because of her training in shamanism, and her connection to one of the gods, Rin is put into a very tiny division of fellow shamans; a rag-tag group of teenagers and young adults, all with various magical abilities, all who are viewed by all other divisions as dangerous and no help at all. Because being a shaman, having a connection with a god, means you will eventually become mentally ill. They're not trusted. But Rin is part of this division, and it's helping two other division try and hold Khurdalain, on the east side of Nikan, which the Federation are targeting. Months are spent in this important city that Nikan can't lose without losing the war. And the Federation are brutal and unrelenting.

And this is where I found myself not enjoying the book. Because there is absolutely no let up. It shows the everyday realities of war - with some shamanism thrown in - and it was goddamned bloody awful. In other high fantasies I've read that feature war, the main characters are normally royals or related to royals; they take part in the war, but they're also planning and strategising. We don't spend time with the ordinary people who are fighting the war, except for when the royals are fighting along with them. With The Poppy War, every character is a soldier - if varying rank, sure, but still the ones fighting every day. And when I say there was no let up, I mean there was no let up. Things go from bad to worse, and it continues down that path. The Federation absolutely devastate Khurdalain time and again. At first, I was shocked and disgusted, my jaw hanging open. But it kept getting worse and worse, that I almost became immune to it all. Not completely, I was still blown away by the extent of the Federation's brutality, but I was also getting pretty tired of it, and wanted something else to happen. It just goes on and on and on. Don't get me wrong, we need to see the atrocities of war, we need to see what humans are capable of, what they have done in the past, the war crimes that are committed. We need to see it, and we need to face it, and look it all in the eye. But this was for almost half a book, and I started to lose interest. I knew what was going to happen: the Federation would pull something else about the bag, do something horrific that would have massive consequences, and then they would up the ante again. And again. In the end I was reading just to get the book finished, because it was just too much for me. Not too much in that it went too far, but too much in that it was endless.

And when other things did happen, they happened so late on, and by then I was already past it. And the things that did happen were just terrible too - a different kind of awful, but just as bad. I liked most of the characters in this book, and I really liked Rin. But my god, does she make some really awful decisions. And I don't mean she makes them by mistake. She knows her choices, she knows what the possible consequences are, and she does them anyway. Despite all the warnings. Because she's greedy and wants power, because she wants to impress, because she is so affected by what she's seen that she can't even fathom doing anything else. The story would absolutely not be the same story if Rin didn't make those decisions - there would be no story if she didn't make those decisions. But still, as much as I liked her, I thought she was a fool. Such a bloody idiot. And also, such a hypocrite. And that's really putting it lightly. But I do think that's part of why I liked her, because she's so human, and she's flawed, and her emotions do play a part in her decisions, and in that sense it's realistic. But my god, the consequences!

As I've said, there's no denying that this book is incredible, but I really didn't enjoy the experience of reading it. It was a hard slog to get through, because I wasn't enjoying it. But it really is down to the fact that I am the wrong reader for this book. So many people have loved The Poppy War, so do read other reviews before deciding whether or not you'll read it.

Thank you to HarperVoyager via NetGalley for the eProof.

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