The Poppy War – R. F. Kuang

This book was a little slow to get going… well that is not entirely a fair and unbiased view as I’ve just finished a book that set an exciting pace after a 10-page prologue! After that, most adventure would be slow by comparison.

Once it got going however, it went!

The story follows war orphan, Rin, as she plotted to save herself from an arranged marriage that will spell her doom but benefit her foster parents; to her attendance at the nation’s top military academy and her struggle as the “peasant who does not belong”; to her being mentored by a seemingly crazy master in the nearly-lost art of shamanism; being thrusted into war when a brutal enemy decimated her country, through to her discovering the secrets of the gods. There were struggles, triumphs, losses, loyalty, betrayal, sacrifices, secrets, carnage, suffering, lots of suffering- all the essential elements of an epic tale.

This was the first Asian fantasy book I’ve read. For me, there were lots of familiar cultural dynamics, customs, cliché, politics, and real-life experiences! It was very refreshing to read a dark fantasy with so much cultural familiarities. There were many historical parallels with many parts taking me straight back to high school Chinese history class!

The historical influence and the nuance in strategy and warfare were impressive and demonstrate the author’s excellent command of history and Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War. The way she birthed a saga that juxtaposes myth and history is simply brilliant.

Any tale of war would be incomplete without a suitable amount of war horrors. I should have known it was coming but it caught me totally off guard! Before I could brace myself (if one could ever brace against such brutality) I was walking through a scene that I have no doubt in my mind was inspired by the Nanjing Massacre.

Reading that gruesome chapter reminded me diabolically of a book I regretted reading in my teens called “The Black Sun 731” (direct translation of title) where it documented the barbaric experiments that were inflicted upon the POW after the Japanese Imperial Army invaded and seized Nanjing, China in 1937. The book was so gruesome I had to place it backwards on the shelf because each accidental glance of its spine reminded me of the abomination within! Images I’ve been suppressing all my life were summoned by the words I was reading and they haunted me once more. I will be honest and say that I struggled with that chapter of the book and nearly bailed. You’ve now been warned.

Gore and mayhem aside, this was a great adventure. Being a fan of mythical stories I really enjoyed the supernatural elements of the book. The fact that they were Asian mystic only made them all the more delectable!

As with all good trilogies, the first book leaves you temporarily satisfied but longing for more. Although a part of me is wary of what terror awaits me, I am looking forward to finding out what the Empress is hiding, what the God of the Four Winds is up to, and of course, more burning in the fire of the Phoenix.

One thing I do wish to see in books by Chinese authors is an index with the names of the characters and places in both simplified and traditional Chinese. It is obvious the authors came up with them in Chinese and translated them for print. It is a shame these names don’t ever see the light of day. I also think it would enhance the reading experience for those of us who read the language.

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With Love and Positivity,

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Asirus

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