Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

35068705The Poppy War is a high fantasy book inspired by the Sino-Japanese wars. It’s told from the point of view of Rin, a peasant from the Rooster Province who, through hard work and sleepless nights, managed to get into Sinegard, an elite military academy.

I really wanted to like this. In a way, I did, but I also really didn’t like this. To start making sense, I’ll tell you a quick summary of my thoughts: this book is divided into three parts. When I think about Part I, which is almost half of the book, I want to four-star it. When I think about Part II and Part III, I think that giving it two stars is too generous.
I haven’t been this conflicted about a book since Too Like the Lightning (and to this day I still doubt my rating of that disturbing, verbose monster; I’ll probably do the same with The Poppy War).

I loved the first half of this book. I’ve always loved school settings in SFF – a love that started with Harry Potter and never went away – and Sinegard was new and familiar at the same time for me. The Poppy War played with some common tropes while bringing enough new elements to keep things interesting.

The first half is relatively light-hearted (relatively! there’s still talk of suicidal ideation and self-harm), but it’s clear that the magic system has a much darker side, and that something terrible is going to happen soon. It was, coincidentally, the only part of the book in which there was actually some kind of tension or suspense. It could have worked as a book on itself, if only it had been longer. In a way, I feel like it needed to be a book on its own, since it had some pacing problems near the ending (several years in less than 300 pages? Will feel rushed) and the transition between it and Part II was all but smooth.
Anyway, it was an interesting beginning with a lot of potential, which Part II proceeded to squander with amazing efficiency.

No, really, you could have given me this first half, told me to ruin it for myself, and I wouldn’t have done it half as well. I probably would have opted for a forced m/f romance, but The Poppy War didn’t even need to do that.
Instead, it introduced a new, only vaguely described setting I didn’t care about, introduced five or so new characters I also didn’t care about in just a few pages (and: they never got more development than their powers), and destroyed the suspense in one of the most outstanding examples of terrible foreshadowing I’ve ever seen in adult SFF.
Which means:

• after the beginning of Part II, I didn’t care about any character but Rin;
• the setting wasn’t interesting either;
• after the beginning of Part II, I guessed every single reveal 200 pages before than the characters did.

This third point still surprises me. So much that I’m not even sure those reveals were supposed to be plot twists, but the characters were clearly surprised by them so I guess I should have been too? But the narration came very close to telling me that same thing 200 pages before! So…?
At the same time, I can’t understand why they wouldn’t be supposed to be plot twists, because there are few things as frustrating as seeing the characters throw themselves into a trap when you know it’s a trap and you have known that for a time.
It’s unfair, but I end up feeling like they were too stupid to live.

But that’s not enough – Part II and Part III are some of the most emotionally draining things I’ve ever read. I personally don’t like that from books; it makes me stop caring. It’s not even about the descriptions of violence. They were triggering, yes, but I skimmed them because I knew they were there and even if I hadn’t I would have skimmed anyway because I was skimming everything when I got to that point. Part II bored me that much.

Even without the foreshadowing and pacing problems, this book wouldn’t have been for me because it’s the opposite of what I want from books. This book is inspired by real events – more on that later – but it’s fiction, and the author decides what to show and not to show. If they’re going to show me characters being miserable for 200+ pages, always fighting with the enemy and fighting between each other, with no light moments or interactions, I am going to be bored. I need to see the good parts too – if there are none, I’m going to lose interest.
The dark moments have a lot less impact without the light ones; in a way, it’s a matter of stakes.

Many things could be said about realism and fictional portrayals of war, but I need to remember that I really don’t like or want to read portrayals of violence closely inspired by real events for entertainment – and that’s what fiction is to me. If I wanted to read something this emotionally draining, I’d read nonfiction, or the news.

I read The Poppy War for the “read an intimidating book” challenge of Marvel-A-Thon, and I probably shouldn’t have.

My rating: ★★½

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