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Review: The Poppy War - R.F. Kuang

Genre: Fantasy Published: Harper Voyager, May 2018 My Rating: 2/5 stars

"It was a song of vengeance. It was a horrible song. It was a lovely song."

Long review, with some unpopular opinions incoming…

The Poppy War won numerous awards, was nominated for the Goodreads Choice Awards in the Fantasy category, and somehow stands at a >4 star average rating with over 18,000 reviews. And it didn’t click with me…

First of all, I have to mention that this book is split up into 3 parts, and in order to get my thoughts and critiques across, I’m going to have to talk about all three of them. I’ll keep this as spoiler free as possible, but if you haven’t read this book and want to go in blind, please be aware of that before continuing reading this review.

Part 1: We meet our protagonist Rin: an orphaned, peasant girl from the impoverished Rooster province, who dreams of attending the Empires elitist military academy. Rin is quite your typical YA character. She is a bit of a Mary Sue, but she is strong willed, and genuinely comes across as intelligent, which I very much liked. She has a clear goal in mind, and is willing to go to great lengths to attain that. She is ambitious to a fault, and although that make her a realistic character in some sense, it also makes her quite the unlikable protagonist at times. We follow Rin as she participates in the trials to be entered into the academy, and meets her fellow students along the way. The plot is a little predictable (view spoiler). It’s a little grittier and darker than you expect your typical YA novel to be, and I appreciate the author taking that risk. All in all, I quite enjoyed my time with part 1. It reads like a debut, but a good one at that, and I would have given it 4 star probably.

Part 2: This is where the novel goes downhill. Or perhaps that isn’t the right way to describe it… You see: it’s not a gradual decline, but more of an unexpected sinkhole opening up and swallowing the book whole. Going into part two, I felt like I had unknowingly picked up a different book entirely… We skip over the later years of the Academy training completely, and are thrown into a situation where the Empire is suddenly wrapped up in a full on war-situation. The worldbuilding, including this war, is heavily inspired by the actual events of the Opium wars, which I really appreciated, but also caused some problems. First of my main two problems being pacing. Because the novel tries to fit so many (actual) events, over such a large scope, into one book, we end up only barely scratching the surface with most of them. It’s especially harrowing when compared to the relatively small scope of part one, where the pacing as a result is slower. Which brings me to my second main problem: I can’t stretch enough how complete and drastic the disconnect between part one and part two is. Not just plot-wise, in almost any aspect, including tone and even cast. The entire cast we’ve come to meet in part one is completely kicked to the curb, and a new cast is brought in, that essentially gets no time to develop at all. Not only did I feel robbed of the closure of the first cast, I didn’t feel connected at all with the second cast, which pulled me out of the story entirely.

Part 3: Mostly, my feelings about part three are similar to those about part one, except even stronger. Everything that was built up on part one is completely tossed out of the window. Pacing issues became more blaringly obvious, and I felt like I recognized none of the characters anymore. That includes Rin by the way, who flips like a leaf somewhere between part one and two, and becomes completely unrecognizable. Gone are her rational intelligence, her cunning nature and clear goals. Instead, she seems completely consumed by rash decisions and blind ambition and made choices that seemed completely alien to her character in part one. Now, had this been a proper character-arc, I would have been fine with it. Instead it was literally like flipping a switch, seemingly without lead up… Additionally, part 3 continues that tonal change that happened between part one and three. We basically went from YA to adult grim-dark, brutal and gritty military fantasy. It basically left me with the question for what audience this book was actually intended. I feel like it’s too gritty and too graphic in the latter half to be suitable for a 14- to 15-year old audience. Yet Rin as a character is too immature to work for an adult audience, leaving this book in limbo in between…

I have even more notes on this book than I was able to incorporate into this review, but I think I made my overall point clear. I wanted to love it, but I overall just had way to many problems with it.

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