Review: The Poppy War, R.F. Kuang

Rating: 4 out of 5

I was brought to R.F. Kuang’s fantasy saga by an article which claimed this was one of the top books of the last decade. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I did enjoy it. It was good to see a (mainstream) fantasy base itself on Chinese history—though it’s my opinion the author went from tragedy to farce. Yet, I carried on with this series by reading Volume 2, and I’ll likely go the whole way.

So… Rin. Rin’s an interesting character: a fairly strong female lead, conscientious and skillful to begin with, but as the plot progresses she regresses. Her overpowering desire is power, and it doesn’t take a librarian to know that that cannot end well. This desire is kept strong despite everyone she knows warning her against it. Yet, small gems also emerge such as Rin’s schooling with Ms Kuang describing only the most relevant parts: in many cases, months or years would be skipped in a few paragraphs if they don’t provide anything of use.

The setting… The review which brought me to this originally said that Chapter 21 was strong because of it reflecting the Rape of Nanking. This was, indeed, one of the most difficult passages to read. Yet, the rest of the setting where Qing China is described as this fantasy-Empire, including examination for public officials and whatnot, feels too much like a copy-paste from the history books.

Not only is there a ‘divine’ Empire, still in touch with its ancestral spirits, but to the east is the land of blood-hungry barbarians, mindless slaves to their Emperor, who wish to kill all of the Imperial population and take it over. To the west is Hesperia, a name as unimaginative as one can imagine, who are… well, they don’t feature much… but they are described as technologically superior and following a ‘One Church’, both their spiritual and technological guide. One really couldn’t make up a world which was closer to the real one in its makeup. I really wish the author would have changed even the basic directions to create her world.

This shortfall of imagination is partially made up by an interesting system of magic which might turn out to be one of the strongest selling points of this series. Yet, this system is strongly linked to opiates and their use, which brings forth another copy-paste historical comparisons to the Opium Wars between Britain and China which feature in the fictional history of this universe as the Poppy Wars.

If the above has put one off reading this, I’d yet be inclined to recommend it. However, this series does regurgitate much of 19th and 20th century history without changing the players or motives, so it may also fall short of more strenuous standards than mine.

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