R.F. Kuang, The Poppy War, Harper Voyager, 2018.
The Poppy War is the first volume in a trilogy of fantasy novels. I was immediately drawn to this world and the main character, but the second part of the book wasn't what I expected.
Rin is a war orphan. She's fostered at a family who exploit her and intend to marry her for their gain. To save herself, she studies to pass the test of the prestigious Sinegard academy and she succeeds. At Sinegard, she remains the odd one out, surrounded by students who all come from a privileged background and she has to go beyond what is expected to earn her place.
But war is looming.
The first part of the book is focused on Rin at Sinegard, and I enjoyed it so much that I devoured it. Despite not being a fan of teenage characters, I felt a real empathy for Rin who has to fight against privileges and stereotypes.
I should have seen where it was going: Sinegard is a military academy and war is looming, so the second part veers dramatically into military fantasy and grimdark. If you are familiar with this blog, you know that these genres aren't my cup of tea, and, to put it frankly, there's only a certain amount of dismembered people that I can bear in the fiction I read.
Nonetheless, I kept on reading (though, I have to admit, at a slower pace) because the great strength of The Poppy War is in the characters. I particularly enjoyed that Rin wasn't a perfect character. Nonetheless, in the second part of the novel I kept groaning as she keeps making stupid decisions. But, overall, I wanted to see where she was going.
The secondary characters and their relationship to Rin were also quite interesting and I particularly enjoyed how Kuang wrote the divide between privileged and unprivileged characters and how it influences their role in the war. But some had my attention more than others.
Kuang wrote a complex world, complete with gods and creatures. This is another aspect that kept me going because it plays an important part in the human plot. You can feel that this first volume is really about Rin becoming, and the gods play their part in that. I think this will be developed further in the following volumes, and, to be honest, this is what I'm most interested in.
I was unsettled by the shift in tone and I've found the character development to be sometimes awkward. But the first part is so strong that it makes me want to read the following volume. I would heartily recommend it to any grimdark or military fantasy reader. But if these genres aren't your cup of tea, then you may want to wait until the trilogy is complete to see if the story remains in those waters or if it moves from there.
Nonetheless, Kuang is a very impressive writer and I look forward to reading more from her.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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