Book Review: The Poppy War

This is the third time I’ve read The Poppy War and it gets better and better every time. And more devastating. It is rare to find a book that manages to pull off such vivid military depiction alongside characters that make you feel all kinds of emotions. What starts as a young girl pulling herself out of a miserable life ends with explosive power and all kinds of questions around ethics and morality. War changes people, and we see it happen at its most horrifying through the eyes of Fang Runin.

Star rating: 5 stars

Fang Runin, known commonly as Rin, is about to be married to a man old enough to be her father when she desperately tries to get out by testing into the most prestigious military academy in the whole of Nikan. She works harder than most people could even imagine, brute forcing her way to a top score only to turn up at Sinegard academy and realise her journey is only just beginning. Rin is not safe yet. She has to navigate the judgement and hatred of the elite, the majority of whom resent her presence. Bullied by students and teachers alike, Rin pushes herself to success through sheer determination, but with war on the horizon, the pettiness at the academy is nothing compared to the horrors that are to come.

This is definitely still a book of two halves for me. The first focusses on Rin’s development and her time at the academy. Her competitiveness and sheer force of will get her through and eventually her unique perspective catches the eyes of the academy Masters, not least Master Jiang, an eccentric who never showed up to teach class. Through Jiang’s instruction, Rin not only becomes physically stronger but learns there is much more to the world around her than she could have imagined. She is the only student to understand this, and has nobody but Jiang to explore it with. Rin’s time at the academy explores class issues and colourism, with Rin often isolated from the other students. Her one friend, Kitay, is a light in her life but her friendship with him does everything to highlight their differences and inequalities.

The second half of the book brings in the real world military events into Rin’s life. Forced to become a soldier too soon, her classmates are now not rivals but a team, even Nezha, the leader of her previous tormentors. Allocated to their new roles, the Sinegard students are separated, and Rin’s character progression really begins to take off. It is an electric conclusion to a first book, with more horrors than I’ve ever read about before. It’s even more sickening when you realise so much of that horror is routed in history that happened for real. It is rare that I’ve been so invested in a protagonist’s journey and Rin’s is one that can only end in heartbreak.

Overall, The Poppy War is a book that will always stand out as one of the best I’ve read. It is not happy. It does not have a romantic ending. There is only devastation in its path. But you will come out of it having had so many questions and so many observations, and possibly many, many tears.

Have you read The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang? This time I’ve been reading it alongside my sister and her friend, but I skipped ahead because I couldn’t put it down.

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