The Second Poppy War between the vast Nikara Empire and the island-bound Federation of Mugen ended in victory for Nikara...just. The cost of victory was high, so the Empire has established an elite military academy at Sinegard. Open to everyone, nobles and commoners alike, the academy is training the next generation of warriors who will defend the Empire. For Rin, a war orphan from the provinces, the academy is her only hope of avoiding her arranged marriage. But the path she sets out on will take her to far stranger places, and in the maelstrom of an unwinnable war involving forces she does not comprehend.
The Poppy War is the debut novel by R.F. Kuang and is an Asian-themed epic fantasy. War, magic and dark forces beyond mortal ken are all present and correct, as are angst, training montages and moral mazes the characters find impossible to travel through without getting blood on their hands and their consciences.
The novel doesn't do anything particularly new, but it does have an interesting arc for the central character of Rin. Normally these kind of stories feature a plucky young hero who is tempted by dark forces but nobly avoids them and wins a great victory for the forces of the light anyway. The Poppy War doesn't do that. It's message is consistently one of choice and consequence: the easy option is always the more costly one, and Rin, being a teenage orphan with no real experience of how the world works, makes pretty much the worst decision at every turn. It's a human and realistic response that moves The Poppy War away from its opening chapters - where it veers a bit too close to every fantasy school drama you've ever read - more towards psychological horror and a bloody-minded war story. Imagine Joe Abercrombie taking over Harry Potter halfway through the series before handing off to R. Scott Bakker for the finale and you may have an idea of the dramatic tonal darkening the novel undergoes on its way to one of the more memorable fantasy finales of recent years.
There's an interesting magic system, based around the summoning of god-spirits into the world, although this is not developed perhaps as fully as it could have been. The worldbuilding is fine on a macro level but on the level of fine detail it is lacking. The best fantasy worlds draw you into them, making you eager to learn more about them, but Nikara and Mugen are drawn in very broad strokes. The modern language (including a fair bit of swearing) and nomenclature are reasonable language choices, but doesn't do much to bring you into the mindset and shoes of the characters. The map, for once, is a hindrance rather than a help as it is drawn with apparently no mind to scale (Nikara is supposedly enormous but the islands of Speer and Mugen - widely separated on the map - are within eyesight of one another) and ends up being more confusing than enlightening.
These elements are negligible compared to the fine character work that's employed, especially as Kuang has very little truck with telling yet another version of the hero's journey. There's also a relentless pace to the novel. In 500 pages it covers more ground than some 2,000-page trilogies, with dramatic shifts in setting, cast and tone as the book proceeds. Compared to fantasy sagas that take a thousand pages to clear their throat, there's something to be said for how quickly and determinedly The Poppy War gets down to business.
The Poppy War (****) is an accomplished fantasy novel, especially for a debut, with an unusually bleak and cynical tone to it that becomes much more pronounced as it continues (to the point where I'm glad the next book I'm reading is the much more positive Space Opera). The characters are interesting and well-developed, but the worldbuilding and magic could be a bit more developed. Hopefully we'll see this in the sequels, as The Poppy War is (as you may have guessed), the opening volume of a trilogy. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.