“This was chaos, but chaos was where she thrived…”-The Burning God by R.F. Kuang
The Poppy War trilogy by R. F. Kuang has been highly acclaimed among readers for years. The first book, entitled The Poppy War, was Kuang’s debut novel in 2018, and since then, she has become a literary force to be reckoned with, more recently publishing books Babel and Yellowface.
In writing this trilogy, Kuang was heavily inspired by real historical events from Chinese, Japanese, and European history. She shares that learning of the Nanjing Massacre of 1930, during which Japanese soldiers brutally ravaged a Chinese city, compelled her in writing this first novel as a way to grapple with the information. To read more about Kuang and her comments on this trilogy, check out this profile from NPR.
For years, this trilogy has been on my radar, but it wasn’t until the end of 2022 that I was ready to crack it open and explore what this story had to offer–and I was not disappointed.
What follows here are my concise reviews of each installment and then my overall review of the trilogy as a whole. I have refrained from including spoilers so that this review is accessible to those who have yet to read The Poppy War. Because the summaries of the second and third books would potentially spoil the contents of the first book, I have only included the summary of the first.
I hope you enjoy!
#1 The Poppy War
- Fang Ruinin “Rin”
- Yin Nezha
- Chen Kitay
- Master Jiang
- Altan Tresgen
Just a mere peasant girl from the south, Rin discovers she is to be traded off by her foster parents to a middle-aged husband. Her only means to take control of her own destiny is through taking an exam that could potentially land her a free ride to a school in Sinegard, where only the nation’s brightest students are admitted to prepare for military careers. Through tireless dedication, Rin makes it into the school and avoids the prospect of an unwanted marriage, but this is not where her challenges end. Immediately, her peers and teachers make it clear that Rin does not belong at the school, for she is not from a family of high regard nor has she underwent the lifelong training that her classmates have. Clearly, she has her work cut out from her if she ever wishes to ascend to power in the military as her nation is on the cusp of war…
- This book begins in the most unassuming way: with a girl studying to take a test. But by the end… whewww.
- The characters arc in this are incredible. Throughout the story, multiple characters grow and change, and especially break as the monstrosities of war become painfully real.
- Rin makes mistakes, and she does not always take the noble path; it is stressful to watch her waver and to choose what feels like the wrong path.
- The supporting characters are engaging and different from one another.
- Details mentioned generally come back to play a role once again, so there is good payoff within the world-building.
- On the topic of world-building, the lands feel well fleshed out without the narration being too heavy-handed in terms of description or background information. The reader is told only what is necessary to have a foundational understanding of the world, and exposition is spread out and relayed through natural avenues.
- The action and war strategy are compelling.
- The novel slowly builds towards its eventual climax, which is extreme and history-altering.
- 5/5 stars
#2 The Dragon Republic
- Even though Rin had a huge character arc in the first book during her foray with newfound power, Rin’s character arc continues to go through cycles in this sequel; her failures and successes in her internal growth feels like a natural extension and their own well-contained saga.
- This sequel does contain a hero-loses-their-power trope, but I think it was necessary and forced Rin to go through strife she otherwise would have been too over-powered to immediately overcome them.
- Clever. It contemplates the perils and perpetual nature of war, while revealing a fascinating yet not unbelievable twist of the real enemies’ identities.
- The ending had me hyped!
- 5/5 stars
#3 The Burning God
- This one, especially near the beginning, contains much more reflection, which is a little different for the tone of the book but is intuitive for the most senior text in this trilogy, as the characters have been through a great deal and have more experience behind them to glean insight and wisdom from.
- This book definitely feels more mature and somber than the others.
- Rin also has much more success in this book which is well-earned but almost… weird.
- The ending seemed necessary but it was not altogether satisfying for me.
- 4/5 stars
My Review of The Poppy War Trilogy as a Whole
The Poppy War trilogy is a truly engrossing chronicle. Each book, while a natural continuation of the previous installment, contains its own set of challenges and plotted obstacles. The worldbuilding is extensive and intricate, and the characters, including the supporting cast, are robustly developed. The fantastical and historical elements of this trilogy marry well together, creating a dynamic reading experience.
Its main protagonist, Rin, undergoes successes and failures and exhibits a substantial character arc in each of the three books. She remains the sole focus of the series even when other big characters are introduced, and she doesn’t become boring or overpowered, nor is she the product of uncanny luck or convenience. Although she is noteworthy for her heritage and her unique abilities, she is tirelessly dedicated to improving her skills and faces her fair share of losses; she is not the object of some vague prophecy, so her trajectory feels earned. Rather than being a passive agent of destiny and external forces, Rin is an active protagonist who furthers her own fate, as well as the fate of her nation. Nor does she arrive at some quintessential point of development early on; throughout all three books, she changes.
Moreover, Rin is a morally gray character, and although I was rooting for her throughout the trilogy, I was also very aware of her ethically ambiguous attitudes and shortcomings. Rather than stand unwavering in her hard-held beliefs throughout the entirety of the saga, she is shaped by the war around her and the experiences she undergoes. At times, I even wondered, “Is Rin the bad guy here?” Even so, seeing this war through the lens of her experiences, I felt vindicated in her actions; although flawed, it was satisfying for her to wreak violence and avenge her comrades.
A large portion of this trilogy revolves around an axis of war. Although personally, I have little regard for war nor do I consider myself interested in the strategies of war, I was very engaged by these qualities in The Poppy War. The strategy felt intellectually stimulating, and the battle scenes were vivid in my imagination. The violence was not over-indulgent, though; graphic though some scenes were, it was not violence for the sake of violence, but intentional in painting its realities. The most gruesome war zones were employed with meaning and purpose, and injuries were not excessively detailed.
One of the starkest themes of this trilogy is the nuanced atrocities of war. And while this theme is clear, Kuang also offers no sweeping judgments or solutions. The people and nations at play have layered relationships, so to say that this series professes “War is bad” is an oversimplification. Yes, war is harmful and perpetuates generations of trauma, strife, and poverty. Yes, the enemy in battle is a human being with a full history of life experience. But when a nation is under attack, more than words are necessary to defend one’s provinces. How should we proceed? Other themes appearing throughout the series is the sexist treatment of women in society and in war, and the colorist attitudes of individuals who associate darker skin with inferiority and poverty.
Perhaps the aspect of this trilogy that left me most lukewarm was the conclusion. While the ending felt in many ways inevitable, it also left open countless plot strands and felt a bit unsatisfactory. True, it would be unbelievable (and almost disrespectful to the reader) to neatly and conveniently untangle the messy webs Kuang wove throughout this trilogy, but still, the ending felt abrupt and a tad disappointing.
Although I’ve only been delving into the fantasy genre here and there the past six months, I found this trilogy fairly easy to follow along with. At the beginning of each book is a map of Nikan, helpful for consulting when the narrator recounts the characters’ travels. During the first book, I also kept a list of character names to help orient myself, but in the second and third books, character lists were provided for the reader at the end of the book.
As a trilogy, The Poppy War is, more than anything, strong. It is compelling and epic, and it is emotional and true. This is a must-read for fantasy lovers!