THE POPPY WAR / R.F. Kuang

Rin is a war orphan. She is fostered with shopkeepers who secretly deal opium and who plan to marry her off to make a better life for themselves, without consideration for Rin’s happiness. To make her own way in the world, Rin will go to any lengths to get to one of the academies, where students are trained in the arts of war, strategy, diplomacy, and lore. This type of set up is nothing new to fantasy fiction. Indeed, while the book’s opening feels fresh and new, the academy section began to feel a little too fantasy-familiar (poor lead with natural talent comes up against rich rival, finds odd mentor). However, Kuang and the book quickly find their feet again, as it delves further into Rin’s training with loremaster Jiang. The book becomes even more interesting and powerful as it moves into the sections dedicated to a new war. The post-academy parts of the book get very dark, and Kuang does a wonderful job looking at the horrors of war, philosophy/religion, and feelings of helplessness, betrayal, and rage. One impressive thing about the book is that rather than the vaguely medieval-European feel of a great deal of fantasy fiction, Kuang uses Asian mythology and Chinese history as the groundwork to build her novel on. The shadings of real world events spread through the book only help to heighten the drama. The ending goes somewhere unexpected, and Kuang does a superb job building tension and anticipation for the second book in her series.     Michael 10/12/2018

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