Spotlight: The Poppy War series by R. F. Kuang

This breathtaking art is by Jung Shan Chang

R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War was not a book I would have expected to pop in my radar – but if anything, discovering it seemed like fate.

The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic – A discovery and a journey

Back in spring 2019, I was looking for a textbook in the university bookstore and like usual, I’d made a detour to the Fantasy section – and there it was. A paperback of The Poppy War, its fiery cover calling for me to read it. So, I did.

It had all the things I loved – the military school format of Nevernight, an intriguing magic system derived from hallucinogenic drug abuse and vicious gods, masterful world-building and a protagonist down to an unspeakably dark character arc.

Rin was the protagonist I never knew I needed to hop on this journey with. While her desperation, perseverance, and determination were compelling to read, it was the darkness in her heart and the process of its amplification that truly mesmerized me. She goes to unspeakable lengths to protect what she cares about, but at a terrible cost to her humanity.

It was a brutal read, and I had eaten it all up in one go. A morbid fascination came over me, as I learnt the source material of the events of the book. Based on the Second Sino-Japanese war covering some of the worst crimes in humanity, The Poppy War reached for a topic many in my family and other Chinese-heritage families dare not speak about. The consequences of these crimes takes root during the horrific third act of The Poppy War, and paved the way to explore the horrors of war and its rippling effects in depth – particularly dehumanization and fury. The characters’ pain and fury coloured their decisions and while they were appalling, they were perfectly understandable. I was left with both sorrow for what Rin had become and how she had been broken trying to reconcile her seemingly impossible decisions, and a longing to witness her journey through and through.

And just like that, I was in love.

The Dragon Republic elevated all these feelings as I read more of how the guilt, regret, pain, and rage drove Rin to even darker depths as the world-building expanded dramatically and the stakes were further driven off the charts. I was drawn into the heightened political intrigue and the vicious decisions that colour the narrative in the second installment. The climax brought magnified doses of ferocity I had come to expect from a Poppy War book, and its shattering conclusion left me hungry for the finale of this trilogy.

The Burning God – Concluding an enthralling series

The Burning God is about release soon on 17 November 2020 – and I have absolutely no idea how it is going to end, but if there’s anything I know it’s that the ending would be equally painful as its previous books have been. I know reading The Burning God won’t be easy considering the grisly trajectory Rin’s story has been embarking on; and also considering the fact that the series has had historical parallels with the War of Resistance and the Chinese Civil War. These considerations make way for this question: Were the sacrifices and losses suffered throughout the series (and by analogy, Chinese history) justified? While it would be difficult to close out the trilogy with a satisfactory answer to said question, Kuang has never been for easy answers. Therefore one thing I can be assured about is that The Burning God will be as much as a deeply introspective book as much as it would be a searing, tense epic driving adrenaline levels off the charts.

Gorgeous cover arts by Jung Shan Chang and design by Dominic Forbes.

Telling these grim and brutal stories with flair, heart, and sensitivity is no easy feat, and R.F. Kuang’s masterful prose had accomplished exactly that. I have no doubt this series will end on a high note. I will, however, miss this series terribly once it’s over. I wholeheartedly recommend picking up The Poppy War as this series’s gripping narrative would draw you in and not let go until its conclusion. Kuang deserves the triumphant hype The Poppy War series has gotten. Whatever she does next (I know there’s a rumoured dark academia Oxford book in the works….), I’m sure it would be ready to collect even more praise.

Unflinchingly fierce in its searing execution, The Poppy War series has been a dark gem worthy of its acclaimed reputation.

You can now pre-order The Burning God before it releases on 17 November 2020 in Amazon, BookDepository, or your nearest book retailer!

2 Replies to “Spotlight: The Poppy War series by R. F. Kuang”

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