Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

A book inspired by the history of China in the 20th century, The Poppy War follows a peasant girl, Rin, throughout the novel. She aces the entrance exam for the Empire’s military academy. After entering the academy in the hopes of gaining recognition of the society, she slowly becomes disillusioned by the country’s seemingly meritocratic institution. As an outcast, she is scorned for her skin colour and humble background at the academy. As the story progresses, she discovers her lethal, mystical power gifted by the gods of Nikan and makes tough decisions during the battle against the Federation of Mugen in the Third Poppy War.


“But I don’t want children, Rin thought. I want to stay here. If that procedure could stop her menstruating, if it could help her remain at Sinegard, it was worth it.”

My favourite character is undoubtedly Rin, the heroine of this novel. As a war orphan who grew up in an underprivileged household, Rin demonstrates her strong character through making significant sacrifices to achieve her goals. Even though she lacked the resources to score well in the Keju, she went to great lengths in order to score well in the exam by stealing opium nuggets from the Fangs for paying her tutor. As an ambitious girl living in a world that heavily favored the aristocrats, she made significant sacrifices and risks in order to achieve her goals that were not considered attainable in her society. To illustrate, she chose to cut off her womb to increase her chances of remaining at Sinegard. In some ways Rin is as resilient as a candle, because the flame is like Rin’s achievements whereas the wax is the sacrifices she made throughout her life. Her accomplishments flared brightly and had an impact on those around her. Even though her sacrifices contributed to her success, they were permanent and she would face the consequences for the remainder of her life.

Strengths and Weaknesses

“The destruction possessed a strange artfulness, a sadistic symmetry. Corpses were piled in neat, even rows, forming pyramids of ten, then nine, then eight. Corpses were stacked against the wall. Corpses were placed across the street in tidy lines. Corpses were arranged as far as the eye could see.”

One of the scenes that really stood out to me is when Rin first made the horrifying discovery upon arriving at Golyn Niis, which was the most dramatic period of the novel. The Mugenese army conquered the city and committed atrocious acts of genocide against the Nikara people. They deceived the Nikara armies into thinking they would accept their surrender which caused both soldiers and ordinary citizens alike to surrender like lambs to the slaughter. The abhorrent massacre illustrated that the Nikara were not viewed as human beings. To the Federation, they were as primal as cockroaches. With this twisted ideology embedded in their minds, they justified their torture of citizens in Golyn Niis and the attempt conquest of Nikan.

With an academic background in modern Chinese history, The Poppy War draws inspiration from the history of 19th century China as well as Chinese mythology. This is evident throughout the novel, as many of the violent scenes that take place allude to the bloody history of Japan’s invasion of China in the 19th century. The concept of Shamanism (mortals wielding the power of the gods) is also inspired by ancient Chinese tales of the country’s mythical figures.


The combat master, Jun, revealed the truth of the Nikara bureaucratic system that hid beneath the veneer of meritocracy: “Every year we get someone like you, some country bumpkin who thinks that just because they were good at taking some test they deserve my time and attention. Understand this, southerner. The exam proves nothing. Discipline and competence—those are the only things that matter at this school…That boy may be an ass, but he has the makings of a commander in him. You, on the other hand, are just peasant trash.”

The poor were trapped by the rigid social hierarchy. Widespread nepotism made it difficult for them to advance. They lacked the resources and the necessary connections of the wealthy in order to climb up the social ladder. Aristocrats gained their high-ranking positions in the government through bribery or family inheritance, regardless of their capabilities. Although the Keju was presented as a meritocratic institution, the astronomically high standard of the exam was meant to deter ordinary people who could not afford proper schooling from passing the assessment. The advanced level of the Keju allowed the children of the wealthy to pass the exam, because their families could pay for their tuition. Power was consolidated at the very top of the social pyramid, triggering reverberations that could be felt across different social classes in Nikan.

Calling all fans of military history and Asian history: This novel with its gripping action sequences, allusion to Chinese historical events and culture will fully immerse you in this epic tale.

Trigger warnings: mentions of violence, rape, drug abuse.

Rating: 5/5 stars