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Daily Helping for July 4th, 2021 – The Poppy War – RF Kuang

A close up photo of the cover of The Poppy War by RF Kuang.

Have you ever gotten so drawn into a book that time loses all meaning? I have, many times. And every time it’s a magical experience. In fact, I can still vividly remember the first time it happened to me. I was seven years old and the book was Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I started reading it one afternoon, and before I knew what was happening, it was dark outside and my mom was calling me for dinner. Ever since then, I’ve cherished those times when I get completely lost in a book. Those times I’m so thoroughly drawn into a narrative that I lose track of time as I turn page after page. It doesn’t happen with every book, but it happened with The Poppy War by RF Kuang. And let me let you, I’m still not emotionally recovered from the experience.

What’s interesting about this book is that it could almost be considered two books. The first half of the book tells the story of Rin, an orphan from the country who manages to secure a coveted spot at Sinegard Academy in her nation’s capital city. It’s a classic fantasy story that has played out many times before, but that doesn’t mean it’s unoriginal. Kuang populates her world with interesting characters and a fascinating magical system rooted in old gods and shamanic powers. And I greatly enjoyed reading about all of it.

However, at the halfway point of the book the plot takes a rather abrupt and seismic turn. Rin’s homeland, the Nikara Empire, is invaded by the neighbouring Federation of Mugen, and the students at Sinegard suddenly become soldiers in a war. Rin is assigned to the Cike, a division of soldiers who are also shamans, and from there all the horrors of war are fully unleashed. And I truly do mean that. I swear this book almost gave me whiplash from the change of tone and pacing from one half to the next. One minute I was reading about a girl struggling to survive the hell that is effectively high school. The next minute I was reading about a soldier trying to survive the hell that is an ever increasingly brutal war.

And when I say brutal, I do mean brutal. The Poppy War does not shy away from depicting the horrors of war from every angle. Kuang has said that she based this book on the history of 20th century China, and in particular, the events of the Second Sino-Japanese War. For those of you who know your history, you know that there are some particularly horrifying atrocities that happened during that conflict, several of which make their way into the plot of this book. Believe me when I say it’s not easy reading.

Which is why it caught me by surprise when The Poppy War sucked me in so thoroughly. When I picked it up one evening, I was about halfway through and right on the cusp of when the plot takes its turn. Six hours later, it was after 2am when I finally put it down, completely and utterly emotionally spent. Kuang stuffed about four books worth of plot into the second half of The Poppy War, and I couldn’t stop turning the page to see what happened next. Even when what happened next was often horrifying. At one point my eyes hurt from concentrating so hard, and yet I. Couldn’t. Stop. Reading.

The Poppy War is actually the first in a trilogy of books, so I still have a long way to go on Rin’s journey. But I will also be taking a break before diving into the next book. The Poppy War was an exhilarating read, but it was also exhausting. I want to know how the story ends, but I also need some time to emotionally recover before diving back into the horrors of war.

Suggestions for artists I should check out? Please contact me with your ideas. I hope you enjoyed your daily helping of art!