The war of poppies: the review

The war of poppies: the review
The War of Poppies is a Fantasy novel by Rebecca F. Kuang, a Sino-American author who made her debut with this novel in 2018. In Italy The Poppy War (Harper Voyager, 2018) arrived on 13 October 2020 published by Mondadori. The war of the poppies is the first volume of a trilogy: the next two volumes, The dragon republic (Harper Voyager, 2019) and The burning god (Harper Voyager, 2020) are still unpublished in Italian.

Fang Runin, known as Rin, is a war orphan adopted by a family of opium smugglers, an illegal substance from the so-called War of the Poppies. When she discovers she is destined to marry a customs officer, Rin decides to try her luck with the Kējŭ, the exam to enter the most prestigious military academy in the Empire: Sinegard, but when she manages to gain access she finds that the difficult part is to be accepted by the other students, all children of the best Nikan families.

Fang Runin: woman, warrior, weapon, Goddess

A girl who knows nothing about the world, but out of desperation she discovers that she has the determination to leave her village and that she is ready for practically anything to maintain the acquired privilege, this is what we face when we look at Rin. She is determined, hard enough with herself to earn her freedom through study. She comes out of the canons of the beautiful-and-intelligent, because for her studying is fatigue and burns on the skin to keep herself awake while she studies.

At Sinegard Rin will discover what is hidden from many: that it is possible to fight not only with weapons, but with the powers of the Gods through shamanism, an ancient way of meditation that allows you to communicate with the Pantheon , inhabited by sixty-four different deities. Her path, therefore, begins to diverge drastically from that of her companions, leading her into a world that hides more secrets than it seems and making her a fearsome warrior.

An orphan at the school of war

The story is inspired by a plot already seen, but makes it new by inserting elements that are not normally dealt with in children's novels. A little Ender's Game and a little The Novel of the Three Kingdoms (from which there are very explicit quotes), the Academy is a den of brilliant minds competing for a few important positions. The rivalries between students, as well as the tournaments organized with the blessings of the teachers, make this school a little different from the ones we are used to. The whole feel-good and protective part towards the students is missing, and it is really a training to the death.

The supernatural aspect, because I wouldn't talk about religion, is a bit unexpected and gives a different sense of depth from the usual to meditation and more spiritual practices to which the East is linked and of which it tells in its fantastic. Martial practices are described as a derivation of form that sounds 'out of time' when talking about an alleged mythological past. It is the kind of 'derived form' that modern martial arts have, more beautiful than useful. This on the one hand gives a very realistic tone to the setting, very lived, and on the other it surprises while remaining in a very familiar theme to fans of the genre.

The characters

The Nikan Empire is recovering from a devastating war. Adults still remember the horrors and hardships of war, while young people are clearly divided between the very rich and the very poor, with no middle ground between the working class and the children of nobles. The clash at the Academy, when the protagonist discovers that she still has to earn respect that perhaps will never come, it is clear. Rin, so she is our yardstick on everyone, and she seems to have the necessary clarity to distinguish the good from the bad.

Nezha, the young scion who opposes her, is a character classic. We like to imagine him blond and with an upturned nose, while talking about purity of blood and being worthy. The best part of Nezha, however, is her growth over the course of the book.

Conversely, Kitay, also wealthy but kinder in nature, often reveals Rin's conscience as well as a good friend. The young woman, in fact, suffers from a particular kind of indifference to the pain of others which is a bit unsettling until its roots are discovered.

A devastating war

In the second part of the novel the tone changes drastically: young people who quarreled during training become soldiers and take part in the horror of war. In this part, Kuang reveals the more gory side of her novel, which at first seemed almost a Young Adult. The exploding heads from a certain point onwards remind us that no, it is not a novel for children, and the same thing goes for the protagonist's 'moral' choices, all wrong according to the classic canons but perfectly in line with the story of revenge and genocide that is told.

In the war of the poppies Altan Trengsin is the personification of this aspect: the last survivor of an extinct race, what he seeks is revenge, a vengeance without borders and without limits, with a crazy project worthy of a villain at the height of his career. To see the world burned, when one's people have already been incinerated, seems all in all acceptable.


The war of the papaver i shows the contrast between an Empire made of order and justice and the brutality of people who have nothing more to lose is typical of oriental tales. This is the case of the Mugen Federation, squeezed on an overpopulated islet, with the resentment of two wars behind it, which decides to conquer the Nikan Empire at any price and by any means. The whole novel focuses on this balance, and on the choice between these two opposites.

The balance and peace represented by the beautiful Empress Su Daji, heroine of her people, are opposed to the bloodlust that guides the Federation in choosing its leader, a fiery young man who immediately begins the war that everyone was waiting for. Similarly, the calmness of Rin's demagoguery teacher Jiang contrasts with the world she seems to have lost, the world of war represented by the fiery combat teacher Jun.

The author

Rebecca F. Kuang is a young Chinese-American author (born in 1996). Arrived in America at the age of four, in her debut novel, The poppy war, she interpreted the history of China in the twentieth century in a Fantasy key, with particular attention to the second Sino-Japanese war, which took place before and during the Second World War. It is not difficult to see Japan on the island of the Mugen Federation, and the brutality of the war stories is intended, as specified by the author herself, as a point of historical accuracy.

The poppy war (The poppy war) is the first volume of a trilogy that also includes The dragon republic (2019) and The burning god, released this November 17th and still unpublished in Italian. The peculiarity is that The War of the Poppies reached the general public in 2018, making Rebecca F. Kuang one of the youngest successful Fantasy authors in the world: she was only nineteen years old.

Read also: The Grace of Kings: Review of the new Chinese Fantasy


The War of the Poppies is a good Fantasy. Having become famous for its raw and dramatic component (it has been called 'grim' Fantasy), it takes up the spectacularity of Wuxia and blends it with the historical dramas of war and genocide. It all blends in coherently with the point of view of a young woman who was not prepared - as no one can be - for the horrors of war. The volume is proposed in a beautiful edition dominated by black and white with orange points that will acquire meaning and value during the reading. A beautiful novel in a studied detail.

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