A Review of The Poppy War

This devastatingly accurate retelling of the Sino-Japanese War reminds Western audiences to remember histories other than their own.


photo by Jess Daninhirsch

The brutal and viscous realities of war stand at the forefront of Kuang’s debut.

Aris Pastor, Staff Writer

Everybody knows that war is ugly. We are given stories like Saving Private Ryan and All Quiet on the Western Front that reveal the scars war leaves behind, and extensive studies on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) reveal the effects on our veterans. However, very rarely do we get to see the direct effects of war. Even now, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, most people are seeing the effects second- or third-hand, through online photos or videos. 

The Poppy War, a novel written by Chinese-American Yale PhD student in East Asian Languages and Literatures and writer Rebecca F. Kuang, follows a fantasy retelling of the Second Sino-Japanese War, which ripped through China from 1937 to 1945. We see the growth of the main character, Fang Runin (Rin), who was built to mirror the historical Chinese ruler Mao Zedong

She grows up in the poor countryside of Nikan, and the book demonstrates the inherent classism and colorism of the country poignantly well. Even though she gets into the prestigious military school Sinegard, Rin is still left behind by everyone in her class and must try frantically to keep up. Her time at Sinegard is an effective introduction to the major themes of the book that carry through the rest of the series—most notably, the conflict between the rich and the poor. 

The beginning also sets up Rin as a memorable and captivating main character, with a vicious and self-destructive determination. Unlike many other main female leads, like Tris from Divergent or Feyre from A Court of Thorns and Roses, Rin is given a motivation and character that avoids the caricature of a “strong female character.”

The first sections of the book also introduce a powerful and well-written magic system based on the Chinese pantheon. Brandon Sanderson, the author of over thirty fantasy and science fiction books, each with complex magic systems, once said, “[C]ost is wonderful, as it makes the magic worth something. It forces the characters to make tough choices, and then it shows real, story-based ramifications.” 

This certainly holds true for The Poppy War. Magic has severe consequences in this world, and it throws into question whether the powers many characters, including Rin, receive is worth the cost.  

Kuang said, “Rin has to give up so much, has to suffer so much, for where she ends up. She self-mutilates. She has a hysterectomy. She puts herself through brutal torture, both mental and physical, to keep her place at Sinegard. Was it worth it?”

War also bears a hefty price in The Poppy War. Even now, with increased knowledge of PTSD and the devastation war creates, stories about it tend to shy away from the horrors. Kuang’s writing is beautiful in its brutality. One of the largest plot points depicts the aftermath of the book’s reflection of the Nanking Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. It describes what author and activist Iris Chang called the “forgotten holocaust” with unambiguous and extensive detail, forcing readers to see what the true price of war is. 

As Kuang said, “It’s never difficult to conceive of inhuman brutality—you just have to open a history book.”

Books about war, even now, have a tendency to highlight the “glory” of war, but Kuang shows, brutally and acutely, that there is no glory on either side of a conflict. 

The book particularly highlights the cycle of violence, especially in two of the main characters—Rin and her mentor, Altan Trengsin. Throughout the book, they both endure trauma after trauma, forcing the reader to sympathize with them, even as they commit atrocities. The Poppy War necessitates that readers confront what is justifiable in a defensive war, existing as a large-scale trolley problem for the readers. How do you justify a genocide? That is the question Kuang aims to answer.

As a person who has only ever lived in the United States, and who has only ever taken history classes largely centered around the United States and Europe, I did not know much about the Second Sino-Japanese War when I began the book. Even when I learned a little bit of Chinese history in the Honors World Cultures class last year, it was still through Western eyes. The most important thing about The Poppy War is that it gives both empathy and a voice to a war that devastated an entire race, a war that most Western audiences know little about, a war that caused lasting political and economic effects that we see in today’s China. 

However, I cannot recommend this book unless I give a strong trigger warning. The savagery of war is not glossed over; it stands at the forefront of the narrative, and readers that are sensitive to such horrors should be careful when approaching the book. 

I believe that this book tells an important and often unknown history, and for those that are prepared, I would highly recommend reading it.