The Poppy War trilogy by R.F. Kuang | Series recap & review
Looking back at this trilogy, I can be nothing less than astounded that Kuang successfully wrote a series inspired by Chinese history and full of politics (and differing political ideologies), philosophy, theology and commentary on colonialism and western imperialism, amongst everything else, between the ages of nineteen and twenty-four. And became the youngest ever Hugo award-winner in the meantime.
I’ll be recapping all the books, characters and historical influences included in the books (avoiding major spoilers), but if you would like to go straight to my thoughts on The Burning God, scroll down.
Now, if you’re a reader who’s here and hasn’t read The Poppy War yet – please consider reading it immediately. To help you see why you should read this trilogy, here’s a handy list…
Ten reasons to read The Poppy War trilogy
- The Poppy War contains a nuanced antiheroine arc, and Rin’s character has been influenced by real-life historical figure Mao Zedong . . . and Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender.
- The entire trilogy is a loose historical retelling influenced by 20th-century Chinese history. The events of The Poppy War take inspiration from The Rape of Nanjing as well as Unit 731.
- Over the course of the entire trilogy, there is the best enemies-to-rivals-to-friends-to-maybe more-than-that. But also, there’s just really solid friendship all around.
- The Dragon Republic & The Burning God contain aspects which allow the reader to look at the effects of Western imperialism and colonisation from the perspective of the country (and population) being colonised, under a fictional framing.
- GODS! There’s a fascinating pantheon within the worldbuilding of The Poppy War trilogy. Rin is chosen by the Phoenix, which gives her powers of fire, but to connect with her god, she (and most other shamans) will ingest opium.
- The author, R.F. Kuang, previously attended Oxford University and is currently bound for Yale. She recently won a Hugo Award (one of the biggest SFF awards) and wrote The Poppy War . . . when she was nineteen. Reading this book, you feel smart.
- Both The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic were recently placed on TIME’s list of Top 100 Best Fantasy Books Of All Time. Whilst other titles on this list are contestable, these two deserve their places entirely.
- The entire trilogy contains extremely fascinating character relationships and dynamics. Rin and Nezha; Rin and Altan; Rin and Kitay; Rin and Venka; Rin and Su Daji . . .
- It will allow you to make great friends, I promise. Never before have I felt such friendship than when I was crying over the events of one of the three books with someone else (hilariously).
- And finally . . . the series has had a splurge of amazing fanart recently. If it won’t convince you, then I don’t know what will and perhaps you should examine your priorities.
Content warnings for The Poppy War trilogy
Genocide; self-harm; drug use; substance addiction; misogyny; abuse; animal cruelty; rape; death (often graphic); torture; child death; starvation; mutilation; bodily experimentation; gaslighting; suicide; cannibalism (alluded to off-page, committed by background characters). Please note: Although I’ve tried to include everything that I recall, there may be content which I’ve missed.
It is a grimdark military fantasy inspired by real historical events, and Kuang does not shy away from depicting the realities of war. It is a brilliant series, but it is not for everyone due to the sheer darkness of some of the content. Please use caution when reading or considering reading!
Who are the characters?
Now that that’s been laid out, let me talk about our three main players: Rin, Nezha, and Kitay.
FANG RUNIN – Known as Rin, she is the heroine of trilogy. She is a dark-skinned southerner who gains entrance into the famed military academy of Sinegard (book one), where she meets Nezha and Kitay. She is one of the last of the Speerlies who connect with the Phoenix, the god of vengeance and fire. She’s clever but also hotheaded. Also said to be quite short.
YIN NEZHA – The youngest surviving son of the Dragon Warlord, Nezha is beautiful, rich and . . . at the beginning, an asshole. He looks down upon Rin because she is a peasant from the south with skin darker than his own, but they eventually find mutual respect (and more) for each other. He’s been trained all his life to lead and to effectively navigate politics. Also hiding a secret that is revealed in book two (but those readers who love those binary oppositions? Light and dark? Earth and air? Fire and water? You will get that here).
CHEN KITAY – The son of an influential Minister, Kitay is the one singular brain cell of the trio. In fact, he holds the entire brain – he’s incredibly smart, talented in strategy and warfare. He’s also Rin’s best friend, and provides a rational balance to some of her more irrational ideas.
Other characters of note
SU DAJI – The Empress of Nikan, also known as the Vipress. The last member of the legendary shamanic trifecta, she ruled Nikan until civil war crippled her reign. Like Rin, she has a connection to the gods.
JIANG – Rin’s teacher in shamanism, who helps her forge her connection to the Phoenix. Though he acts the fool, he hides a past and a great power.
SRING VENKA – Daughter of aristocrats, she is childhood friends with Nezha. She’s fierce and determined, and although she and Rin initially dislike each other, later narrative events mean they become close confidants.
Where is it set?
The Poppy War trilogy is set in the fictional country of Nikan, inspired by early 20th century China. Once a unified country under the Red Emperor, it has been crippled over the years by internal dissent and external attacks, and is now made up of 12 provinces ruled by 12 warlords. It has been through two Poppy Wars (the fictional equivalent to the Opium Wars). Currently, it is at war with the Mugenese, and the Hesperians (aka the white Europeans) have attempted to colonise it multiple times.
Below you can find small reviews for The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic, as well as my full review for The Burning God. (Note: I will not be discussing the incident of Poppygate at this time, thank you.)
I knew the moment I lay eyes on the premise for The Poppy War back in early 2018 that this book would be excellent. I had a gut feeling and my gut feeling did not lie. From the very first page, I was swept into a tale of a heroine desperately trying to escape her small town, and who gains entrance to the famed military academy of Sinegard when she aces the Keju test. From there, it turns to a school narrative peppered with all the typical tropes: quirky teacher; rivals; hot and well-known but distant male figure . . . and then halfway through it snaps, and becomes a harrowing depiction of war. It shows how easily peace can slide into chaos, and how war can become a wildfire that consumes the country.
Some may say the two halves of the book are dissonant, but I think those who do miss the point: it supposed to be dissonant. There is no way to tidily introduce a war. Wars start, and when they do they change lives. The Poppy War does not hold back either, and the fact that it is all inspired by real life events means the narrative hits even harder. Readers are shown that the most atrocious of crimes were committed against humanity (specifically against the Chinese) during the 20th century and then most were swept tidily under the carpet.
Rin as a heroine is hot-headed and stubborn, determined to do whatever she needs to get ahead. She is not always smart (in fact, there is a remarkable lack of brain cells in this book), but she is fascinating. Her relationship with Kitay is a male-female platonic friendship often lacking in SFF literature, and many readers will love the development of Rin’s relationship with Nezha. The dialogue is sharp and flinty, and the pace a steady flow that never eases. Did I mention I read The Poppy War in around 24 hours? Because I did.
Please note that while these reviews are spoiler-free, there will be spoilers for the previous books in the trilogy.
The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War #2) by R.F. Kuang
For some, The Dragon Republic may be a tougher read than The Poppy War. There is a lot of military warfare within this novel, and as a result for the first 60%, some may find themselves frustrated or bored. But Kuang’s writing ability has developed even further.
The last 40% of the book is excellent, genuinely. The Dragon Republic has some striking themes that continue to parallel history, one of the most notable ones being colonisation and western imperialism. Pale-skinned Hesperians arrive in Nikan, and from the moment they set down, they are enforcing their beliefs on everyone else and insulting the appearance and intelligence of the Nikanese population. It is genuinely an excellent opportunity to see colonialism occurring through the eyes of the ones being colonised, which is a perspective often erased in history but allowed to thrive here under the thin guise of fantasy.
On other aspects: Rin and Nezha will continue to please readers, and others will love the way Rin and Venka turn from rivals into close friends. Solid female relationships were something I felt The Poppy War lacked, and I was glad to see it addressed here. And one thing is for sure: the end of The Dragon Republic contains a shock that will leave readers rushing to read The Burning God.
The Burning God (The Poppy War #3) by R.F. Kuang
I buddy-read The Burning God with my wonderful friend Kelsea!
Dying was easy. Living was so much harder – that was the most important lesson Altan had ever taught her.
Oh, how bittersweet it was to reach the final instalment in this trilogy. The Burning God was one of my most anticipated 2020 releases, and I dove into it full of apprehension. And what a ride it was – heartbreaking, emotional and devastating, all in different ways. Honestly, the dedication for The Burning God reads: “to my dear readers, who stayed with this series until the end and came prepared with a bucket for their tears.” That Rebecca Kuang, what a sense of humour she has, ha ha ha. (You will need tissues, though.)
When The Burning God releases, I have no doubt the thing people will be talking about most is the ending. To be clear, I loved the ending and thought it suited the arc of the trilogy incredibly well. It makes sense given the trilogy’s historical context alongside the narrative development and the character arcs. It also makes sense considering that one of the largest themes of The Burning God is that history moves in circles and that people can so easily be a hero to traitor depending on the way history is written. This complexity, the line between what makes someone’s actions ‘good’ or ‘bad’ during war, is something engaged with here, and I loved that.
Rin has always tread a thin line in this series, and here she starts to take bolder steps off into more uncertain territories. She nurtures her anger and rage and uses it as fuel. She’s been hurt and betrayed, and she sees her country being taken advantage of by aristocrats and foreign parasites, so she does what she’s always done: fights back.
Hate was a funny thing. It gnawed at her insides like poison. […] Hate was its own kind of fire and if you had nothing else, it kept you warm.
As a result, it will be up to readers to interpret her actions and decide whether they are good, bad, or ‘for the greater good’. Some readers will lean more lenient, others more harshly. And that is the entire point of the novel and the series.
“I am the force of creation […] I am the end and the beginning. The world is a painting and I hold the brush. I am a god.”
Readers of the trilogy will be very aware of the way things left off between Rin and Nezha, and though it takes a little while for them to meet again . . . when they do, it is intense and impactful. One of the questions readers are given to chew on throughout this book is ‘who is on the right side – Rin or Nezha?’ It is hard to tell, and that is exactly how it often is during situations such as this. No clear good, no clear bad. Those clear binary oppositions are ones for the books, not for real life and certainly not for the historically-influenced The Poppy War trilogy.
They stood close enough now that she could make out every detail on his lovely, wretched, cracked-porcelain face. His expression twisted as he met her eyes – not in fear, but in wary, exhausted sorrow.
As for those who do ship Rinezha . . . this series has never been about romance, but there is content there that many will find satisfying. But once again, this series has never been a conventional fantasy and Rinezha was never meant to be a conventional romance that followed the same steps as other fantasy romances. I think many readers are aware of this, and so know what to expect going into The Burning God, as well as what not to expect.
“You should have killed me,” she said at last.
He gave her a long look […] “But I never wanted you dead.”
The other significant relationship within the novel is Rin’s relationship with Kitay, who, in The Dragon Republic, became Rin’s anchor. Kitay has always been the cinnamon roll of the series, and the character least corrupted by power. And because of that, it is very interesting to watch the push and pull of Rin and Kitay, whose own personal ideologies are pulling them further apart, but who nevertheless retain a deep sense of loyalty to each other. It is something I love about the series, seeing such a focus on friendships when usually they get pushed aside for romances.
Take what you want […] I’ll hate for you it, but I’ll love you forever. I can’t help but love you. Ruin me, ruin us, and I’ll let you.
There were some issues, however. One criticism I have of The Burning God (and sometimes the series as a whole) is that some events lack depth, or seem to be ‘wrapped up’ very quickly and then the plot moves on without really examining and considering the impact and meaning of the event. It was a bit like ‘ok cool moving on’ – there was one event in The Burning God where this was really evident, and it felt strangely insignificant despite being a really significant event, to the point where I actually thought it was a red herring of some kind.
Within the series, I would have liked to see more relationships between women. The lack was addressed in book two, but besides Venka, Rin has little to no consistent ties with female characters. The series is very male-dominated, and you feel the effects of that – Rin struggles because she is a southerner and a woman on top of that, and people dismiss her because of this. You see this with Su Daji too, arguably the most powerful female character in the series. In the face of another male character (who is equally powerful), she is powerless both physically and mentally. And with Su Daji especially, you can look into that and examine how anyone can be vulnerable to toxic relations and gaslighting, even a woman perceived as powerful. So yes, whilst I wish there had been more female friendships, I did like the way the series (sort of) looked into the role of women in the traditionally male-dominated space of warfare.
Also, for The Burning God specifically, I would have liked to see more clarification in Rin’s past. It is put out there and heavily hinted at, but never explicitly confirmed? Similarly, I would have liked to see more of who Hanalei was, and Tearza too. These two women are influential in the background of The Poppy War series, but they still feel like such a mystery. Just the entire clarification around events before the series was a bit murky.
Furthermore, a smaller thing I was hoping to see clarified was Rin’s sexuality – Kuang has stated in an Instagram Live that she sees Rin as bisexual, but there is a lack of in-book evidence to solidly support it, and the scenes that do support it are very interpretive. In The Burning God, there isn’t any further clarification (although Kuang has said there was a Rin x Venka scene which was cut, but would’ve added clarity to Rin being bi.) But as I’ve said above, The Poppy War trilogy was never about romance – even though it is always nice to see clear LGBTQ+ rep.
Bar a few minor problems with the impact of major narrative events and the fog veiling the past still not being entirely lifted, The Burning God is a wonderful finale to an award-winning trilogy. And Kuang’s next project, which disseminates the themes of the dark academia genre and structures of (white) power seen in celebrated educational institutions, is going to be another jewel in what is shaping up to be a lofty crown. You can read more about what she’s currently calling the ‘Oxbridge dark academia novel’ here (the entire interview is a very worthy read).
If you liked The Poppy War trilogy you may also enjoy . . .
Nevernight (Nevernight Chronicle #1) by Jay Kristoff
Jade City (The Green Bone Saga #1) by Fonda Lee
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro (Chronicles of the Bitch Queen #1) by K.S. Villoso
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