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The Poppy War

Narrated by: Emily Woo Zeller
Series: The Poppy War, Book 1
Length: 18 hrs and 57 mins
4 out of 5 stars (93 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

A powerful epic fantasy novel with roots in the 20th-century history of China.

Opium runs through the heart of the Nikara Empire, a constant reminder of the war with the Federation of Mugen that brought it to the empire’s shores. A war that ended only thanks to three heroes - the Vipress, the Dragon Emperor and the Gatekeeper - known as the Trifecta. They were legendary figures, each bestowed with godlike powers, who united the warlords of the Empire against the Federation.

Decades have passed. The Trifecta is shattered; the Dragon Emperor is dead, the Gatekeeper is missing and the Vipress alone sits on the throne at Sinegard. Peace reigns, yet the poppy remains.

War orphan Fang Runin grew up with it. Her adopted family smuggles it throughout the Rooster province, making a living on the misfortune of those addicted to its smoke. But when Rin’s parents force her into an arranged marriage, Rin refuses to accept her fate and fights her way to the prestigious military academy at Sinegard.

There she will learn of drug-fuelled shamanic powers thought to be myth, powers which might defeat the Federation during its third invasion. But the cost of some power is too great to pay, even if it means winning a war that threatens to destroy an entire nation.

©2018 R. F. Kuang (P)2018 HarperCollins Publishers

Critic Reviews

"A blistering, powerful epic of war and revenge that will captivate you to the bitter end." (Kameron Hurley, author of The Stars Are Legion)

"A thrilling, action-packed fantasy of gods and mythology...The ambitious heroine’s rise from poverty to ruthless military commander makes for a gripping read, and I eagerly await the next installment." (Julie C. Dao, author of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

 "In The Poppy War, R.F. Kuang draws on history and myth to tell a relentlessly unforgiving story of war, vengeance, power and madness, with larger-than-life characters that evoke sympathy and rouse terror. Brace yourself." (Fonda Lee, award-winning author of The Green Bone Saga)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Immersive and brilliant historical fantasy

I absolutely loved this book, I alternated between reading the Kindle copy and the audiobook for my first read and it was a great experience. This is a historical fantasy based on China's complex modern history, particularly the Second Sino-Japanese war and the lead up to the Cultural Revolution. R. F. Kuang majored in International History, with a focus on modern Chinese military history, and it really shows in this book.

The Poppy War reaches the perfect balance between inspiration from historical facts and reinventing a world all its own. If you love anti-heroes and morally ambiguous characters, you will find Rin utterly fascinating. The audio performance by Emily Woo Zeller is also brilliant, I am a long-time fan of her narration and I think her voice is very emotive.

The book does get very dark, especially towards the last third. A lot of the events shown actually parallel real-life horrors, which made it all the more confronting. Content warning for genocide, rapes, murder, torture, human experimentation, self-harm, and a lot of violence. The content never felt gratuitous, but do take note that the last third of book is quite graphic before you read or listen to it.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Incredible!

I am so glad I decided to listen to this book on audiobook instead of physically reading it, because Emily Woo Zeller's performance was phenomenal. She is, without a doubt, one of the best narrators I've heard. Her voices for each character was very distinct and even the male characters genuinely sounded like men.

The Poppy War was a wild ride of a novel, it never lets up and will keep you listening. I found myself doing more and more chores just so I could keep listening. Highly recommend! But also please be aware of the heavy content in this novel (it was inspired by the Nanking Massacre), which includes: genocide, drug use, addiction, racism, self-harm, bullying, abuse, animal cruelty and death, torture, rape (off-page but described in detail), mutilation, graphic depiction of the murder of children and adults, and experimentation on children. Please take care when listening to this book.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Clumsy yet an engaging story

Obviously a first novel - clumsy and heavy handed in many ways, with shallow and inconsistent characterisation. Read like a young adult novel right up to the point that it got traumatically gruesome. I was on the brink of giving up and returning this book many times, yet kept listening to the end so I shouldn't be too harsh. The story was engaging (after a while at least) and some great creative world building.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Excellent story

The scope and narrative is vast, imaginative and well described. An amalgamation of a Chinese Warlord era technology with Taoist and shamanistic mysticism and magic as a back drop to a narrative loosely based on parts of the Opium wars, the colonisation and invasion of China pre and mid WW2. The script of a revitalised, stoic China defeating the hated non-human Japanese will sit well with CCP censorship. But if you can look past the rampant nationalism, it’s a great adventure story and Im looking forward to her next book. Recommended.

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Refreshing read

exceptional storytelling exceptional story. If only it was a longer book. Its refreshing to come across fantasy stories that stray from your normal well trodden path.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Exciting new fantasy world

Akin to Brandon Sanderson's creative magic systems and Wurts and Feist's Daughter of the Empire trilogy. Can't wait for the next one.

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Struggled to finish

A bit cliche. Well used premise. Boring characters. Poor decision making. I made it within 2 minutes of the end. Just a bit too painful.

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Great start, then..drug use, racism & infanticide

I really enjoyed the first part of the book, you can tell the author has a good understanding of what you could broadly describe as Asian philosophy from meditation to martial arts. The use of drugs to reach supernatural powers didn't sit easily with me though and felt a bit naive. The second part started to drag as the story got bogged down in a military drama and siege. The enemy is clearly modelled on the Japanese Empire at the time of the second World war and felt like a racist portrayal. Descriptions of infanticide were the final blow. I'm sure these things happened, but I don't think it makes for good fiction. A good writer can imply a lot that leaves the reader to fill in the blanks. This is where history and fiction should part ways. I'm surprised the book is so highly rated.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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Could have been better..

I felt the over all story was hard to get through, I felt no real connection to the main character as well as the world. While the story started out strong I felt myself getting lost with the characters motive! anyway I hope you enjoyed it better then I did!

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • WongGgn
  • 14-06-2018

Something is Missing

The story began very well with much potential but the immaturity, selfishness and short-sightedness of the protagonist made the story at times rather weary. Her amazing memory and exposure to great teachers only shows that vast amount of knowledge and horrific life changing experience does not guarantee an ability to be far-sighted and wise. Towards the end, I was rooting for someone else.

I will have to hope that the second book will bring about a more mature and reflective heroine. Keeping fingers cross

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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  • Anonymous User
  • 30-05-2019

The Rape of Nanking meets YA fantasy. What?!

The story has some serious tonal issues, going from light YA fantasy to a brutal and visceral recounting of the Rape of Nanking. The narrator really doesn't help these tonal issues. It sounds like she's reading a story to children and it does NOT work. She's not a bad narrator, just not suitable for this book.
I can't say I'd recommend The Poppy War, regardless of narrator issues. The fantasy element is great. The goal of educating people on historical atrocities is commendable. But the combination feels forced and wrong.
Take out the nauseatingly detailed chapter on what happened in Nanking, and you have a much more balanced story. One that maybe I could recommend.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Luce Briggi
  • 04-09-2018

A bloody and intense storyline

This novel is incredibly engaging. I found myself desperate to read it as often as I could, because I was involved by the story Kuang has so vividly rendered.
The storyline might seem a bit predictable at first - orphan goes to a special school, discovers 'uncanny' abilities, yadda yadda - but the way in which Kuang delivers this trope-y story made it seem anything but clichéd.

It might sound daft but one of the aspects that pulled me into this story is that Kuang made me believe in Rin and her tumultuous and often hostile world. The many physical and inner conflicts she faces made me deeply weary. I grew increasingly apprehensive. Kuang does not sugar coat the brutality of war and the inevitable horrors brought by such conflicts. Yet, Kuang’s prose could deliver such beautiful and elegant phrases that I could not find anything she wrote distasteful. Her style would often come across as simple but it is this apparent simplicity that makes Kuang’s words all the more effective. There is a raw almost visceral aspect to her writing that makes it hard not to be affected by what she writes of.
The Poppy War offers plenty of action, tense showdowns, constantly shifting power dynamics, and an arresting storyline....

As much as I loved this book there are a few things that I thought could have been “better” or that I hope can be more developed in the next instalments:

✔The way in which Kung depicts a moving body is simply captivating. I was in awe of her descriptions of combat. Even when during these fighting scenes the “eyes” seem to be a bit overdone (everyone seems to have very arresting eyes, especially those who fight well or are shamans).

✔Rin, this girl, this young woman, frustrated the hell out of me. She is a act first, think later, kind of person. Also, you know how some say that there is no such thing as a stupid question? Well, I disagree, because Rin asks a helluva of stupid questions. And the she is ‘stunned’ or suprised by the unfavourable reactions these often insubordinate questions illicit. She enragers her peers, and her superiors, with her words and her obtuseness. Yet, in spite of my not liking her or her attitude, I still cared for her. Especially since she seems to be treated like a piñata by most of the characters.
And yes, I do mean that she is treated as something that should be bashed about. Her mentors are not upfront enough, pushing her to make stupid decisions. Her friends...well, I don’t think that there is one healthy relationship or friendship in this book. The relationships she has verge on or are of an abusive (physical and non) nature. Given the world Rin lives in it’s hardly surprising that this should be the case….still
The path that she takes feels sadly unavoidable. It's refreshing to read about a female character who longs for power....but the damage caused by Rin's newfound thirst for revenge...well...mmmh...there is no coming back from that.

✖A lot of characters tell Rin the classic “you don’t know what I’ve been through” line. I mean, they are all living through a war, so I don’t think Rin should just let others bemoan their own tragedies, especially since before this new explosion of violence, Rin was already an outcast.

✖The few female characters that make an appearance are all very negative depictions of femininity. They are shrill and or unnecessary mean, especially towards - surprise surprise - Rin. They seemed very “flat”. They were either jealous or callous, treating Rin in a cold or aggressive manner. Hopefully new female characters in the following instalments will change this but…

✖I think the novel would have benefited from having a few more descriptions of the characters’ surroundings. I know it is an action focused novel but a more delineated landscape would have made Rin’s world all the more vivid.

Overall, I recommend this very much to both historical and fantasy fans. If you love the trope of the “tragic hero/ine” whose thirst for revenge and power bring about their own destruction...look no further. Rin is an Anakin Skywalker in the makings...

I know quite a lot of people are worried by the “trigger warnings” but this book is never gratuitously violent. The violence depicted is both brutal and necessary, and because of it, we can better understand Rin and those around her.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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  • richard m.
  • 24-01-2019

Did not enjoy Emily Woo Zeller's narration.

Starts enjoyably, you build an affinity and love for Rin very quickly and you find yourself rooting for her very quickly. It is well written and has you on the edge of your seat in the early parts of the story. Unfortunately by the end Rin has become a thoroughly unmoral, unbalanced and dislikable character and I found myself not really caring what happened to her, I just wanted to get to the end so it was over. No real balance to the book.

I also found the use of expletives unnecessary at times, everyone loves a good expletive but often they felt out of place and not within keeping with the rest of the text. Some of the graphic scenes are also very uncomfortable, it was not really necessary to go into so much detail, (you will know the part when you get there) less is more at times.

My biggest gripe however was with the narration. Many of her male character voices made me laugh out loud they were so awful, think your Mum doing silly voices for the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk when you were 3. Her female voices become so sqweeky and shill at times I had to turn the volume down until she had stopped, literally nails down a blackboard.

Shame as it started so well.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Evi
  • 05-06-2018

Magnificent book!

My words. This was a magnificent read (audio). Fantastic storytelling and the layering of each character is superb. Definitely a YA fantasy book you need to read (listen).

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Mr. Jeremy J. Linnell
  • 20-09-2019

The HunterXHunter of Young Adult

A well narrated adaption of a stunning book. Uses clichés to create false security. Stunning

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Amazon Customer
  • 23-08-2019

Wow!

Based in a China like fantasy world, this story whilst ostensibly a cleverly disguised story is a devastating look at war and the effects of horrific events unfolding around our “hero” and the lengths a person can go to, to have revenge.
Utterly draining in its scope and breath!

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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  • Amazon Customer
  • 14-06-2019

Good but slow

Sadly not as good as I hoped.
There was a lot of good and interesting parts but there was a lot of slow parts to. I liked all the characters, the magic was interesting but a bit confusing, the idea of the story was good and the narrator was good. The thing that lower the overall score is the slow parts, which I think there was too much of.

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Dan Mackney
  • 12-06-2019

Flawless!

A brilliant story, written well with good pacing and a gripping plot. As for the narration I can honestly say this is the best voice acting I've heard so far on audible! Absolutely stunning performance!

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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  • Nadine
  • 13-05-2019

Strong female lead turns whiny girl

Fantasy with Asian influences and a female lead - loved the first half.

Rin, the protagonist, claims a future other than 'wife'. She fights (literally) to be acknowledged for who she is, not where she comes from. She questions authority, she doesn't complain, she doesn't back down - ever. She's amazing! Until she's not...

About halfway through the book, she has a personality transplant: from awesome heroine, to whiny, teenage girl. The focus of the book also decides to shift, to her commander. He is - of course - handsome, moody and so mysterious, I still don't know what to make of him. Neither does Rin, until she's suddenly, inexplicably in love with him.

The narration didn't help. Emily Woo Zeller has an amazing voice when describing scenery, but every other sentence coming out of Rin's mouth sounded like she was about to burst into tears. Not exactly a compelling female role-model.

This wavering in the middle threw me so completely that by the time Rin got her agency back (the end of the book!), I was done. I'm sorry to say that I wouldn't recommend this title to anyone, bu especially not those looking for strong, female protagonists.

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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  • BigDave69
  • 20-11-2018

Not enjoyable

I did not enjoy this book it covered topics such as Genocide, drug addiction, the evil that men do, the end justifies the means, and in my opinion some of the darkest episodes in the book where lingered on for much too long. I found the bad guys were generally 1 dimensional cannon fodder. Female characters were generally unpleasant, particularly towards the main character who is a woman. However the narrator Emily Woo Zeller did very good job.

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Ben in Herefordshire
  • 13-11-2018

Captivating and immersive

A truly captivating tale.
Fantastic characters and plot progression.
I will be counting the days until the next installment.