Rage and Revenge: A Review of The Poppy War by RF Kuang

Lila Alonso Limongi ’26 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer 

Spoilers ahead.

Honestly, this is all kind of my roommate Olivia’s fault. In one of our very loud, very enthusiastic conversations about books, I exploded into a retelling of the entire first book of The Poppy War Series, by RF Kuang. Olivia’s jaw dropped, but she still retained a sliver of a smile. A writer herself, Olivia is my highest Book Authority, and what she says goes. That reaction went a long way. 

So my course of action was clear. I had to reread it.

The reread proved that the Olivia Summary had been based on loosely remembered memories of when I first read The Poppy War, in 2022. It was largely correct, but was missing some key details. This is probably due to the fact that I not only have terrible memory, but I first read this book at a very weird point in my life — during my first proper break up.

The First Love Break Up is that very sad and no good event that you want to run far away from. However, it is, for most people, unavoidable. And, in my case, filled me not only with the meanest strain of depression I had ever experienced — this was pandemic times, guys, things were not looking up for Lila — but also with rage.

I guess that’s why I became such a big fan of The Poppy War. The book is, to put it very simply, about rage. It follows Rin, who lives in the poorest part of the fictional country of Nikan. Motivated by the threat of forced marriage, she studies as hard as possible for the Kaiju. The nation-wide test gives her entry into Nikan’s most prestigious military academy, Sinegard. There, she’s poorly treated by her richer classmates, and is thrust into lessons about gods and shamanism with a mysterious teacher. 

At this point, experienced and inexperienced fantasy readers alike are on the lookout for a familiar formula: the magic school. Rin’s journey seems straightforward: she’ll spend the rest of the book at Sinegard, where she will grow more powerful, find out more about her magic and eventually earn the sympathies of her fellow classmates. But Kuang is set on something else.

In a masterful twist, which relies on her readers familiarities with the traditional magical boarding school trope, Kuang weaves a web of intrigue throughout Rin’s stay at Sinegard. In the first part of the book, the specter of the First Poppy War against the island nation of Mugen looms. The students learn the Mugini language, discuss battles lost and train in physical combat. And just when you think you know where you’re going, and the characters themselves feel safe and secure — war with Mugen begins. 

The rest of the book and, in a way, the series, follows this war. Soon after the Mugini attack Sinegard, Rin communes with her god to an otherworldly extent. This leads her to find out she is a Speerly. The Speerlies are a people whose connection with their phoenix god is total — but they were wiped out by the Mugini during the First Poppy War. Rin and her classmate, Altan, are the only ones left.

As the book continues, Rin is faced again and again with other cruelties of the Mugini. She sees the strength of the Nikan and believes they will win the war, but that becomes less and less likely. They eventually lose their wartime capital, Golyn Niis, and the city and its inhabitants are destroyed. The Nikan are killed en masse.

Rin is angry.

For most of the book, she cannot get in touch with her god, which makes her seethe. She finds she is helpless against an enemy who thinks her people are less than human. She witnesses unspeakable acts of cruelty against the Nikan. She and Altan are captured and experimented on by the Mugini. She watches her classmates, with whom she had troubled relationships, be captured, killed, raped and tortured. She is enraged.

Rin’s rage is absolute. It consumes the book, threatening to burst off the page. Rin comes to hate the Mugini. And yet, the seeds for what happens at the end of the book are planted neatly and slightly. At first, Rin has issues with Altan — he treats her poorly when she cannot commune with her god and bring out the literal fire that the Phoenix endows her followers with. But soon, she is all in on his methods. He tortures a Mugini prisoner, and she watches. He wants to free shamans of the past that have gone rogue, and she follows him to their prison. He is addicted to opium, smoking every day to silence the Phoenix’s voice, and she joins him.

At the end of the book, running from the Mugini and leaving Altan to immolate himself, Rin swims desperately for the destroyed island of Speer. There, she finds a temple and communes with the Phoenix, who grants her a boon: the total annihilation of the Mugini.

Rin erupts the volcano that makes up the archipelago and kills every person on the islands.

In the last chapter of the book, watching the cloud of smoke over the faraway isles, Rin muses that she did the right thing. After all, the Mugini were inhuman monsters. Her friend Kitay counters: isn’t that what the Mugini thought about them

The Poppy War, in essence, is a book about revenge and rage. Rin’s rage consumes her each day more as the book progresses. Every major event only makes her madder and madder. The genocide of her people, the Speerlies, and the fact she never knew them, fuels her. As do the atrocities the Mugini committed against the Nikan. And she is right to be mad.

Although the book is, of course, fictional, with all its talks of phoenixes and gods, most of what’s in the text is based on real history. It’s very clear that Mugen is an analogy for Japan, and Nikan to China. The “Poppy Wars” also actually happened — there were two Sino-Japanese Wars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And the scale of destruction was similar to what’s described by Kuang. 

The infamous Rape of Nanjing happened during the second of these wars. The war crimes committed by Japanese soldiers against Chinese civilians were horrific and it is among the most awful of human atrocities. In The Poppy War, Golyn Niis stands as an allegory for Nanjing. In a heartbreaking chapter, Kuang details what happened to the inhabitants of this fictional city — and, in a note at the end of the book, she assures us the atrocities are very much based in reality.

The Poppy War, then, takes us to an extreme: if what the Mugini did was so terrible, so inhumane and so cruel, what would happen if someone, armed with superhuman power, were to take their revenge? This is what Rin does. She replies in the same currency, and commits genocide. Kuang’s point, of course, is not that Rin was right to do so. But it’s also not that Rin’s anger was misplaced. 

In a timely critique, Kuang shows us the limits of revenge. It is not, she seems to say, justice. What Rin did was just as inhumane as what the Mugini did to the Speerlies, and none of those actions are justifiable. But Rin’s rage, which consumes the book and the rest of the series, is. It comes from the injustices she and her people suffered. However, as we soon come to see, her anger becomes misplaced and misused as Rin continues to spiral down into anger and commit other atrocities.

But Kuang’s work is not merely a portrait of individual rage. It paints a picture of systemic injustice and the collective anger that arises from it. Rin is simply there to better communicate this message. Kuang’s The Poppy War, as well as her following books, especially Babel, are rife commentary on empire and its machinations. If in Babel Kuang tackles language, in The Poppy War she looks at revenge, anger, injustice. And by interweaving these themes masterfully into her novel, Kuang proves that modern fantasy can make for a very fertile ground for political critique, indeed.

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