Editorial Notebook

Read The Poppy War to kick start this semester

Editor's Note: This article was meant to be published on January 17, 2024.

There’s one book I recommend to anyone who is looking for the motivation to get through this next semester—and no, it’s not a self-help book. It’s The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. This book is set in a fantasy version of 20th century China during the Second World War, specifically during the Second Sino-Japanese War. It follows Fang Runin, "Rin" for short, who is from the countryside and wins a spot in the top military academy in the capital of a nation on the edge of a war.

The first part of the book is centered on Rin’s experiences in a hypercompetitive school, where she—a poor, darker skinned orphan from the rural South—is in stark contrast with her wealthy and sheltered peers. Although I definitely do not condone her actions, the lengths she goes to in order to stay at the top of the class are admirable. Most of her strategies, including using hot wax from a lit candle to stay awake and ingesting a rather suspicious tonic that effectively kills her uterus to prevent her menstruation cycle from interfering with her studies, are probably not something you want to emulate. However, the dedication is one thing I will carry into the new year, especially as I tackle Data Structures. Without spoiling too much, the rest of the book follows Rin after the much-anticipated war breaks out, so readers should be warned that this isn’t just about academia and that there are some pretty graphic scenes as well.

Even though Rin’s studying methods may be questionable, whenever I need an academic push, I find myself turning to The Poppy War. Not only is the main character’s drive for academic validation relatable, but the book’s world—a well-crafted blend of historical events, fantasy elements, and riveting plot—make for a compelling story that leaves the reader reflecting on the results of different forms of privilege in education and upbringing.