When Rin aced the Keju, the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies, it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard, the most elite military school in Nikan, was even more surprising.
But surprises aren’t always good.
Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.
For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .
Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.
I seriously loved this book, I’ve read a lot of fantasy novels and this is definitely in my top ten list. The Poppy War was dark, interesting and filled with tension the whole way through with a strong cultural and political focus which ties it all together. I was actually lucky enough to attend a panel which the author, R.F Kuang was presenting at and she talked in depth about her inspiration for her novels and how they drew specifically on Chinese history. Kuang drew on traumatic moments in memory, like the invasion by Japan as well as the rape of Nianjing which was an atrocity.
Kuang doesn’t shy away from depicting the brutality and violence of war and how utterly hopeless it is. How no sense can be made from it, and this provoked such strong emotions within me and will do for many other readers I’m sure. This book has a lot of dark and difficult subject matter so if that is something you can’t read and triggers you in any way then please steer clear. Here is a full list of trigger warnings: heavy violence, rape, racism, classism, drug abuse / addiction, genocide. Please take care when reading and protect your mental and physical wellbeing above all folks.
Kuang does such an incredible job of world building and crafting the settings, magical elements and characters within The Poppy War. From the hard life of the peasants of Tikany, the rural village where our story begins to the lush gardens of Sinegard, it’s all so well written and fleshed out. Kuang also delves into the world of addiction through Opium and other psychedelics and she does so in a realistic and frank way.
One of the most compelling aspects of this novel for me, was definitely Rin, the protagonist. I typically love the underdog to hero, rise to power trope but Kuang takes this trope and subverts it, all the while truly making it her own. Rin is a dark skinned, lower class young woman entering the prestigious world of Sinegard Academy, a place where the brightest and most powerful students in Nikan train in martial arts, strategy and other skills deemed necessary to become a valuable asset to the Empress and her army.
Along the way she faces hurdle after hurdle, her classmates taunt her due to her lower class and skin colour as well as her lack of expertise but she is resilient and never gives up. There is something so satisfying reading as Rin progresses in her training and becomes a formidable opponent and starts believing in herself.
What struck me the most about Rin is that she’s so human and real. A lot of the time the protagonist can do no wrong and isn’t allowed to be messy or make mistakes but Rin does this and isn’t condemned. Rin develops so much, from finding her powers to making so many connections and goes through so much change from where we find her at the beginning of the novel. She is forced to make some really tough decisions through the course of the novel and towards the end there is a path that will change her life forever. Despite the fact that I didn’t always agree with her approach or choices, I still rooted for her and I can’t wait to see where she goes from here.
Another thing I enjoyed was the range of secondary characters that Kuang so deftly writes. From Altan to Master Jiang, Nezha and Kitay amongst many others, they all had a unique voice and I liked and/ or loathed them for various reasons. Not one character was one dimensional, they all go through their own trials and fit into the overall narrative so well. Nezha really surprised me as I grew to like him and he makes up for his earlier transgressions against Rin. He isn’t just given a free pass for being ignorant but he works for his redemption which was refreshing. I also liked the dysfunctional Cike who are a group of misfits with different shamanic powers.
In Altan, Rin finds her commander and someone she can relate to, they are the last of their people and this comes with great power and responsibility. Altan has been through so many horrors in his life, from losing his homeland to being experimented on mercilessly, which has resulted in him becoming aloof and isolating himself from those around him. All this trauma has also resulted in him being consumed by blind rage which the Phoenix, whom he serves thrives upon. I really felt for Altan as his path felt inevitable. How does someone move on from such horrors, it truly does eat you alive and would embitter the strongest of people. To different degrees, Rin and Altan had some impossible choices to make and they are two halves of the same whole.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading The Poppy War, it was thought provoking, intense and a deeply engaging read. Not for the faint of heart but an important work of fantasy which has parallels to the history of our own world. I would really recommend it if you’re into fantasy which falls on the darker side and is focused on politics, history and magic. You won’t regret taking the trip!
Until next time,