Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication Date: May 1, 2018
My Rating: A
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 think I have officially found my favorite book of the year.
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang isn’t something that I had much desire to pick up. I had seen raving review upon raving review for months, but the promise of a military fantasy just didn’t jive well with me.
Luckily, I did wind up getting this book for half off. Good thing, too, because I freaking loved it.
This book takes very heavy inspiration from the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Nanking Massacre. It should go without warning that this book is dark. I’m not usually one to be disturbed by imagery in books, but Chapter 21 was probably the most disturbing thing I have ever read. For a complete list of triggers, I would check out this post by the author.
Formalities aside, though, let’s talk about what I loved about this book:
If you know anything about me, it should be that I am a sucker for any plot-line or character arc that centers around morality.
Fang Runin, or Rin, is a war orphan that escaped an arranged marriage to train for the militia. She is head-strong and determined. We also learn rather quickly that her morals are fairly corrupt. Everything she does comes from a good place, but her means of achieving things can very well be taken as unjust.
“They were monsters!” Rin shrieked. “They were not human!”
“Have you ever considered” he said slowly “that that was exactly what they though of us?”
It could be said that most of the characters in this book are about as morally-grey as you can get. They are ruthless, as one must be when faced with war.
Speaking of characters, I do want to mention that there is no hint of romance anywhere. What we do have, though, is great friendships. And amazing character development. There is one character in particular that I hoping will be able to finish off their arc in the coming books.
When going into these types of books, I always expect the pacing to be painfully slow. That was not the case with The Poppy War. I never felt like we were stuck at any one plot point for too long. And that’s not to say that anything went too fast, either. I think the pacing was just right for the story being told.
Often in reviews, I see people mention that the shift from Part One to Part Two is jarring and feels detached from the first part of the book. Frankly, I think that was the point. The students are ripped from the school suddenly and forced into a war that they weren’t fully prepared for. I personally felt it was well done, even if I did immediately miss the school setting.
I also really enjoyed the incorporation of Chinese Lore. I am not all that familiar with it, myself (nor am I familiar with Chinese history), but it made me very interested in the subject. The magic system was also interesting because it directly affected the growth and arcs of the characters. It makes me really anticipate how things are going to play out in the next books.
All-in-all, I don’t think this is a book for everybody. If you can’t handle brutally dark subjects, I’d probably skip this one. But if you want a fresh take on the fantasy genre, I would definitely check this out. I can honestly say that this is a book I’ve been wishing for for years, and it is everything I could have hoped for!