Book Review

The Poppy War

The Poppy War

  • Author: R.F. Kuang
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Publication Date: May 1, 2018
  • Publisher: Harper Voyager
  • Series: The Poppy War #1

TRIGGER WARNING: child abuse, drug use/addiction, self-harm, bullying, racism, extreme violence, brutal torture, murder, genocide, war, gore, animal cruelty, animal death, mutilation, rape, human experimentation

Rating: 5 out of 5.

She is a peasant. 

She is a student.

She is a soldier.

She is a goddess.

When Rin aced the Keju — the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to study at the academies — it was a shock to everyone: the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who always thought they’d be able to marry Rin off to further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was now 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 the Nikara Empire — was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Rin is targeted by rival classmates because of her color, poverty, and gender. Driven to desperation, she discovers she possessed 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 her powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For even though the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied the Nikara Empire for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people in the Empire would rather forget their painful history, 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 who has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her her humanity.

And it may already be too late.

This book left me speechless, and it actually took me several days to gather my thoughts to be able to write a (hopefully) coherent review.

I went into this knowing that there are a lot of content warnings, that the material is very dark, and that it is NOT a YA book even though the main character is 16. The story does contain elements of historical fact, however, and it is commonly overlooked in Western education. 

The writing was simple yet descriptive, and I loved how it incorporated a strong Chinese influence into the story early on. It didn’t hide the ugly side of things either — the colorism and discrimination, the way that opium affected people in Nikan, misogyny, and the lack of rights that poor women have. But when Rin goes to a big city for the first time, it was amazing to view it through her eyes:

“She was quickly overwhelmed by the deafening clamor of buyers haggling with sellers over prices, the bright colors of flowery skeins of silk splayed out on grand display boards, and the cloyingly pungent odors of durian and peppercorn drifting up from vendors’ portable grills.”

A description of a parade brought up visions of Chinese New Year festivals:

“Giant dragons and lions snaked through the crowd, undulating up and down on poles controlled by dancers hidden within. Firecrackers popped in rhythm as they moved, like coordinated bursts of thunder.”

But even in the midst of all this beauty, Rin is learning valuable lessons. She attends the nation’s most prestigious military academy, where she pushes herself beyond what she thought were her limits just to catch up to her more privileged classmates. She makes a powerful enemy early on, but also makes a friend. She’s a flawed protagonist — she’s smart, street-smart, and determined, but she’s also headstrong, stubborn, and incredibly frustrating at times. She makes her way, but it isn’t easy for her, and she doesn’t make her path any easier. Eventually she unleashes an incredibly power that leads a teacher to take her under his wing, but that path only makes her life even more difficult. She has to take on an entirely new worldview to grasp her power:

“He was building up a background of possibilities for her, a web of new concepts. How did you explain to a child the idea of gravity, until they knew what it meant to fall?”

It becomes painfully obvious that the country is preparing for a war that’s coming closer every day, and the students are put on the front lines. They’re exposed to the harsh realities of war, and it isn’t a pretty sight:

“‘They’re coming, and we’re staying, and at the end of the day whoever is alive is the side that wins. War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.’”

As the war rolls across Nikan, Rin’s worldview changes. Her power becomes essential to the war effort, and she doesn’t see a way around using it. But there’s always a cost to using these kinds of powers. For Rin, she is forced to choose between saving her country or her humanity.

“Warfare was about absolutes. Us or them. Victory or defeat. There was no middle way. There was no mercy. No surrender.”

This book is harsh, brutal, and in some ways, realistic. It’s incredible, fascinating, and absolutely amazing. If you’re able to handle the content, I’d highly recommend it. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series, just to find out what happens next.

People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn’t an upper limit.

Gasp Factor: 17

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