The Poppy War Review

R.F KUANG

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.

There are so many amazing books that thankfully get a lot of hype from the online book community. We discover these titles as we browse through feeds and devour them at our leisure. Every now and again, a book will come along that I find myself drawn to for no apparent reason. It will suddenly start haunting me, appearing in every post, grid and blog. I usually take this as a sign from the universe that I need to make it a reading priority. The Poppy War was one of those books for me.

“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”

Let me just start by saying it would be a huge disservice to categorise this book as fantasy. In my reading life it has been quite rare to find a story that is spun from so many genres and themes. This is a grimdark fantastical world born from the authentic, harrowing history of mid century China with the mysteries and intrigues of Shamanism, psychoactive substances and forgotten gods.

The book is split into three parts beginning with what seems like your typical coming of age story. Our protaganist, Rin quite literally pushes her mind, body and soul into unimaginable states to pass ‘The Keju’ and change the miserable path that has been laid before her.

Determination is always one of my favourite traits in my characters and boy does Rin have it. I love a good underdog storyline and Rin defies all odds to be accepted into Sinegard, The elite-as-shit military school that produces the countries most intelligent, cunning and fiercest soldiers.

Though Rin may have more than earnt her place at the academy she soon discovers that due to her dark skin and pauper province roots, the entitled upper class will not so easily accept her.

Luckily, Rin doesnt give a shit what anyone thinks, only using their ignorance and arrogance as incentive to train harder, work longer and become the most feared and respected student in the academy.

My favourite relationship of the book was that of Rins and the ridiculed Lore Master Jiang, The impossible tasks and the seemingly nonsense coversations in his drug garden were entertaining and inspiring and definitely some of the highlights of the book for me.

Alas, after being lured into thinking you will be sticking at Sinegard for at least the first book in the series, events both inside the Academy and the threats from outside begin to escalate quite rapidly, building to a thrilling, edge of your seat explosion of chaos. We go from watching these kids fight each other, discover their skills and grow in strength and wisdom. The web of war nothing but a distant threat. Then suddenly their lives are turned upside down, forced to grow up, thrown into a world they dont understand and the arrogance of youth stripped away as they learn the true meaning of conflict.

“Children ceased to be children when you put a sword in their hands. When you taught them to fight a war, then you armed them and put them on the front lines, they were not children anymore. They were soldiers.”

Its hard to describe how I felt whilst reading this part of the book. It is such a brutally honest and heartbreaking representation of the true costs of war. Unspeakably henious acts of terrorism that will stay with me a long time. Before this book I had very little knowledge of this incredibly dark time in history but some of the events, certainly the Nanjing Massacre will stay with me forever. In my opinion, the author did an incredible job of portraying these events in a responsible but profoundly truthful way.

This is a fast paced story and the political plots and conflicts will have you desperately turning at the pages whilst tearing at your hair. Rin’s coming to terms with who she is and what she can acheive through the lost art of shamanism was so intriguing and such a refreshing and intelligent magic system.

“When man begins to think that he is responsible for writing the script of the world, he forgets the forces that dream up our reality.”

This book has an awful lot of strengths. Incredible world building, authentic relationships, epic battles with some of the strongest writing I have read in Fantasy. I genuinely felt like I was watching a huge, big budget action movie and have barely any recollection of actually turning the pages or seeing words on paper.

Saying that, my favourite thing about this book was hands down, Rin. Her strength, determination and compassion were inspiring but it was those moments where she showed her weaknesses that I really fell for her. Frozen in fear, making bad choices and letting her emotions consume her. I cannot wait to pick up The Dragon Republic and continue on this journey with her.

Of course there are multiple trigger warnings for this book so please check them out before reading if they are likely to upset you.

Have you read The Poppy War? Let me know your thoughts.

Published by apageofwordsandwishes

A cozy corner of the internet for all things Bookish.

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