Title: The Poppy War
Series: The Poppy War #1
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publishing Date: 1st May 2018
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.
The Poppy War, by Rebecca F Kuang started off as a fairly humble book, you had your orphaned protagonist, Rin, aiming for greatness and everything seemed so out of reach for her (or not considering that wouldn’t make the best plot if she failed) and yet she managed to score highly on the entrance exam and go off to her fancy, prestigious school to discover herself on her journey to see what she’s capable of. That’s how the book starts, but certainly not how it progresses.
The Poppy War, at least in my experience, was an emotional roller-coaster that I wasn’t anticipating; by not even half-way the plot had taken a direction which I wasn’t aware was a possibility at the start and had transformed the style of plot from a more predictable, mundane one, to one of intense emotional highs. What those highs are, however, you’ll have to read it to find out. At times, yes, the true nature of characters are shown in glimpses and I was definitely reading it in agony, waiting for the protagonist to figure it out, however it can seem a bit of a waiting game at times, anxious to see if your predictions are correct or not and holding out for another 100 pages to find out.
The main character, Rin, is a hot-head. She rushes through her decisions due to her impatience and youthful inexperience, often blind-sided by her preconceptions and emotions. At the beginning of the novel, she’s more relatable, in the sense of being fiercely passionate and driven and it was easy enough to get behind her ideology and actions, but as the story progressed along with her character, I found myself questioning her motives and morality more. This wasn’t felt purely towards her, but instead my perceptions and opinions of all the characters became increasingly ambivalent towards the end, especially as emotions ran high, done in such a skilful manner from Kuang that I couldn’t help not fall in love with the book even more. I think when reading it’s so easy to fall into the same pattern and read the same books which seemingly mouth-feed you your attitudes towards the characters, so when reading The Poppy War I found it refreshing to have to make up my own mind in regards to them again.
Another aspect of Kuang’s writing it’s impossible not to be in awe of is her imagery. There were a few scenes and characters’ accounts in the novel which were so vivid they were a tough one to read and for one I had to skim read as quickly as possible as I felt so disturbed and sick that I didn’t think I’d be able to get through it any slower but simultaneously couldn’t put the book down – that good I know. In addition, the emotions induced in her other scenes had similarly large impacts on me when reading I felt as though I was going to weep non-stop for these characters and what they’d been through and were facing – sacrifice, loss, addiction, war, The Poppy War covers it all and then some.
There was a noted lack of romantic subplot in The Poppy War and it was definitely welcomed. The relationships which the novel focused on were those of teachers-students and friendships and I think that was particularly powerful as I think if there was romance, it may have come at a detriment to another aspect of the novel, such as plot, and would have changed when and how the characters developed. That’s not to say that there was a complete void of romance, as what it does have is relationships which have the possibility of turning romantic, but there is nothing explicitly written nor drawn upon in the novel.
The last point to note is the history which The Poppy War is inspired by, that being the Second Sino-Japanese War in the 20th Century. Kuang draws upon her own culture , and as someone Chinese myself (albeit half) I found the myths and history that she incorporates in her writing endlessly fascinating has inspired me to look into Chinese history myself.
If you hadn’t gathered it already, I cannot recommend The Poppy War enough and I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed and loved a book in a similar way in a while, the only one which I think is comparable in my recent memory is the Shades of Magic series. So if you want a thrilling read go pick it up and be prepared to not go outside until you’re done!
TW: war, rape, extreme violence, drug abuse, abuse, (in short, not for the faint-hearted)