The Poppy War – R.F. Kuang

About the Book

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.

544 pages
Published on May 1, 2018
Published by Harper Voyager
Author’s webpage
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I got this book from the library. Yay libraries!

I heard a lot of praise about this book, and I was thrilled when my library got it in. I ran over there and picked it up, and instantly started reading it.

Now, here’s the point where I need to put down an Unpopular Opinion warning. I almost didn’t make it past the first half of the book. I almost gave up. I really, really had one hell of a time getting through that first chunk. It’s not because it was written poorly or anything like that, but this coming-of-age underdog-becoming-top-dog magic-school thing has been done before, numerous times, and I just found that section to be incredibly… meh.

That isn’t to say that the rest of the book is like that. I’m really glad I pressed on, and there are important things that happen in this coming-of-age-schooling section, but it felt so young adult, like so many other books I’ve read that I just really had to push myself through it. THAT BEING SAID, I actually say a lot of good things about this secton of the book, so READ ON, FRIENDS.

I’m glad I did, though. After that section, the book takes a sharp turn and it’s obvious that this isn’t a young adult book at all. It’s very dark, and very adult with plenty of blood, battles, and gore. War is depicted in uncomfortable, vibrant detail. There are monsters, gods, drugs, implied rape, some scenes that are absolutely noteworthy and relentless with their dark nature. You just have to get through that first section, friends.

Essentially, our protagonist one Rin, is an orphan living as an opium runner/shop girl in the south. Her parents/guardians find a man twice her age to marry her. To get out of this, she studies hard and puts herself through the tests to get admitted to the highest military school in the empire. She passes. Due to her dark skin and southern heritage, she’s seen as an outsider, someone who shouldn’t be in this prestigious school. She makes some friends and plenty of enemies. She works her ass off and gets what she deserves and stands out in some impressive ways.

There are some interesting dynamics in this section. This book works on numerous levels, and I have to really hand it to the author for discussing some heavy topics in some really bold, but even-handed ways. For example, the issue of skin color, and social status play heavily here, but there are more undercurrents, issues that are powerful but get touched on briefly, like conception, and a woman’s choice in the matter.

Then, after this schooling section, things move on to the wider world. This book is based on 20th-century Chinese history. It’s not a time period I’m incredibly familiar with, though I did just finish a 900-page book on Mao, so I know a lot more than I did at the start of the year. That being said, I’m still pretty naive, but it was easy for me to see the basis for certain events in the book. It isn’t nice. Life is hard, and people are brutal, and the author pulls absolutely no punches here. The basis on 20th-century history, transformed into this fantasy secondary world has the added benefit of ramping up some personal interest. I always love it when authors take historical events and make them their own, and Kuang does that in spades.

There is a really intricate weaving of fantasy and reality in this book. Often, the fantasy elements (other than the secondary world) are pretty subtle. Rin’s shamanic abilities are very well done, but they never feel overtly magical. I mean, they are, but they feel more like they are a natural part of the world rather than anything in-your-face, and I appreciated that immensely. It showed a really deft hand with world building. It isn’t until the end of the school section where magic really has any huge part in the book, and after that, it plays an even bigger role in our protagonist’s life, and the conflict at large.

The plot picks up quite a bit after that halfway point. Rin’s relationships take more form and become more solid and real. The book relies less on her as a single character, and suddenly she sort of has backup and people she interacts with and relies on. It makes her a lot more interesting. She has to make some hard decisions, has to take actions that are uncomfortable, has to do things that will leave scars on her, but that’s really where the power of this book happens. Rin has grown up, and now she is in the process of becoming. Becoming is hard, and painful, but she does it, and readers, it’s a wild, unforgettable ride.

Now, as much as I poo-poo the school section, I will heartily admit that the issue is less about the fact something is inherently wrong with that section and more about the fact that I just typically don’t dig school-heavy narratives. I also don’t dig books that take place largely on boats, and it takes an act of god for me to read a book featuring zombies. This isn’t the author’s problem, it’s my problem. However, that being said, there was a really interesting thing that a coming-of-age section lent the book, and it was a huge heaping of intensity.

Usually, books just start out and the character is dark. The book itself had some dark elements, but Rin herself isn’t really dark, per se. She’s just determined. This growth, from a determined girl to a world-weary woman is, well, it’s powerful, and it’s powerful because you get taken along for the ride. The whole ride. The good and the bad parts. The pain and the pleasure. The hard decisions and the easy ones. You are introduced to Rin the shop girl, and then Rin the underdog student, and then Rin, the woman, and all of these transitions, whether they all please you or not, make the story of Rin absolutely unforgettable.

I can’t wait for the next book. Keep your eyes on this author, folks. She’s making her mark.


4/5 stars


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