Title: The Poppy War
Author: R. F. Kuang
Series: The Poppy War #1
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 realised 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 colour, 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.
This is a grim dark fantasy that has a lot of trigger warnings for those that may need them. Self harm, Drug use, vivid description of war and violence, genocide, infanticide, discussion of forced marriage, female sterilisation and rape. If you are sensitive to these you may not wish to read this book.
This may be one of the best books I have read in 2018. This was a very dark historical based fantasy that did not pull its punches. There is so much complexity to this book it is difficult to know how to even describe it. There are three distinct parts to this book that move the story on wards, getting deeper and deeper into the fantasy aspects as we move through them.
Our protagonist, Rin, is a very strong kick ass female lead, who instead of falling into “the chosen one” category, has to work herself ragged to achieve her goals. The first half of the book follows Rin’s training at an elite military academy. Her determination to succeed at all costs pits her against detestable bullies, quirky teachers but introduces us to secretive and brooding warriors and lovable, sassy friends. The pacing of this section is excellent as we effortlessly move through the years she spends training. The pacing actually changes as Rin gets her bearings at the school getting faster and faster with the advancing years as she become more and more comfortable in her surroundings.
This is also where most of the world-building takes place and it is fantastic. We are fed detailed information on the worlds history, mythology and religion in delicious little snippets, be it through dialogues between various characters, Rin attending her various classes in history, military strategy etc and even through the medium of shadow puppet theatre. Nothing about the world-building felt like info-dumping to me. It fit seamlessly into the narrative. I loved the references to Chinese history that tied this fantasy version to its real-life counter part.
Then war breaks out!
The second half merges the horrors, which are harrowing and detailed in their descriptions, or war and how this changes our characters! It is very hard to describe this section without spoilers as we watch how war effects the lives of all those involved. The morality of some characters shift, some fall from grace, others rise to the occasion. I found myself weeping for characters a previously sneered at their behaviour. All while we follow Rin of the second part of her journey. This is the section where the magical and fantastical elements really come into play and as Rin learns to deal with them, torn between her mentor and her idol. We start getting delving into secrets and we start seeing the powerful magical forces at play. The bit I really loved about this is how morally grey most of the characters became. While we witness the awful atrocities the opposing army conducted in the name of their emperor, we have to question wither our characters actions are justified or are they just as horrible as those committed against them?
The third section of the story takes us further into the supernatural and fantastical elements building towards a slightly predictable climatic decision Rin has to make. This section is furiously fast paced and I did find it a little disorientating. It is no less a page turner i just felt it wasn’t as well plotted as the other sections. I also hesitate over the ending, I don’t truly know how the next book can pick up with the consequences of various actions Rin took. I don’t know if we answered the question of wither her actions are just and if she can be vindicated. I was also disappointed at the reveal of the “True” villain of the story. Hopefully the second book will turn my speculations on their head.
I still think this was an excellently executed fantasy novel and will be fascinated to see how the story develops. It is so hard to review a book where you became so emotionally invested in it. despite the gore and the pacing at some points I 100% enjoyed this book and don’t hesitate in giving it five stars.