Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Published by: Harper Voyager
Release 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 is an unflinching exploration of morality and trauma within war, and follows Rin, a war orphan who is determined to escape the bleak life forced upon her by the Fangs, the family who took her in as a child. She studies relentlessly for the Keju, an exam that could just be the thing to help her escape, and passes with the highest mark in her province to get into the prestigious military school, Sinegard. Rin’s life at Sinegard is not easy; she is singled out because of her darker skin, her lower class status, and she has to fight twice as hard for recognition because of this, which leads to her discovery that she can wield the power of the gods — in Rin’s case, the Phoenix, a god who thrives on anger and hatred — through shamanism. While the majority of her classmates are cold and sometimes outright cruel, Rin finds a friend in Kitay, who very quickly became my favourite character. Rin and her fellow students spend three years at the school, which is a relatively short period of the book, before war breaks out and they become soldiers. Rin’s ability to call the power of the Phoenix means that she is enlisted as a weapon alongside Altan Tregnsin, the only other person who can call the Phoenix and can give Rin an insight into where she came from.
The world building in this book was expertly done, merging fantasy and Chinese history. The Poppy War takes place in an incredibly dark and brutal world, where poverty and classism is rife, and the provinces are at constant odds with one another. I knew going into this book that it was going to be dark, but it was still a lot darker than I was expecting, and the fact that some of the most horrific things that take place in the book are based upon real events is especially chilling. Some parts were very difficult to read, and I would definitely recommend that you take a look into the content warnings before starting this book (chapter 21 is where the most potentially triggering content is) if you want to be prepared. The war is bloody and devastating, and Kuang does not shy away from its traumatising effects, which is something that I appreciated. Rin’s journey is shocking and devastating, and the things that she witnesses and experiences, along with the Phoenix’s powerful influence, sets her on a dark and furious path.
I would have loved for the secondary characters to have been a little more fleshed out as I felt that there was not really enough time to get to know most of them in this book, but this only minimally subtracted from my experience, as I understand that there was a lot happening. I did find myself wishing that the book was longer to accommodate more of the other characters stories, though. That being said, I loved Kitay (and he must be protected at all costs) — he was one of the secondary characters who I felt that we knew by the end of the book, alongside Altan, whose storyline was heartbreaking. I do wish we could have gotten to know more of the others, but I am hopeful for book 2!
I finished this book at 2AM and was left completely speechless — I stayed up for another hour thinking about this book, and then the following morning I started this review, which I think is quite possibly the fastest I have ever started a review after finishing a book, and I have struggled to give it the justice it deserves. In summary, this book is every bit as incredible as everyone has been saying, and it will most definitely tear out your heart. The Poppy War is an incredibly powerful, visceral, and important portrayal of war, trauma, and morality, and one that is well deserving of every success.
To see a full list of content warnings for this book, follow this link to a helpful database of trigger warnings in books.