Title: The Poppy War
Series: The Poppy War #1
Author: R.F. Kuang
Pub Date: 2018
My Rating: ★★★★★
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Synopsis from Goodreads:
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 a spectacular Chinese history inspired fantasy read. It may be hard to get into the story at the beginning, it all so innocuous at the beginning. We are bombarded with world-building, there isn’t much action. Rin is a war orphan, she is determined to leave her caretakers, who make her take care of their child, work in their shop and deal opium they are illegally selling, and now want to marry her off to some old man, whose social status might benefit them in their drug business. She manages to convince them to allow her to try for Keju, a test that granted her a place in a prestigious military school Sinegard. The
The military academy part of the story is focused mainly on delivering us the background for the real action to come and allows for more character development. Rin grows and becomes more self-aware. She has to face racism and hate from other students and even some Masters. She has to work harder than ever because only the ones that earn it can stay at the academy. But she also builds friendships and studies under unusual Master about gods and shamans who can conjure them and use their powers.
The simple part of Rin leaving her village, and studying at the academy becomes a faint memory when we get to the real stuff – the war that breaks out between Rin’s county and the Federation. Rin is thrown into the war in a time when she’s most confused about her abilities when she knows that she can summon gods, but is warned not to do so by her Master. She’s forced to join the Cike, a group of assassins working for the Empress. Only then she has a chance or is forced to, learn more about her power.
The story is brutal, and not for faint-hearted. The pictures drawn by the author are truly horrible and hard to get through. The story explores very, very dark themes that I couldn’t have expected based on the beginning of the book. There’s genocide, rape, children abuse, tortures, addiction, racism, sexism. It’s hard to stomach at times, but it brings an understanding to the hatred and a need for vengeance that Rin builds throughout the story.
We go through so much with Rin and other characters that it’s impossible to not care about them. You want them to survive and succeed. You are terrified when you read their stories. The Poppy War gives us memorable characters and action, it’s hard to stop reading. What’s more, there’s no romantic relationship, but the story is full of powerful relationships based on friendship, admiration, hatred, a common goal.
The ending is powerful, I felt shivers when reading the final pages. The next book can be only more spectacular, and horrific.