The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When Rin aced the Kejuthe Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies it was a shock to everyone. That she got into Sinegardthe 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 aliveand 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.
Warnings: self-harm, drug abuse and mentions and depiction of addiction, graphic violence and torture, graphic descriptions of mutilation and desecration of bodies, description of violence against children specifically, descriptions of rape and sexual violence, depictions of war, massacres and genocides, human experimentation, emotional and physical abuse from kin
Note: Not a YA novel, even though protagonist is a young adult; refer to list of warnings above
Poppy War was kind of intense, and I wasn’t prepared for it – that’s what I am going to start with. Because the first half of the book is about Rin’s struggle to get into Sinegard academy and her first couple of years there, but then bang it hits you with a war somewhere around the middle of the book. Then the rest of it is her being a soldier and trying to find a way to defeat the enemy in increasing stakes, and increasing losses and desperation, while trying to resist giving into the power dormant in her. I would warn everyone who is going into this book firstly that the depiction of war is much more intense that you’d expect -hell, there is an entire chapter (ch 21) describing, in detail, the genocide of city, and the many atrocities committed inside it; it is quite upsetting, to be blunt, and not something to be delved into without preparation, even if this is an adult novel.
As I said before, there are two major parts of the book. The first half is not exactly light, but compared to the rest, you know? It has some good humorous moments, and also the usual rivalry between students and squabbles. So, Fang Runin, a war orphan of the Second Poppy War, to avoid getting married off to an old customs inspector by her foster family decides to go for a national exam for scholars and over two years she slogs her ass off, actively harming herself to cram everything she can. She gets placed at Sinegard, an elite academy for warriors and strategists, but her troubles don’t end just because she got into it; her darker skin and her provincial origins means she is constantly looked down upon by the other students and even some of the teachers. She has to fight for her place there, in the first year where she has to subvert a bigoted teacher to learn by herself. When she finds an aptitude for shamanism, she opts for that, because for a girl who has been powerless for most of her life, seeking a power stronger than military prestige is appealing.
All the training and strategy of the Sinegard Academy doesn’t entirely prepare them for the brutality of war, though, and a ruthless enemy that doesn’t seek to engage them properly but to wipe them all out. Rin’s terrified, firstly of how outmatched her country is, but also of the power she was taught to restrict channeling. She doesn’t see the need for restraint but she obeys her Master in it, until it becomes impossible for her to not resort to the gods. During the war, she is under the command of a person who she looked up to, and who she loves and can’t always fight against. There’s a whole discussion that can be made about the changes of her psyche in response to the conditions of war, and the gradual shifting of moral grounds that she undergoes but honestly, just read the book for that, because it lays it out so wonderfully through the story.
The war takes inspiration from the Sino-Japanese wars, mostly the second, and gives it a fantasy twist. I had assumed from the name it was about the Opium wars, and in this book, the country does have an opium addiction problem and strict ban of it; however, only the shamans use psychedelics like poppy seeds, and other drugs to reach the realm of the gods. Rin is a skeptic, at first, but as she sees the powers, she is drawn to how it can be wielded and how it can be destructive. The story also touches upon the genocide of an entire race of people, and the generational trauma from it, through Altan. It goes into the politics of war, but also the senseless bloodlust in it. It is dark, that is given, but the brutality isn’t ever gratuitous – we are there with Rin, seeing it with horror, and we can understand how she and the others react to it. Towards the end, it sets up threads for the sequel, bringing one arc to a conclusion but preparing us for another fight in the next one.
Finally, as this was an audiobook, I have to gush about the wonderful work done by the narrator, Emily Woo Zeller. Along with bringing out Rin out so perfectly, she also does a fabulous job with all the other character voices!
Is it diverse? Inspired by Chinese history and has a similar setting and all PoC characters; written by an Asian author
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