The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
Title: The Poppy War
Author: R. F. Kuang
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Published Date: May 1st 2018
Length: 527 pages
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy, Adult Fiction, Adult Fantasy, Historical Fantasy
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.
I thought I was prepared when I started this book, I had read reviews, I had read up on trigger warnings/ content warnings and thought to myself, ‘ok, I know these exist so I will be prepared’. I was dead wrong. The Poppy War comes up to you and starts punching. It does not stop, so no, you are absolutely not prepared if you are a soft-hearted person like me.
Based on Sino-Chinese war and Opium wars and following the system of Song dynasty, The Poppy War is an extremely grim look at war and its consequences. How it affects the country, its people and how soldiers are often facing the worst choices along with the common people. It’s absolutely addictive and unputdownable. There are people who haven’t really fallen for it, for many reasons. However the major reasons being that the first half of the book is magic/ military school setting and then, the other half was straight into war. The transition didn’t work with some and I can totally see how that could be. For me, personally, I think R. F. Kuang did a great job of showing that war can happen at any time if there’s tension between nations and it doesn’t wait for military graduates to actually graduate and will ruthlessly kill anyone.
“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”
Now, the plot. There is a literal divide in plot points. First half of the book is spent with Rin trying to fit in with the rich, noble children of high officials and there’s so much to deal with there as well. Fang Runin ‘Rin’ reaches Sinegard after passing the Keju exams (the civil exams of ancient China-ish exams), because she is an orphan and comes from a poor background, she’s already been accused of cheating at her exams. However they couldn’t have known how much Rin wanted to pass the Keju because her life depended on it. Her home-life wasn’t the best, after being fostered by the Fangs and then being married off to the village’s richest person who’s twice her age, her determination to pass the exams was the only thing that kept her sane. Though sane is used in its loosest sense here.
Her struggles at Sinegard for being poor, for being an orphan and being a darker person are written so beautifully. It’s raw and it’s not glorified, there are good people but the pervasive thoughts of being lesser will always make Rin all the more determined to survive and be better than everyone else. Her teachers also play a huge part in her unhealthy coping mechanisms, I can totally see teachers being that way though so no complaints there. From this school setting, they are thrust into war before they are even properly adults. I think I loved that a lot more than I thought I would. Life does not wait for people to be prepared for war, war just happens. However she does manage to find people who are not just sneering down at her. There’s Chen Kitay, who’s the only son of an official who’s very much for the Empress, who becomes a friend to Rin. Or rather as much as anyone can become a friend to Rin. There’s Nezha, who manages to make himself into an enemy with Rin right from the beginning. There’s a couple of more characters but I think you should read them on your own and make your own opinions because they are kinda interesting.
“I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible. Was she now a goddess or a monster? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.”
Rin’s shamanism is a huge part of the reason why she starts depending on poppy seeds. And it’s shown in the most realistic way possible. At first, her teacher Jiang won’t let her have the poppy seeds, for the right reasons but once she realises that war is upon them and without the poppy seeds, she might not be able to get help from divine powers then she starts using it. A lot of things go wrong with this approach, of course. It is during the battle of Sinegard that she uses her powers and the results are less than ideal but I think something in her finally feels accepted. I think, by the time, the war actually begins in full swing, the only thing Rin wants to be is to be useful. A lot of people take advantage of it and she, in her need to be needed, lets them.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” “You’re so young,” he said softly. “You have no idea.”
I loved the Cike, there are so many interesting characters in that group alone. Everyone is well aware of what communicating with gods and letting the gods in their minds mean. Altan, their leader, is also such a complicated character, you can’t help but feel bad for his circumstances however you also know exactly how many ways he’s going wrong about so many things. Basically due to bad decisions made by adults in that country, the children were left to make even worse decisions.
Overall, I think every character shines with individualism and their backstories are so important too. The main characters Rin, Kitay, Nezha and Altan are so well written, they are each broken in their own ways and their ways of handling things is absolutely not healthy but it’s also the only way they know of. These characters are not easy to like, nor are they very comfortable to read as well but that’s what makes them so interesting and tragic. Their paths, in a way, were written before they were even born.
The Poppy War is incredibly bold and daring and you can only go along for the ride, just hold on tight to your tissues and your heart, you are gonna need to be careful.
TW and CW: war, drug use, substance addiction, self-harm, racism, misogyny, genocide, bullying, abandonment, abuse, animal death, animal cruelty, torture, murder of children and adults, rape, mutilation, human experimentation
If you are concerned about reading about these things then I would like to point you to this blog post by readbytiffany who’s done an excellent job of it.