Hello humans! Today’s review is, I believe, on quite a few people’s want-to-read lists. I’d encountered The Poppy War on many a Waiting on Wednesday post and in quite a few anticipated read lists as well. I’m bringing more adult fantasy reviews onto the blog as and when I can so I jumped at the opportunity to read this book. The Poppy War has some of my favourite elements of fantasy fiction – schools, political intrigue, battle and forgotten magic. I had a wonderful time reading The Poppy War and will attempt to elucidate below!
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.
Content warning: Rape, Violence, Drugs
According to the author, this book ‘draws heavily on the Second Sino-Japanese war which- if you know anything about Asia – was one of the darkest and bloodiest moments in Chinese history’. I do not know anything about Asian history, my own history lessons being woefully euro-centric, so I cannot comment on historical accuracy, but this is a rich setting, clearly laid out in the book. It’s the kind of book where the world builds as the story progresses, rather than having a lot of explanation and exposition at the beginning of the book. I liked this development as this is such a detailed setting that to have been presented it all in one go would have been far too overwhelming.
The story opens with the most difficult and stressful exam I have ever heard of (and I made it through finals at Oxford – I’m kidding…kind of). I thought this was a good way of grounding the reader in something familiar, most people, I would imagine, can relate to being stressed about a test or evaluation in life. Since so much of the rest of Rin’s experience isn’t exactly typical for most readers (particularly not the part that involves wielding magic), this was a clever way to ease the reader into this story.
This read to me as a story of two halves. There is the first half, where Rin is at the prodigious school Sinegard. This isn’t a Harry Potter style magic school novel, nor is the education portion of this story skimmed over. Personally, I felt like this half of the story was the strongest, but I have a feeling that is just my personal preference for this kind of story as opposed to the politics and violence of the second half.
What is the second half? Largely a war/battle narrative alongside Rin’s continued character development. While this is less to my personal taste than a fantasy academy, this was the part of the book where one encounters the best side characters – which I will come to in a moment. There is a huge amount of violence in this book. One violent episode is described by one of the characters and I had to read it in segments because I started to feel hugely uncomfortable. If you are triggered by reading very violent and gory text I would suggest either not reading this or having a friend bookmark those pages for you to avoid.
What I will say is that the violence and battle scenes in this book never feel like they are brutal for the sake of being brutal. Compare this book, for example, to Godblind by Anna Stephens in which the descriptions were so graphic I felt seriously ill at moments – and it didn’t serve the plot. You could argue that this book doesn’t need the graphic descriptions in the same way, however, for one thing, R. F. Kuang is referencing a historical event (the Rape of Nanjing) and also it is part of Rin’s motivation and it helps to enhance the readers understanding of the nature of these two enemies.
Speaking of Rin, it would be foolish of me not to discuss her characterisation in this book. Initially, I thought Rin would be a typical young female, rags to riches protagonist. She grows up in a household that takes advantage of her, pulls herself through this difficult test, goes to the fancy academy and discovers she has powers that not everyone has. On paper that is a very cliché YA novel (I’d still read it if I’m honest). However, as I read this book I realised that Rin had been given so much more characterisation than that. This isn’t a rags to riches story. This is a story about hard work and about finding acceptance through that work. The fact that Rin is a ‘peasant’ at a school for the wealthiest in the land isn’t downplayed, but it is quickly superseded by more important plot points.
[edit: I realised this makes it sound like this is YA. In terms of age of protagonist maybe but not age of intended readership. This is an adult fantasy novel]
I was also worried that there was going to be something of an insta-love storyline that emerged. However, once I got to around 60% through the book it became obvious that this wasn’t the story being told. This is the first book I’ve read in a while that romance didn’t feature romance, it may be that will be a plot point in the later books in this series, but for those looking for a book devoid of lingering glances, I think you will be pleased.
I said I would mention side characters, that time is now. The cast of characters in this novel is rich and varied. From the hilariously contemptuous teach Jiang to the soldiers with whom Rin fights and becomes friends. These characters are fleshed out and so interesting, I would gladly read a spin-off novel for each of them!
If you’re looking for a dark, gritty fantasy novel which involves characters who swear, get periods and all the other real-world things that bring a fantasy novel into the realms of reality then I would look no further than The Poppy War. It’s a great example of this genre and I look forward to reading the later books in the series.
My rating: 4/5 stars
I received a digital advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
What say you? What are some of your favourite dark fantasy novels? Let me know in the comments below.