Review: The Poppy War (The Poppy War #1) by R. F. Kuang

Rating: 10/10

Synopsis

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.

Review

To all the readers out there looking for a fresh fantasy series full of life with non-eurocentric culture at its heart; a book that hits you as hard as it likes and leaves you unapologetically reeling; a book with all the insane magic found in manhua, and webtoons, and a book that isn’t afraid to be more brutal than your worse nightmares, this is the novel for you. This is a piece of me, exactly what I love and like, appealing to years of nerdiness. A book for the fantasy lover through and through.

In summary (do not read ahead if you don’t want to know about the over-arching plot), the story is about Fang Runin, Rin, who is a war orphan, adopted by drug-lords and almost sold off to an older man as his wife, before appealing to a local teacher who helps her in her way into testing into Sinegard, a military academy. There she learns to fight, and her affinity for the drug-addled shamanic arts is unearthed. Then she has a chance to put this to the test; Mugen, a long-time neighbouring aggressor invades and starts a third and maybe final Poppy War. Rin is enlisted into Cike, the Bizarre Children, a squad for the frowned upon shaman who call upon the gods for their magic. Through failure and brutal loss, and bad luck, she bonds with this team. War ensues in its most heinous, gripping and grotesque form. But I will leave it there, for the inner workings and endings of this plot are best served raw. The plot is a perfect tragedy.

The prose is intelligent, refined, it is an old, eloquent scholar; the voice distinct and sophisticated in its use of lexis. But most of all … I just love the fight scenes. Explosive and loud, the magic is unrestrained; these characters wield the power of the very gods themselves. A vengeful god, a monkey god, a wind god, each more destructive than the last. Each more unforgiving, there is a price to be paid for the power. A price more terrifying than the ability. The magic system here is a veritable feast of power that comes with a cost and just like in my favourite mangas, the characters turn up in an explosion of magic in the most badass ways.

There was not a page in this book that I didn’t enjoy, it is truly a journey for Rin, one that starts with an innocent dream to succeed and warps through the lens of war; there’s a great journey of discovery that has only just started to take shape, something that will most certainly brew into despair. My advice to everyone: read it! Really, I haven’t enjoyed a book like this in a long while. I most certainly am already reading book two, The Dragon Republic, and after that, I’ll be pining for book three, The Burning God.

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