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 the first book in the popular trilogy of the same name, written by R. F. Kuang. This was a really interesting book full of tension and intrigue, with relevant themes and a surprise around every corner. I enjoyed reading it, even if I thought there were some flaws in the writing (I will get there). You will notice I am really vague on plot details, here. That is because I think it is best to come in as blind as you can when reading this book, and I do not wish to spoil that experience for anyone.
The book is very character-driven, which I think is expected when one reads the synopsis. Rin is the main character, and she is about as well-written as a character can get. The plot mostly revolves around her trying to better herself and her station. She is dark-skinned and orphaned, taken in by a family that uses her to run its poppy market with the main goal of selling her off for a good price when she is old enough. Rin is deeply passionate and flawed, and her quest to rise through the ranks in society leads her to make all kinds of bad decisions. To me, it is that very same imperfection that leads me to connect with Rin so well. She faces discrimination, has no friends, and does not know who to trust. This situation leads her down a path she never imagined, for good and bad.
There are many other great characters in this book, so I will highlight a few more. The first is Yin Nezha. He plays the role of Rin’s arch nemesis, which I really enjoyed. Rin and Nezha get into a fight when they first meet, and throughout the story their feud grows until it finally comes to a head. Even later in the story he continues to play an interesting and vital role. Jiang Ziya is another intriguing character in the book. I actually picture him as similar to Naruto’s Jiraiya: A powerful, bumbling master who does not play by the rules and marches to the beat of his own drum. His relationship to Rin is really important because it dictates a lot of her future. Then there is Altan Trengsin. He is a mysterious warrior that Rin looks up to and is kind of obsessed with. There are so many more characters in this book, each of them really good in their own right. Aside from Rin, these three are what made the story for me due to their connection to Rin.
I will not say a lot about the plot, except that I was really surprised at the direction the narrative took and where the story ended up. I did not expect it to go the way it did, which is why I was happy I went in blind. Kuang did a really nice job of building a world with a deep history and demonstrating how the decisions of the past affect the present. It felt like I was coming into a chess match halfway through, the previous moves having been played out over hundreds of years. The players are right in the middle of the game where every move is of great consequence. As a reader, it is a great place to be.
I think I made a similar comparison in my last review (though, for different reasons, so hold off on stoning me for a minute), but it reminded me of The Lightbringer Series. There are a lot of parallels between Rin and Kip (and not just the name pattern). Similar-ish personal genesis stories, and even their training/academy journey mirror each other a bit. Also if you have read The Lightbringer books you will remember Kip’s group nicknamed The Mighty, and I got familiar vibes along that route, as well. The Lightbringer is my favorite series, so I do not hate on anything that reminds me of it.
The Poppy War is also full of relevant themes. Rin is constantly discriminated against due to the darkness of her skin, where she comes from, her class status, and the fact that she is female. The over-arching plot is one of imperialism, oppression, and clashes of culture. I was constantly reminded of issues many people in the world are experiencing today, and it is easy to see Kuang drew from that. I consider that to be one of the big successes of this book.
I did bring the rating down a little due some aspects of the writing that did not appeal to me. The biggest writing flaw in my opinion is the way some of the scenes abruptly end. Kuang does a great job of building scenes with really great tension, and just when the rubber band is about to break… it just stops, as if someone grabbed it out from between your fingers. No satisfaction. It happens this way several times throughout the book, and the reason why it bothers me is because every time it took me out of the story I was so immersed in. The other issue is that I thought the dialogue could have used some work in places. It seemed rushed, at times. Finally, the chapters were too long for me. Most of them fell in the 25-35 page range, and I thought that caused some issues with the pacing. In my opinion, cutting those in half would encourage me as a reader to continue going.
Be warned, this book is not an easy read. Lots of violence, descriptions of war and gore, self-harm, and discrimination.
Overall, though, The Poppy War was a really good book. Kuang did an excellent job of creating a fascinating world full of interesting characters with an intriguing storyline that I did not want to put down. And, yeah, I loved the ending. I recommend this for fans of fantasy, but be ware of the triggers. I wonder where the story is going to go from here.