The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
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.
This book. This book felt like a slow descent into madness. I’ve heard a lot about The Poppy War around the book community, namely its basis on Chinese history and the categorization of grimdark. Nothing prepared me for what The Poppy War was. It’s the brutal story of a girl forced to come to terms with the horrors that exist in the world, and the things she does to fight them.
The book is separated into three parts, and each of them honestly feel like an entirely different book, with different settings and tones. Part I covers Rin’s tutelage at Sinegard, and it felt very YA. We start out with sixteen-year-old rural peasant Rin testing into the elite military school Sinegard Academy. It starts slow, a fairly typical boarding school book–by far less brutal than Nevernight, the other book I’d recently read that takes place in a boarding school. We’re introduced to Rin’s rival, Nezha, and friend, Kitay; there are classes, childhood spats, training montages, and vice versa. I enjoyed reading it pretty much from the outset, but was wondering why it was an adult fantasy that is often considered to be very dark. I was yet to be surprised.
Part II ups the ante and moves away from Sinegard, getting deep into military strategy and tactics, which I loved to read about–sieges are honestly one of my weaknesses, as weird as that might sound, and there’s a brutal siege scene that has Rin experiencing the terror of war for the first time. Part III was jaw-dropping. Up until now, I’d been wondering why people classified the book as grimdark; this part showed me why. Rin utterly loses hope, becomes disillusioned with her elders, and plunges into morally dubious territory. Kuang is absolutely pulling the carpet out from under your feet while you’re reading this book as Rin’s whole world is turned upside down, and it’s so wonderfully done. She doesn’t hold back on grisly details or how much trauma Rin is going through.
Rin is also a great protagonist to read about and her character development throughout this book is honestly incredible. She grows confident, and angry, and eventually, vicious, and the change is terrifying, but Rin also remains so human. She’s not heartless, even though she hardens, forced to adapt to the world she’s forced to live and fight in; Rin cries often, because she’s a nineteen year old witnessing horrifying war crimes. The book is dark, but war isn’t romanticized at all.
The magic system was unique, unlike anything I’ve really seen in books before. It’s a twist on traditional Asian beliefs, less of a magic system than shamanism through gods. I loved it because it was so different. Using supernatural powers has severe consequences–drug addiction and slowly losing your sanity. We see Rin and other shamans walk a knife’s edge between these two while under the jurisdiction of a government that dehumanises them and uses their powers until they can’t possibly anymore, while most of the world doesn’t believe gods are real. It’s such a clever inversion of typical fantasy magic systems.
Kuang’s expertise in Chinese history really shines through in this book’s worldbuilding. I admit I’m not great at Chinese history despite being Chinese myself–I know basics but don’t generally study it in classes. The book combines elements of the Opium Wars, the Sino-Japanese War, and both World Wars, and what comes out of it is possibly some of the most horrifying things I’ve ever read about and the even heavier knowledge that atrocities on the scale of what we see in The Poppy War actually happened to real people. While I was reading about Golen Niis, I was dumbstruck with horror; I knew about the atrocities in Nanjing during the Sino-Japanese War, but I was thinking that it was too horrific to be real. Then Kuang tells the reader in the author’s note that none of it was made up.
I definitely want to check out the books she recommended in the author’s note because I want to learn more about the history of my ancestors. Growing up I heard stories about how my grandparents in China had to flee from Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. Even though I recognize the events that happened, I definitely want to dig deeper after reading. There are also discussions on genocide, imperialism, and colonialism that are absolutely worth digging further into. This book raises a lot of questions that pertain to the real world when it comes to colonialism and history, and it’s left for the reader to ponder, which I loved. Not only is it a great fantasy read, The Poppy War really makes you think.
The Poppy War is definitely one of my favourite reads of 2019 and highly recommended for anyone who is interested in fantasy or history. The world is brutal and difficult, but Rin is an amazing and powerful main character who goes through a striking journey, and you’ll feel every second of it. I’ll definitely be picking up The Dragon Republic as soon as I can.
content warnings | genocide, war crimes and atrocities, violence, gore, self-harm, discussion of rape & sexual violence
representation | east asian setting & characters, PTSD
have you read the poppy war??