Book Review : The Poppy War

Book Review : The Poppy WarThe Poppy War (The Poppy War, #1) by R.F. Kuang
Published by Harper Voyager on May 1st 2018
Pages: 644
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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.

After multiple disappointing reads in a row, The Poppy War was what I needed to turn my streak around! I loved the main character, the serious themes and moral gray areas, as well as world-building that’s inspired by the historical backdrop of 20th century China. Most of all, I reveled in the lore of the novel, complete with the summoning of chaotic and destructive gods.


“You’re a war orphan. You’re a southerner. You weren’t supposed to pass the Keju. The Warlords like to claim that the Keju makes Nikan a meritocracy, but the system is designed to keep the poor and illiterate in their place. You’re offending them with your very presence.”


I absolutely adored war-orphan Rin from the very first page of The Poppy War. I loved her aggressive determination to escape her fate of a shopgirl for the opium dealers who raised her. Desperate to escape an arranged marriage to a much older businessman looming on the horizon, Rin spends years studying for the Keju exam, managing the store by day and burning herself to stay awake studying at night. To everyone’s shock, Rin passes the exam, and enrolls in the most prestigious military academy in China, Sinegard. She’s immediately met with prejudice due to her country background and darker skin, but quickly rises to the top of all of her classes through sheer force of will and fear of being kicked out of the school and winding up back where she started. Rin even manages to secure an apprenticeship under the  campus’s notoriously eccentric master of Lore, Jiang.


“This is important,” Jiang insisted. “Please, Rin. This is a dying art. The Red Emperor almost succeeded in killing it. If you don’t learn it, if no one learns it, then it disappears for good.”


Under Jiang’s tutelage, she learns that everything she knows about the world and its forgotten Gods are so much more than what she thought.  The nature of these Gods are not kind and benevolent, but capricious, tempting, and dangerous. I loved every bit of Rin’s unconventional, and even wacky, training under Jiang. At one point, her training even involves carrying a pig up a mountain.  To my dismay though, Rin doesn’t get to remain a student for long, and war comes to to Nikan and to Sinegard. I really loved hearing about the subject matter at school, the tournaments, and competition with her classmates, and would have gladly read an entire novel dedicated solely to Rin’s education and training. So I was just as sad as Rin when peacetime came to an abrupt end. Out of desperation to save her classmates and country, she throws away Jiang’s warnings and embraces shamanism and the Gods, specifically the destructive and fiery Phoenix, and gains unimaginable power. As a result of her newfound abilities, she’s sent to join the Thirteenth Division of the Miiltia–the only division which has a negative reputation–known otherwise as the Unwanted children, or the Cike–the notorious assassins of the Empress. 


“You will be offered power beyond your imagination. But I warn you, little warrior. The price of power is pain. The Pantheon controls the fabric of the universe. To deviate from their premeditated order you must give them something in return. And for the gifts of the Phoenix, you will pay the most. The Phoenix wants suffering. The Phoenix wants blood.”


Even though Rin makes a lot of questionable decisions and changes her mind a lot, the writing and character development is so good in The Poppy War that I always felt I understood why Rin did exactly what she did. And though the grim realities of the war were difficult to read (it’s based on the Rape of Nanking) and even harder to stomach, author R.F. Kuang does an amazing job of demonstrating how things that seemed important–like rivalry, upbringing, and military divisions–no longer matter in the face of the total devastation and tragedy of a war that leaves no one untouched. 


“Children ceased to be children when you put a sword in their hands. When you taught them to fight a war, then you armed them and put them on the front lines, they were not children anymore. They were soldiers.”


Despite having trouble reading the intense and gory descriptions of war crimes, I shockingly didn’t really feel much when characters in The Poppy War died. As a very emotional reader who gets overly attached to fictional characters, my lack of reaction to character deaths is surprising to me. Sure, I was sad, but as a few characters had a habit of coming back to life, all the deaths just felt unreal to me. Likewise, other characters has a habit of surviving genocide and the author practically breaks the fourth wall to state how slim the chances were that this character lived. It just seemed impossible that all of these characters survived in the face of all these descriptions of graphic violence. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief. I’m still not sure that one character View Spoiler », who is presumed dead, is actually dead–even after finishing the book, I have this sense that they aren’t truly dead. 


“Altan was a commander who would burn down the world to destroy his enemy. This should have bothered her.”


My only other issue of The Poppy War was that I just didn’t get the hero worship of Atlan. Yes, he had military prowess, and he was the last survivor of Speerly. But he was unwilling to listen to reason and obsessed with revenge and his pain. I’m not sure how he inspired such die-hard loyalty in the rest of the Cike, especially Rin. It seemed odd to me how quickly Rin abandoned the teachings of Jiang for those of Atlan. I do recognize she always wanted a family and power, so while I can rationalize it, I must say I didn’t care for him being the catalyst for many of her poor decisions. 


“We’re at war! We might die anyway. So maybe calling the gods gives us a fighting chance. What’s the worst that could happen?”

“You’re so young,” he said softly. “You have no idea.”


What I loved the most about The Poppy War, other than Rin, were the morally gray areas of the novel that author Kuang skillfully depicts. The Keju exam is both an opportunity and a means of societal control. Before war comes to the Empire, it’s at peace, but there’s constant in-fighting among the provinces and their controlling warlords. Rin is proud of overcoming the circumstances of her birth but also wants to forget where she came from. The Poppy War is colored with all of these lifelike contradictions.


Above all of these, my favorite moral quandary of The Poppy War was Rin deciding whether or not to call upon these tempestuous gods to grant her power. Her teacher Jiang, fiercely believed that the Gods should not be summoned, due to their destructive and uncontrollable nature, let alone weaponized. But as a student training to become an elite soldier, Rin is very concerned with the power it could give her and what that could mean for her country and their war effort. Plus, the overall theme that this momentous power inevitably and irrevocably comes hand-in-hand with great sacrifice is a constant undercurrent as Rin makes impossible choices. The high stakes of the power of the gods and the war gives her decisions added weight and significance.


The Poppy War is really a piece of art. It’s well-written, has captivating themes, calls attention to atrocities that happened in our own world’s past, and also believably integrates these catastrophic events and very real struggles into a fantasy world where the stakes are even higher. Despite having trouble suspending my disbelief in the survival of Rin’s classmates and my frustration with her decisions–mostly when Atlan was involved–I really loved The Poppy War and already have purchased the second in the series, The Dragon Republic.


Book Review : The Poppy War - Blogging with Dragons

Posted August 31, 2020 in Book Reviews, Fantasy

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