Publication date : May 1st, 2018
Publisher : Harper Voyager | Harpercollins
Genre : Adult | Fantasy
Page Count: 544
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. (From Goodreads)
CW: War, genocide, gore, graphic description of violence and rape, dismembering and evisceration, abuse from a superior, colorism, racism, bullying, fatphobia, ableism, drug consumption and addiction, self-harm, suicide, public execution.
Holy shit… The people who said this book would ruin me did not lie, not even a little. I’m dumb founded, and as the great philosophers of our generation would say, shit fucked me up. This book is just so incredible, I’m scrambling to find the words to describe it but as per Fadwa fashion, I will keep rambling until I come up with something coherent, so read on, friends, I have a bunch of thoughts circling my head about The Poppy War and I desperately need to let them out.
The writing was…refreshing, I think that’s the word I’d use to describe it. And in a good way, it’s straight forward and gripping, Kuang does not chew on her words or ease up on the descriptions. She mixes humour and violence in such an odd unsettling manner that works perfectly for the book and makes the reading experience exceptional. Speaking of which, the descriptions are something else, The Poppy War is in turns atmospheric and brutal so it had me equally mesmerized and nauseous. All in a good way, trust me. It’s also unlike anything I’ve read before (yes smartass… you said it’s refreshing), it deals heavily with shamanism so it has a very pleasant to read underlying philosophical theme that never overpowers the rest of the book, and I’d go as far as to say that it balances it out.
The Poppy War is so politically and historically rich, it has some of the best worldbuilding I’ve ever read without ever being overwhelming. And here’s how: Rin, our main character, gets into an academy in which she learns about her country’s politics, history, military, etc… and since she does so relatively slowly as she goes, so do we, so every bit of information has time to sink in before we get the next. And let’s be real I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to politics and history in fantasy books, I take it in whichever way it comes, small or big doses, just GIMME! It’s also very war and strategy oriented, as a big chunk of it is set during war time and there are a lot of decisions to make.
The story starts as Rin, gets ready to take the test that would grant her access to the most prestigious military academy and follows her as she gets into said academy, makes her way through classes and training, up until a war comes knocking at her country’s door and then everything goes to shit. It’s literally destruction upon massacre, upon genocide, upon cruelty, upon bloody brutality and yes, it deeply fucked me up, not gonna lie. This book somehow describes every single war related horror without ever crossing into tragedy porn territory (which I always dread with very graphic books).
Every scene, every death, every single things that happens has its place in the narrative, either to move the plot along or to serve for social and political commentary. I’d put a huge warning for Chapter 21 though, it’s the most gruesome, traumatising thing I’ve ever read in my life, so please, thread carefully. The Poppy War also speaks of ethics, of right and wrong and how often the line between the two is blurred, how the intent might be good but does it really justify the means when they go to an extremely violent extent? This was probably my favourite thing about it.
The story has a running theme of revenge and sacrifice. It dives deep into the exploration of how intertwined both those things are with human nature and how far we -as humans- are willing to go to set things right, to get to a goal, especially if said goal is driven by vicious vengeance. How if you’ve lost everything and have nothing more to lose, when you’ve seen your people killed and have been brutalized, tortured and stripped of every bit of humanity, your moral compass can get broken in the process. It was so freaking fascinating to read. It’s so frighteningly human and real…every monstrosity is man-made, and you can sense the fear, the anger, the greed, and there’s so much of them, they drive the whole book. And I think that it’s noteworthy that this is the only book I can remember reading that doesn’t portrays soldiers as fearless machines.
Rin is such a great main character to follow. She’s not the lovable kind (which only made me love her more, not gonna lie) she’s selfish and power hungry but she’s also determined, strong and the most resilient character I’ve ever read about, if she has a goal she will stop at nothing to achieve, even using very questionable, unhealthy and/or ruthless. Her character arc and development through the book are incredible (I feel like I’ve said this word a lot in this review), we see her go from a self-conscious village girl who doesn’t know anything about anything and found that she took on more than she could handle to a strong willed, powerful, revenge driven shaman warrior. And wow. Just wow.
All the other characters are my children as well, I don’t care how old they are, they’re all a mess and in need of a hug. Jiang is hilarious, he might come off as a coward, but I see him as someone who’s seen too much of the world’s atrocities and knows when to back down and away from it. Nezha has great character development, he’s a rudeass that I wanted to smack more than once in the first part of the book but then he learns to be and do better and acts on it, I loved him at the end and *nervous laugh* I can’t wait to see more of him. Altan, my boy, my lovely messy fucked up boy, I love him, DON’T JUDGE ME LIKE THAT, I know what you’re thinking. He’s not a good person by any stretch of the word, he only sees red, blood and vengeance but honestly, with everything he’s been dealt the worst hand at life imaginable so it’s kind of…understandable? Through him and Jiang, we can see a dichotomy of what can become of people when they’ve just seen too much.
There are so many other characters I’m not mentioning just because the review would be interminable if I did but they’re as great to read about. The Poppy War is hands down one of the best fantasy books out there and one of my favourites as well. I can’t wait for The Dragon Republic to come out and destroy my soul as well.
That’s it until next time.
Did you read The Poppy War? If so, what did you think?
Who was your favourite character?
Hope you enjoyed, write to you soon.