The Poppy War (The Poppy War #1) by R.F. Kuang (2018)
Fiction | Military Fantasy | (TV-MA)
“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.”
pooled ink Review:
Oh wow. This book was so much more than I expected in every possible way. More dark, more bloody, more elegant, more savage, more fantastical, more philosophical, more fun, more horrible, more…more everything. I think I need a few calming breaths and a Disney Pixar film to settle ha.
This book originally came up on my radar thanks to Piéra Forde, a “BookTuber” I subscribe to, and she was so floored by it that I knew I had to at least give it a try. This is solid adult fiction and as such I knew it would be hit-or-miss for me but the moment I cracked open the book I was captivated. From that first page I already knew I was committed to seeing Rin’s story through to the end. And I’m quite serious when I say it was a tough story to witness. Not because it was dull, on the contrary this book is well-written with a strong undercurrent that will keep you racing through its plot, but because with every hundred pages it’s as if you’ve descended to a new level of Hell as it gets more and more brutal as the situation of Nikara becomes increasingly dire and Rin finds herself in the thick of it.
It was the first time Rin had gotten a good look at the Mugenese outside the chaos of a melee, and she was disappointed by how very similar they looked to the Nikara….It disturbed her that the Federation soldiers so closely resembled her own people. She would have preferred a faceless, monstrous enemy, or one that was entirely foreign, like the pale-haired Hesperians across the sea.
It’s a bit funny because the book starts out with a 14-year old girl studying to pass a nation-wide exam and join the military academy. Lectures, school bullies, parades, tough teachers, and the like fill the beginning of this book and it’s raw and rough but still…dare I say a bit fun? Then there’s a moment maybe 200 or so pages in when drums beat for war and it is this moment where this story could have clearly taken two different paths. One more in the vein of YA fiction where it would still be dark and brutal but friendship, a bit of romance, and undying hope would see the main cast through. The other would throw off any restraint and accept the label of adult fiction to charge forwards filled with the deepest horrors of war and make no promise that the sun will rise in the morning.
If you couldn’t already guess, this book took the second path.
If you were the victim, what could you say to make your tormentor recognize you as human? How did you get your enemy to recognize you at all?
And why should an oppressor care?
Warfare was about absolute. Us or them. Victory or defeat. There was no middle way. There was no mercy. No surrender.
…To the Federation, to wipe out an entire race overnight was not an atrocity at all. Only a necessity.
I would have enjoyed this book no matter which path it had chosen but because of the way the story did unfold I would caution readers before diving into this book. It does not shy away from true horrors of war in the slightest (drugs, trauma, slaughter, torture, rape, etc. unfold in a way that’s so fitting and almost natural that it will make you sick that humans could be capable of such things, and not just in story but in real life). It gets horribly graphic when describing cities slaughtered and villages reduced to ash. This book does not pull its punches but at the same time I never got the sense that it was gratuitous or sensationalized. It was included because it’s the nightmarish reality of what we wish to ignore but those victims deserve the honor of not being pushed aside, written over, or ignored simply because it’s too uncomfortable to accept. It wasn’t an element added for shock and profit, it’s simply a fact of the situation.
And actually there is more truth to this story than one might guess at first glance as it’s partially inspired by the 1937 Rape of Nanjing and to read the author’s own words on this inspiration particularly with regards as to why she felt it important to include such open brutality in her book you can read it here.
After finishing this book, when at last I could move and felt up to doing anything besides sitting lost in thought, this was my summation of how I was feeling:
But for now let’s move on to other bookish points…
The writing was fantastic. Not too heavy or dense and dull but it didn’t skim the surface either. I felt instantly transported into this world; I could easily envision it but the imagery didn’t get in the way of the plot’s forward-momentum. There were no dull moments yet it wasn’t all exhausting relentless action either. To me this story felt well-balanced and this includes the characters.
The Empire didn’t need someone reasonable. It needed someone mad enough to try and save it.
The array of characters was necessary and well executed. Several years pass during this book and you not only meet a wide variety of people but for many you get to see them develop and change with time, with age, with knowledge, and with war. Some you will have instant feelings on, others you will watch with uncertainty, some are clear villains while others surely dance in robes of hero’s white. But not even the protagonist can claim one title or another as she too is a constantly shifting soul trying to find her footing and reconcile her conscience with her decisions. From where Rin began to where she stands on the final page her choices and her world expands with violence like the mushroom cloud of a bomb and as the reader you can only watch wide-eyed and speechless.
(By the end, Altan’s story had me with tears in my eyes. Even writing this review is not enough catharsis to fully process this book…and that’s when you know you’ve found something worth reading)
Many characters will weave in and out of Rin’s life so I hesitate to claim any character to be in a “main cast” besides Rin herself. She is the only consistent perspective and even with her one wonders how long a flame can burn before it suffocates.
“They were monsters!” Rin shrieked. “They were not human!”
“Have you ever considered,” he said slowly, “that that was exactly what they thought of us?”
The world-building supplied what was necessary and didn’t get distracted trying to paint too large or detailed a picture. It didn’t need to, particularly once you realize it’s based off of true events. While written with different country names, etc. you can rather easily guess which countries in the book reflect which nations that exist in our own world. To me this link didn’t hinder the story, rather it pulled me in deeper. It gave me a clear mental map (which I appreciated) and it made me want to know what exactly my fellow humans did that could inspire such a dark story. It also made me intrigued to research more about the culture that bleeds through the page via Rin’s master and their myths. Which leads me to the next story element…
There’s this strong element of shamanism and exploring the connection between humans and gods and what powers that can grant that I found truly fascinating. The way it was manipulated and threaded throughout the book made it feel simultaneously historical and freshly unique. It was a “magic” system that I hadn’t explored in a fantasy novel before that I can recall and the fact that this whole book is infused with strong elements of true history, including religion, made it that much more interesting. Despite this being a work of fantasy fiction I still felt as if I was learning except in a much more intriguing setting than a typical history class, and if you decide to research the inspiration for this book then I suppose you will really be learning more about Eastern culture and the history this story is based on.
“They do not call the gods down onto earth, because they know better…There is a price. There is always a price….The point of every lesson does not have to be to destroy,” he said. “I taught you Lore to help you find balance. I taught you so that you would understand how the universe is more than what we perceive. I didn’t teach you so that you could weaponize it.”
Oh my word, I simply don’t know how to structure this review at all. I know I’ve been babbling and bouncing around but I simply don’t quite know what to say. I was enthralled by it, horrified by it, and I want to read more. I want to know what happens next. My soul cries out for justice, victory, reconciliation, something besides the endless cycle of blood for blood. It doesn’t end on a major cliff-hanger or anything, but it does end with a new mission and the formidable sense that their work is not yet done. I’m left with so many questions but many I’m not convinced are the type that will be answered in a sequel. This is definitely a good read for a group who enjoys discussion!
Be cautious of the graphic violence but if you can stomach it then definitely pick this book up and give it a read. A Chinese-inspired military fantasy, The Poppy War will utterly captivate you, holding your attention through each victorious and vicious display. Grounded in the darkest ghosts of human history and embellished with the spirit of fantasy, this novel is an accomplishment of art and word like a war dance burning bright on the shelves.
P.S. Even writing a review on my blog wasn’t enough to settle the emotions this book stirred within me. This isn’t the type of book you read and forget about. It’s going to take me some time to process this book as well as the history it is based upon. You can’t unsee what visions it paints with mere words and the longer I sat in silence after closing this book I found myself with tears in my eyes as my mind kept thinking about the lives lost and all for man’s worldly gain. What a world…
Purchase here: The Poppy War
Similar Recommended Reads: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty, Nevernight by Jay Kristoff, Flame in the Mist by Renée Ahdieh, Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett, Red Rising by Pierce Brown, Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin
Meet R.F. Kuang!
I immigrated to the US from Guangzhou, China in 2000. I currently study Chinese history at Georgetown, where my research focuses on Chinese military strategy, collective trauma, and war memorials. I’m a 2018 Marshall Scholar, and I’ll be heading to the University of Cambridge next fall to do my graduate studies.
Fiction-wise, I graduated from Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016 and attended the CSSF Novel Writing Workshop in 2017. My debut novel, The Poppy War, is the first installment in a trilogy that grapples with drugs, shamanism, and China’s bloody twentieth century.
Don’t ask me why but when I read this I actually barked out a snort of laughter so I figured I’d share it here to show that not everything in this book is so grim.
He lectured as they climbed. “Martial arts came to the Empire by way of a warrior named Bodhidharma from the southeastern continent. When Bodhidharma found the Empire during his travels of the world, he journeyed to a monastery and demanded entry, but the head abbot refused him entrance. So Bodhidharma sat his ass in a nearby cave and faced the wall for nine years, listening to the ants scream.”
“Listening to what?”
“The ants scream, Runin. Keep up.”
She muttered something unrepeatable. Jiang ignored her.
I mean, come on, the image of wee little ants screaming (in my head it’s a cute but shrill little squeeee!) is pretty funny, no? As infuriatingly vague as Jiang could be, I really loved his character.