- my rating: 5 stars
- published by: Harper-Voyager
- genres: high fantasy, grimdark, historical fantasy
- content warnings: Self-harm, suicide, rape, sexual assault , murder, infanticide, mutilation, torture, drug use, familial abuse, emotional abuse, human experimentation, chemical warfare, genocide.
TW list from the author.
- read this if you like: Game of Thrones, From Unseen Fire
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.R.F Kuang has managed to pen the fantasy book of the year.
R.F Kuang has managed to pen the fantasy book of the year. Taking inspiration from her study of Chinese history, specifically the Opium Wars, the Sino-Japanese wars and the Rape of Nanking, Kuang presents The Poppy War, a grimdark military fantasy set in the Nikara empire, based on the Chinese empire. The reviews for this book have been outstanding and for good reason – The Poppy War is everything we want from good fantasies, it’s action packed, epic, and has an interesting world populated with morally complex characters. Plus the protagonists are all people of colour, and that is so important since the fantasy genre is heavily oversaturated with narratives centring white people.
The Poppy War follows Rin, a dark-skinned peasant from the rural south who wants to escape her abusive, drug dealing adoptive mother and attend military school in the north. To everyone’s surprise she aces the Keju test and is accepted into Sinegard, the most famous military school in Nikan. From here her character goes through fundamental shifts as she becomes more hardened, more cynical, and more desperate. What I liked about Rin is the narrative itself takes no time in making us like or dislike her. The narrative doesn’t really care what you think about Rin, and I loved it. She is a character written with incredible complexity. Her decisions are sometimes sickening, or infuriating, but I always understood them. I felt like maybe I shouldn’t like her, but I also couldn’t help rooting for her. R.F Kuang writes Rin with great thought. Her actions are always backed up by character development, so while you may feel positively, negatively or neutrally about her choices, it is always obvious from where they’re coming from … and that is great character writing.
While the first part of this book is heavily focussed on Rin’s military training, the second follows Rin after Nikara is dragged into a brutal war with The Federation of Mugen from across the sea. It is at this point the novel gets much darker. Everyone, including the author, says this book isn’t for the lighthearted and they are not wrong. The gory, graphic descriptions of sexual violence and genocide were hard to read. But I appreciated they were never gratuitous. The Poppy War examines the consequences of war, how people are willing and complicit in brutalising others through systematic dehumanisation, and how specific voices, usually those of the most marginalised, are stifled in the national memory of the past. While parts of this section were hard to read, the effects of the events on the psyche and the way the events force the characters to reexamine and change their moral beliefs to accommodate the tragedies they’ve seen or participated in was very interesting.
By far my favourite thing about this book, however, was the worldbuilding. Incorporating Buddhist beliefs, Kuang crafts a world of Shamans, magic and gods. The worldbuilding was truly exceptional. I had so much fun engaging with and following Rin as she unlocked her abilities and began to use them. I really enjoyed the inversion of the god as an archetype in fantasy. While they are usually depicted as conduits for good, The Poppy War instead turns them into destructive and capricious figures. I really enjoyed this subversion. Kuang examines the effect Shamanism has on the individuals who partake it, and ties it into wider discussions about the dangers of militarising personal and spiritual beliefs.
In The Poppy War R.F Kuang flawlessly blended fantasy, history and character study. This is a book with a solid beginning, middle, and end. Kuang creates narrators with intense psyches, struggling with their own ideological tensions and their generational trauma. The examination of collective consciousness and shared national histories, and how this effects and distorts current day narratives was so interesting. But when you really just get to the core of it, it was just a really gripping read. With plenty of action, and lots of magic, and intensely real characters. Although I will once again say there is some real dark subject matter here, a lot of the book was just purely good military fantasy. If you’re a fan of the genre you really, really need to pick this up.