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.
The Poppy War is an Asian-inspired fantasy with an Asian protagonist, and right now in the world of fantasy, these are incredibly rare. That reason – if no other – is a good one to pick up this novel.
Fang Runin is a different sort of protagonist than I’m accustomed to finding in books like these. She’s driven and smart, but not in a Hermione-esque where learning comes naturally to her. Rin has to work very hard to keep pace with her peers. Her birth and raising has not disposed her to this sort of life, and so, she must put in double the effort to find a place in a school that was intended for the children of the rich and powerful.
I heard this book referenced once as “like Harry Potter but way more violent” and in the early chapters, I think that’s fair. You have a misfit at a prestigious boarding school. You go to classes and learn techniques alongside Rin. But you don’t get to follow her through to graduation, because midway through her second year, war breaks out. Rin’s school is a military academy, so she is drafted alongside her teachers and peers and they go to war with the rest of the country.
War is hell, loves.
I think that especially in American culture, we’ve put the shiny, patriotic filter on war, but that’s a farce. Rin’s story arc follows her learning to embody her god and the moral decisions she makes, but the passages that struck me the most were the ones describing the horrors of war through her eyes. I would not describe Rin as naive in any part of the book, but the things she sees are can only inspire hate, disgust, and despair.
And, frighteningly, it all felt very true.
Rin is surrounded by interesting and curious figures. Her school peers – Nehza, Kitay, and Venka – emerge again later in the story, each with horrors that have scarred them. Venka’s story in particular made me sick. And please, don’t take that as a criticism of the book. If anything, it’s a compliment to Kuang as a writer. She writes these horrors with no-holds-barred. The Poppy War is not a book for anyone with a sensitive stomach. The things described… they’ll make you want to scream.
The Cike – or “Thirteenth Division” in wartime – is a band of strange recruits, all of whom have learned to embody the Nikaran gods. I found myself wanting to see more of these characters. We spend a lot of time between Rin and Atlan that I felt like we barely got to know Qara and the others. Since this is a trilogy, we’ll likely be seeing some of them more in the future, but this is another example of the brilliance of Kuang’s writing. People move in and out of the story with ease, just like real life. Sometimes people disappear and we never see them again.
And that’s that.
Honestly, I cannot recommend this book enough, but it’s really not for the faint of heart. Trigger warnings abound in this one – from rape to genocide to self-harm to other unspeakable things. It’s war, and it’s not softened up. Or perhaps more terrifyingly, maybe it is. For those who are able to muddle through these things, this is a very intense, dark, fascinating story about the rise and fall of both an empire and a human soul.
I will be keeping my copy of The Poppy War.
This book wrapped me up. It’s really good in the way it is written, even when the subject matter made me sick. I respect Kuang’s choice to keep the situation raw and real. It felt very honest, and as such was such a powerful book. Rin, too, is a powerful character and I am very, very worried for her future. I will have to read this again, after the initial shock has worn off. There’s a lot here to be seen between the lines, making it the best sort of fantasy read.