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.
No Spoilers! (Promise)
You know those books where, once you finally set them down, you think WTF did I just read, but in a good way? That's Poppy War.
This was largely because of the book's ending, which I will not get into because I have a strict no-spoiler rule on this blog. Suffice to say, even though the entire book has been leading up to that specific decision of the main character's, it still caught me off-guard. Because I'd never seen a book go that direction without warning before.
The Poppy War centers around Rin, and is told almost exclusively from her point of view (third person limited). Right from the start she's an extremely captivating character, despite the fact that most of what she does is react, making her a passive character. Her taking the test, going to Sinegard, becoming a soldier and fighting in a war, all of those are her reactions to what the world throws at her. It's not until the very end that she acts first, forcing the world to react to her.
Normally, I hate passive characters. They're boring. Best case scenario, they get dragged along with the plot and their primary function is to complain about how horrible the world is. But Rin is different, and it's the way she reacts that sets her apart. We learn very early that she doesn't do anything half-assed. Her foster parents tell her she's to marry someone three times her age for their criminal enterprise? She risks her life to steal opium to bribe a local tutor to help her study for the exam. Her period cramps are so bad that she's going to miss at least three days of school every month? Better drink a potion to make herself infertile so she doesn't have to deal with it. Enemies attacking the school? Burn the whole place down with newly-discovered magical powers!
Rin is impossible not to watch. Half of the time, she knows the thing she's about to do is a horrible decision, but she does it anyway because, in her mind, the alternative is even worse. She's very self-aware, even though, as a teenager, she can still be kind of stupid.
She's supported by a wide variety of supporting characters: her teachers, her rivals, and the few friends she manages to make. Several of these people die, because this book is definitely grimdark, and they're all very well crafted. I do wish that I could see more of Rin's young foster brother, largely because she feels guilty for leaving him when she goes to Sinegard and thinks about him later in the book. But we only get one scene with him, and that's when she leaves for the academy. Another scene or two showing them together would have gone a long way toward showing Rin's more human side that she becomes in danger of losing.
The worldbuilding leaves something to be desired. Not the magic or the gods, those are fine, but the history and political climate need work. I'm not as well-versed in Chinese history as I should be, but even I knew after one glance that this "fantasy world" is basically 19th-century China. The real world saw two Opium Wars; this world has two Poppy Wars (poppy being the plant that opium is made from). Japan used to be militarily aggressive and constantly fought with China; in this universe they're the Federation of Mugen. China had an ancient strategist named Sun Tzu who wrote The Art of War; Rin studies a guy named Sunzi who wrote The Philosophy of War, whose lessons and parables match Sun Tzu word-for-word.
I am all for using history as a stepping stone in worldbuilding. Hell, I do that all the time! The most famous example is George R. R. Martin, who based his Game of Thrones series off of the Wars of the Roses. But there's a difference between using something for inspiration like Martin and just copy-and-pasting like Kuang.
But that's honestly my only real complaint about this book. The characters and plot are both more than strong enough to carry the otherwise weak worldbuilding. The theme is also very well done. Kuang does not shy away from the horrors committed by the supposed "good guys." Considering the atrocities that Rin's nation and, eventually, Rin herself commits, the overall message is "war, oppression, and drugs really suck, guys, so maybe let's not?"
But while Kuang's book laments the horrible conditions that war brings out, she doesn't use it as an excuse to dismiss the negative aspects of her characters. She puts the responsibility for the characters' actions squarely on the characters, not letting them fall into the "oh, it was just a bad time, so it doesn't really count as my fault" mindset. Rin herself admits that her actions are inexcusable, morally atrocious, while also, in her mind, necessary.
One last thing, and this is probably one of the best things about this book: THERE'S NO ROMANTIC SUBPLOT. You could argue that Rin has a crush on one of her classmates, but that's a lot less romantic and a lot more hero-worship. I mentioned earlier: she destroys her own uterus as a teenager just to stay in school. Romance and family are the last things on her mind.
The Poppy War is landing solidly on my Favorites page. I would recommend it to anyone who's looking for a non-traditional military fantasy story, and/or is looking for a femme protagonist of color, and/or likes it when things get set on fire, because that happens a lot.
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!