The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang – REVIEW
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. 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 colour, 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.
“Fear was impossible to eradicate. But so was the will to survive.”
I’ve had The Poppy War sitting on my shelves for months now and, for some reason, I never got around to reading it despite its numerous glowing reviews. I decided to finally pick this up recently and I’m so glad I did as I absolutely loved it. Rin was such a complex and engaging character, that I became quickly invested in her. She also pretty much typifies a Slytherin, being tenacious, ruthless at times, and craving power. But the reader never stops empathising with her thanks to the narrative being told from her point of view and the moral ambiguity of most characters.
“Great danger is always associated with great power. The difference between the great and the medicore is that the great are willing to take that risk.”
One of my favourite things is reading about training and education so the Sinegard Academy which teaches martial arts, history, lore, linguistics, medicine and strategy had me completely engaged. This is only the beginning of the story though as the action widens to encompass the threat of a third Poppy War. The Nikara Empire is unstable and disunited leaving it open to attack from the Federation of Mugen so there is a military backdrop to everything that I found utterly fascinating. The story constantly refers to warfare strategy and tactics until we’re finally confronted with the brutality and inhumanity of war. Be warned there are extremely graphic descriptions of violence and some readers may find them triggering.
“I will die on my feet … I will die with flames in my hand and fury in my heart.”
Power is another theme threaded throughout the narrative and the introduction of Shamans channelling the power of gods becomes a huge part of Rin’s story. The struggle between power and control forces Rin to confront how much she’s willing to sacrifice and her decisions are always understandable even when unthinkable. It’s clear this is the first part in a trilogy as there’s still so much to be explored and I can’t wait to see how the fallout of this book drives the action of The Dragon Republic (due out August 2019). The Poppy War is a compellingly complex and richly detailed military fantasy debut and one of my favourite books of the year so far.