The Poppy War (Review) // The one where I’m late to the party but screaming just as hard as everyone else

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.

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I think the best way to start this review is by saying that I am not okay? Yes, everyone has been screaming about this book, but I still wasn’t ready for it. There were so many things about it that, individually, could’ve made it amazing, but the way all the different aspects were brought together made it truly phenomenal.

Let’s start with the fantasy, shall we? I’ll admit it’s been a while since I’ve read fantasy (yes I know I’m a disappointment) but the reason for my neglect was the feeling that every fantasy book I read was starting to become the same story with a new cast. Well, The Poppy War definitely changed that. I am in awe of R.F. Kuang’s worldbuilding, especially the way fantasy and history are weaved together. I can safely say that the histroy was done justice, and the fantasy elements had some mythological background that helped create a unique blend of surreal.

Now we arrive at my favourite thing to discuss, the characters. Of course the first shall be our esteemed narrator and protagonist, Fang Runin, or Rin for short. It took me until the end to realise that she reminded me a little of Adelina Amouteru (the highest compliment, of course), but she’s much more than that. Rin is bullied for her skin colour and socioeconomic background, but that doesn’t stop her from rising above it all and becoming a force to be reckoned with. Her character evelopment is well executed and takes her down unexpected paths. Nezha is pretty boy personified, but I love him anyway. There are so many others I could mention, but in the interests of stopping this from becoming a full-on rant I’ll conclude the character section by talking about Altan. Oh, Altan. Introduced as the golden boy, we gradually see the boy behind the mask, and there’s a long story tehre. Altan is another excellent example of how the author uses characters to illustrate issues in the world, the main one here being genocide.

The way in which some of the foreshadowing was written allowed a fair amount of correct guessing, but I felt like that added to the novel because you were left wondering whether you were right and if so, what would occur later in the book. The Poppy War also made me think of Laini Taylor, especially Daughter of Smoke and Bone, with its gods. This book is also special though in that it’s one of the first books I’ve read that’s really made me feel seen. I loved all the references to Chinese culture, and the way it was written meant it could well have been three novels but I’m glad it was one epic one. The Poppy War is a complex and articulate novel that does an amazing job exploring the depths of human cruelty, discrimination and inequality, and the effect power has on people. This is not a book you want to miss, and that’s that.

Have you read The Poppy War yet? What’s a book that made you feel seen?

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