The Poppy War was one of the books that I knew I definitely needed to buy on my birthday book blow-out. Unfortunately, Waterstones had sold out and I had to order it on the train on the way home instead. No harm done as it meant that I got to read The City of Brass instead, with which I fell completely in love. The Poppy War rolled up a day or two later… and here we are.
Plot summary: When Rin aced the Kejuthe 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 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 aliveand 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 Star Rating: * * * *
R.F. Kuang has an MA in International History, in which her research focused on Chinese military strategy, collective trauma, and war memorials. This background knowledge lends The Poppy War an air of authority and I loved that. I loved the lessons from Sunsi (Sun Tzu, essentially) about the art of warfare, and the lessons the students attended about strategy and linguistics. Of course, that results in a novel about war, and about tactics, based on a period of history that most of us are unfamiliar with, so you can’t really read this while you’re half asleep. Still, that was my favourite part about The Poppy War – the history and the strategy.
The Poppy War is split into three parts, separating Rin’s time at the Academy, with the military and then her time pursuing her own quest. I have to say that my enjoyment of the three sections was very different.
I loved the first part. Rin gets into Sinegard and her time is spent developing new skills with her classmates, spending time with her eccentric Master and learning the military history of Nikan. Essentially, it’s mostly wider world-building at a prestigious school, complete with student enmities and Rin’s worries about her position. It’s fantastic and I love it. The detail is just wonderful. It’s so well-thought out and I just wanted to be in that world. Four and a half stars.
In the second part, Rin has moved on into the military. This isn’t a spoiler – it says so in the blurb. I still liked this, although I struggled with the fact that the previous setting and all the previous characters (but Rin) had vanished. Although it possessed the same detail and the same air of authenticity that the first section had, I struggled to really link it to the first section, which I’d loved. Four stars.
The last section is very abstract. Rin sets out to complete her own quest, again abandoning the previous setting and most of the characters, bar herself and one other. It’s partly my own failing that I tend to not appreciate abstract novels – I struggled with the final book in the Mistborn series for the same reason. It just felt bizarre that such a clinical, military history novel would descend into the realms of abstract divinity. And Rin’s decision making and the subsequent ending is… well. Two stars.
I’m not sure how I’m meant to feel about that ending. Rin makes a huge decision with far-reaching consequences and it’s unclear what the author’s intention is. I mean, am I meant to support it or feel conflicted or what? I hated the choice that was made by the characters, and if I’m meant to, as a reader, then fine. I can actually get on board with that. But the book doesn’t really make that clear – whether we’re meant to look down the characters, or whether it was a total misfire by the author.
The thing that gets me, though, is that I thought this was a standalone. All the way through I was thinking ‘this should really have been a series,‘ which is the opposite of what I usually think. Usually I wish series had been condensed! The passage of time isn’t great – we’ll spend hundreds of pages through Rin’s first year at the Academy, and then suddenly ‘a year passed by…’ etc. I was thinking ‘Alright, it’s a standalone so it had to zip along. No time for explanations!‘ But then I finished it and IT IS A SERIES, so the passage of time could have been better.
It’s not as brutal as people say, not really. There is one scene that refers to atrocities committed by an invading party, but it’s related second hand by a witness. You don’t ‘see’ it. Yes, it’s pretty bad but it doesn’t last long and I would argue that it is integral to the plot. The rest is fine. There is no first-hand rape, the violence isn’t bad and the self-harm that is constantly referenced, isn’t really self-harm. I mean, it’s not YA, but as far as adult books go, it’s fine.
Oh oh, and there’s no romance! I love that!
I had intended to give this 3.5 stars, but I walked away from this review for a week and now I think it does deserve the full 4. I enjoyed the first two parts immensley, despite some issues with pacing and abandoning old characters. The last part just wasn’t to my taste. That’s probably the fairest way to say it. I would still recommend The Poppy War to lovers of fantasy, just be warned that the ending does descend into chaos somewhat.
The sequel to The Poppy War is called The Dragon Republic and has a release date on 2 May 2019.