Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Age Range: Adult
Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark, Military Fantasy
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.
Content warnings: Violence, sexual assault, mutilation, drug use and addiction, war, slavery, genocide
The Nikara believed in strictly defined social roles, a rigid hierarchy that all were locked into at birth. Everything had its own place under heaven. Princelings became Warlords, cadets became soldiers, and orphan shopgirls from Tikany should be content with remaining orphan shopgirls from Tikany.
Well, fuck the heavenly order of things.
R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War is easily one of the best fantasy debuts I’ve read this year. Even if grimdark is not your thing, I exhort you to read this. This is an Important Book, in the truest sense of the phrase. And to know that such a magnificent novel came from an Asian author makes it doubly enjoyable. I feel really grateful to have received an ARC of this, and you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be buying a print copy anyway. (Come through, American bookstores. Show me what it’s like to go book-shopping in the Land of the Free.)
That said, please note that this book has major trigger warnings for the following: drug use, torture and mutilation, rape, and genocide. Of all the fantasy novels that I’ve read this year, this book has the most graphic descriptions of war time consequences that I’ve ever seen. It was necessary to the story, and to achieve the point and the atmosphere that Rebecca was trying to go for, but it’s also really, really vivid. So tread carefully.
Rin is a war orphan, one of millions left homeless, penniless, and parentless by the Poppy War between the Nikara Empire and the Federation of Mugen. Instead of resigning herself to the fate of most war orphans, that of a miserable existence in the poorest province of the Empire, Rin decides to take the Keju, the merit-based test to find the most intelligent youths across the Empire who will enter its esteemed Academies. She aces the Keju and finds herself at Sinegard, the Empire’s premiere military academy, whose graduates go on to become Warlords and commanding officers. But her troubles have only begun. She must survive the derision and prejudice from both classmates and teachers, not to mention learn to manage the fact that she seems to be a shaman, beings who can channel the powers of the gods.
When the Federation of Mugen, tired of peace and diplomacy, finally invades once more, the students of Sinegard are sent into the field to fulfill their commands. But the tide of war is not friendly, and soldiers who were once children fall in battle against a more militarily advanced enemy. Rin needs to accept her abilities as a shaman in order to win, but finds herself losing her humanity in the process.
As I’ve mentioned before in previous reviews, I’m an utter sucker for world-building, and R.F. Kuang clearly does it so well. While you learn to expect hella world-building in military fantasies, I have to say that The Poppy War really stands out. The last time I felt this strongly about world-building was when I read The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco and the Gentleman Bastards series by Scott Lynch. The novel begins with Rin’s preparations to take the Keju, then continues on through her time at the Sinegard, before finally showing her placed with a battalion in the Nikara army and fighting in the third Poppy War. R.F. Kuang draws heavily from Chinese traditions of the merit-based civil service exams and military academies, as well as the history of the Sino-Japanese War. Nikara myths and legends are covered, as well as in-universe history with the Federation of Mugen and even other nations (including one that is clearly meant to represent the United States, lol). You even see the culture of prejudice and colorism: Rin is hated and made fun of not just because of her low stature in life, but also because of her dark skin. This is a form of discrimination that is alive and well in Asian communities, but especially East Asian communities.
R.F. Kuang is a masterful storyteller. Against the backdrop of such rich world-building is a story of death, genocide, war, and a young girl who could hold the key to ending it all. The book starts off small, seeing Rin’s dreams of getting away from poverty and out from under the thumb of her evil, drug-dealing aunt and uncle. Then the consequences of Rin’s actions get bigger and bigger as she goes to Sinegard, eventually graduates and leaves, and then is sent into the field. And there, she sees the true meaning of war. It isn’t glory or accolades or wealth. It’s atrocities, and misery, and torture, and rape.
The war between the Nikara empire and the Federation of Mugen echoes real-life events from the Sino-Japanese War, particularly the Siege of Nanking. I’m not sure if R.F. Kuang did this on purpose (as the author is a grad student with a degree in Chinese Studies, it’s highly likely), but her willingness to make her readers stare such abominable crimes in the face is astounding. One scene in particular really gutted me. When a former classmate of Rin’s describes how she and other women were systematically raped, it made me think of the comfort women in the Pacific Theater of World War II, most of whom have yet to receive recompense for the atrocities done to them. The stories of comfort women are not “ancient history”, y’all. My grandmother’s cousins were comfort women. Many of these comfort women are still alive today, and fighting to have their respective governments acknowledge what happened to them. I think it was a good decision for R.F. Kuang to put that scene in the book, mostly because it is not a thing that happened a long, long, long time ago, and we need to face these uncomfortable and appalling truths.
The one complaint I have about this book is that, with such rich world-building and plotting, the characterization falls a little by the wayside. While Rin herself is multidimensional, fleshed out, and well-written, most of the other characters aren’t. Some of them make stupid decisions that don’t have a lick of sense, military or otherwise. However, I still feel that this flaw pales in comparison to the absolute treasure of an experience that the rest of the book gives its reader, so I won’t be docking a star for that.
The Poppy War is truly one of the best fantasy debuts of 2018, and unless you’re sensitive to or wary of the trigger warnings I mentioned above, I highly advise everyone to read it. R.F. Kuang is one of the best fantasy authors of the year and I look forward to reading the rest of the books in the rest of this series!
Buy it here!