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A Tale of Brutality and Vengeance: Review of The Poppy War

Book: The Poppy War


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.

Author: R. F. Kuang

Year Published: 2018

Content Warnings (this is an extremely dark book please be careful): Drug use, substance addiction, themes of war, self-harm, racism, colourism, misogyny, ableism, genocide, abuse, murder, violence, death, death of children, animal death and cruelty, brutal torture, rape (off page but still graphic), mutilation, human experimentation, bullying

Chapter 21 in particular is the most graphic chapter, if you want to skip it Aentee @ Read at Midnight made a chapter summery.

  • Plot: 5/5
  • Characters: 5/5
  • Writing: 5/5
  • Overall: 5/5

The Poppy War was a sprawling, suspenseful story all about war, suffering and the price of vengeance.

This book is pretty brutal. So much so, that the atrocities committed shocked me to the core- it was quite hard to carry on reading at some points. After doing a bit of research, I found out that it was heavily inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Nanjing Massacre, and then I was even more shocked to realise that the events in the book were based on real ones.

It starts off with a young girl called Fang Runin (Rin for short) who lives in the Rooster Province of the Nikara Empire. To escape her tedious life and arranged marriage, Rin becomes determined to pass the notoriously difficult Keju test and get into the prestigious military academy of Sinegard. She succeeds in this, and once she is there, she faces many challenges from becoming top of her class to fighting in a war.

Rin was a very complex character and the novel spans several years of her life. She develops so much during this time and we learn about the motivations, hopes and fears that drive her and her choices. Throughout the book I found myself saying, “No Rin! Please don’t do it!” because although I understood her need for revenge, I didn’t want her to ruin herself in gaining it as I had grown to like her. At the end of the book, my opinion about her changed and I wonder how she will deal with the consequences of what she has done in the next book.

The ‘magic wielders’ were called Shamans and they make connections to their gods (by taking psychedelics) to gain their power. In many books, we see the characters throwing around balls of fire and swords made of ice with absolutely no consequences and everything’s peachy. That’s not the case in The Poppy War. The Shamans eventually go mad from the power and have to be imprisoned so they don’t pose a threat to others. I thought this was interesting as it shows how the power almost has a cost and throughout there is a constant battle within Rin as she is torn between giving into the allure of the power or resisting and retaining her sanity.

Kuang is a very skillful writer and it’s amazing how much she’s managed to fit in a few hundred pages. Rin’s internal conflict was also put together very skillfully and there were also in depth themes about genocide, revenge, military strategy and more.

This novel is not for the faint of heart. I would only recommend it to people who think they can handle it. Apart from that, it’s a brilliant military, grimdark fantasy and I think people will be talking about it for many years to come.

Have you read The Poppy War? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

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