Title: The Poppy War
Series Title: The Poppy War #1
Author: R.F Kuang
Publication Date: May 1st 2018
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Genre / Themes: Fantasy, Grimdark
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.
“We aren’t here to be sophisticated. We’re here to fuck people up.”
I have no idea how to start this review.
I liked most of the things about it. But Rin… really got to my nerves. A lot.
Okay, let me start by saying that if you asked me what I rated the first part of The Poppy War, I would have confidently said this was a 5 star book! I enjoyed the first part of the book very much. However, as the story moves along, I found that I was gradually forcing myself to continue reading it.
The Poppy War wasn’t bad. There was a lot to like about this book. My problem with it was, the most important parts that would allow me to completely enjoy this was where I had the most issues with.
THE THINGS THAT I LIKED ABOUT THE POPPY WAR:
• WAS BASED ON HISTORICAL EVENTS AND IT REALLY SHOWED YOU THAT
I loved how Kuang was able to use actual historical incidents to tell her story. She told a story based on the second Sino-Japanese war, then created a different world in which this war was set in. The Poppy War did not attempt to sensor the brutal things that happened during this period. Its version of the Nanjing massacre was so painful to read about but also very necessary to in order to depict the horror that occur during that war.
• EAST ASIAN CULTURE AND INFLUENCES FOR THE WIN!
In a genre that largely consists of stories with Western influences, it is so refreshing to read about one that has Asian culture as its influence. I loved how the readers get introduced to Chinese culture, mythology, and lore. This was the main reason why I loved this book so much. I feel that the Fantasy genre needs more diversity in this aspect. Kuang did a fantastic job in making you a part of this world because of how she incorporated these details in the story.
• IT DIDN’T WATER-DOWN VIOLENCE
When I picked up this book, I was not expecting it to be Grimdark. I feel a bit uncomfortable with violence so I had been avoiding Grimdark fantasy for a while. Halfway through the book was when I realized that this book was not what I expected it to be. I knew going in that this was based on the Sino-Japanese war, but what I was expecting was a watered-down version of it because of the writing style. But it was not.
This book was not afraid to be graphic about the violence that happened to these people. It was very blunt, which I came to appreciate. Because in reality, war is never gentle. War is about killing the enemy, making them fear for their lives, oppressing them. The Poppy War showed that. It did make me queasy a lot of the times but it was a necessary feeling, I suppose, when you’re reading a book about war.
• THE ACADEMY SCENES!
If you don’t know me, I love books with academy settings! I fell in love with Harry Potter not just because of the magic, but also of its Hogwarts setting. I just love it when the characters get lectures on certain subjects that aren’t available for us to study in real life. Lore was the one that fascinated me the most when Rin was in Sinegard. Jiang was the Master of Lore. He taught her all about the Shamanism and Mysticism. I was just enthralled. I could read an entire about Chinese mythology, their Gods, and the creatures. I just love those things. I find them fascinating.
• A BAND OF MISFIT CHARACTERS!
I don’t want to spoil anything, but there will be a point in this book where Rin would come across a group of people who harness different abilities. Each of them has their own specific qualities and triggers – I loved it. Most of the books that I love have these types of characters, an example would be Six of Crows and The Final Empire. They have a group of people, having different personalities, traits, and skills, yet working together to resolve a conflict! I am always on board with that in books.
• THE MAGIC
This would be a little bit controversial for some. So how the Shamans contact the Gods to grant them power was by taking psychedelics, so technically, drugs. Some people might be uncomfortable with this. However, throughout the book it was mentioned that this substance was harmful and could cause addiction. There was nothing in this book that commends the use of it. It even shows you what it would look like if someone was addicted to poppy. The flagrant use of it was frowned upon especially by Jiang (who was one of my favorite characters by the way). The use of opium was used during the Sino-Japanese war, so there is historical basis on why it’s part of the story.
• JIANG AND KITAY
These are the only two characters in this book that I actually really connected with. Out of everyone, I wanted them both to survive this war. I didn’t care about Rin as much as I care about these two. They deserve to live and survive all this bullshit.
• THE WRITING WAS EASY TO GET INTO
I loved Kuang’s writing style. It was easy to get into. Her prose was simple and not overly complicated. She writes and describe things very well.
OKAY. NOW LET’S TALK ABOUT THE THINGS I DIDN’T LIKE:
I had a very hard time liking Rin.
To be fair, I did like her at first. First part Rin was not the same as Rin from second and third part. I already knew Rin was going to fall under “The Chosen One” trope. I was fine with that. I had no issues with that trope. The problem was, as the story was progressing, her character was starting to get more arrogant and annoying. She never listened to anyone but herself. In contrast to her arrogance, she allowed herself to be physically and verbally abused by someone who she idolized, then made excuses for how this character treated her. Like what?
I was like, “Where the f*ck was the Rin who didn’t take shit from anyone else?” During her Academy days, she had this sort of rivalry with another character. He was talking crap about her, she took none of that. But somewhere along the way, that Rin went missing. She was replaced by someone else who I did not recognize at all. I don’t know what happened. It’s like this character isn’t Rin anymore.
What’s even more frustrating was how she completely changed her mind and opinion about things depending on who she last talked to. I mean, can’t you make up your own damned mind?
I was told that Rin was an anti-hero because she was “supposedly” the Mao Zedong of this story. Sure. I’m all for that. However, I just wish the story could have developed her more in a way that it will be understandable why she ended up not listening to everything her master taught her and why she had to take a different path. She completely disregarded everything she learned from him when she connected with another character who seemed to have more influence on her than Jiang. Like sh*t, she only started using her powers and she feels like she knows more about the person who has been using it for longer than she had. WTF.
“Jiang was wrong. She was not dabbling in forces she could not control, for the gods were not dangerous. The gods had no power at all, except what she gave them. The gods could affect the universe only through humans like her. Her destiny had not been written in the stars, or in the registers of the Pantheon. She had made her choices fully and autonomously. And though she called upon the gods to aid her in battle, they were her tools from beginning to end. She was no victim of destiny.”
How do you know??? How can you be so sure of yourself??? Ugghh. I cannot. What the hell, Rin?
• IT SEEMS LIKE THERE IS ONLY ONE CHARACTER IN THIS BOOK
I didn’t feel invested in most of the characters because they didn’t feel like actual people, just characters that Rin could interact with. Most of these characters pop in and out of the story which, in my opinion, caused me to not be connected with them as much as I could have.
An example of this would be, a certain character that we were supposed to dislike went missing for a huge amount of time in the book. Then something bad happened to this character and we’re supposed to care about him? Given, there was one scene that they fought together – just one. And I’m supposed to feel like they connected immediately because of that one scene? There wasn’t enough time spent with this character for me to actually care about whatever happens to him. This is the same for majority of the character in this book.
I feel like I would have appreciated this more should it have been following different characters and not stuck with Rin the entire time. It’d would have been nice to know what was happening to the others so that when misfortune comes upon them, I could care more about them. You know?
MY VERY CONFUSING FINAL THOUGHTS ABOUT THE POPPY WAR:
Despite my passionately negative thoughts about Rin and the character development, I still ended up loving this book for all the reasons that I stated above. Sure, Rin frustrated me to no end on the second and third part, but the overall content of this book made me happy. The war part wasn’t easy for me to read, of course. I doubt anyone would be comfortable reading that. But I get the graphic violence in this book. It was necessary for the narrative.
Will I recommend this book? Most definitely! For those who are looking for a different fantasy book about war with a setting that is not often seen in this genre.