Serena’s Review: “The Poppy War”

35068705Book: “The Poppy War” by R. F. Kuang

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, May 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the the library!

Book Description: 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.

Review: Whew! That book description is about half the length of my entire post usually! But I guess given that this is a 600+ page book, it kind of makes sense. There’s a lot to pack in there! This summer continues to be the summer of catching up on books that were quite a hit a year or so ago, and that for whatever reason, took me forever to get to! I have clear memories of seeing this cover and title being thrown about everywhere and yet I never really knew anything about what it was about! Which, having read it now, I kind of get! There’s a lot in here, and it’s the kind of book that’s hard to pin down or to compare to some other, obvious read-alike. And, while I was not prepared for everything in this, I really loved it!

Rin has always been a fighter. Maybe not in the classical sense, though she gets even there eventually. No, she is one who fights against the life that others have chosen for her. A war orphan from a poor providence, through sheer stubbornness and force of will she studies hard enough to earn her ticket out of an arranged marriage. Then, in a northern school that looks down on her lowly beginnings, Rin, again through sheer stubborness, finds a way to become one of their best students. And then the war hits, and her real fight begins. Not only against an almost unstoppable invading force, but the fight within herself to define her future. Will she follow a beloved teacher, warning of dark paths ahead? Or an esteemed leader who asks her to embrace every bit of power she has always hid within herself.

This book took me by complete surprise. For one thing, it almost reads as two entirely different books, so right when you’re getting settled in and think you understand the type of story you’re read, bam! Nope! The first half is your classic coming-of-age, boarding/military school story ala Tamora Pierce’s “Alanna” series. You have Rin, the girl who has nothing going for her, proving to everyone again and again that sheer stubbornness is enough to get you through most everything. She’s an outcast among her peers with the one sweet friend and the one big enemy in the local school enemy. She befriends the quirky teacher. It’s all lovely. And as familiar as that all sounds, the author imbibes her story with such a complicated history, culture, and mythology that the reader never once feels like these aspects of the story are coming off as tropes.

And then, whoops! Not the innocent school story anymore! A foreign army invades and suddenly the story takes a steep turn into a grim and gritty war story. And even that came with surprises. It starts out well enough with a few things going Rin’s way as she learns more about her abilities, her history, and her potential. She joins up with a crew of other “freaks” and they have a few wins. And then…it gets dark. Pretty suddenly even. And when I say dark, I mean dark. I’m not a prude about violence by any means, but man, I wasn’t prepared for where this book headed. I definitely teared up a number of times and had to put the book down (metaphorically, as it was an audiobook) at least two or three times. Some parts of it were really hard to get through.

I will say that this is the one part of the story that knocked it back a point from being a full “10 rating” book: at times, it felt like the violence was almost a bit too much. There was one section in particular about three fourths of the way through where I felt like the book just seemed to linger and repeat examples of the atrocities. While a lot of this was necessary for Rin’s own arc and to justify her choices and how she ends up where she does, I think the point was made even without some of the circling round again through all of the horror. It’s a fine line to walk, and it’s the kind of thing that many readers will have different tolerances for. But, the warning stands: this book goes to some awful places. I wasn’t prepared, so I’ll let you know so you can be!

I really liked Rin’s character. Her arc is incredibly compelling, especially as we see her struggle through some awful choices. And by the end, we have a character who is very different than the one we started with. But at the same time, completely recognizable. And the changes are so subtle and the influences on her pile up so slowly, bit by bit, that by the grand conclusion, we’re not shocked by what should be shocking.

I also loved the incredibly world-building, history, and mythology. This story felt completely fresh, and even after 600+ pages, I still only felt like I was scratching the surface of this world. This is the first book in a trilogy, and while I have a few guesses as to where one or two things are going, I’m also prepared to be dead wrong. Since I was completely blown off my feet with this one, it’d be the height of arrogance for me to assume I know what’s coming next! That said, I will need to give myself a bit of breathing time before getting into the second one. My heart can only take so much!

Rating 9: A little late to the game and repeating what’s been said a bunch of times already, but this book is incredible.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Poppy War” is on these Goodreads lists: “Asian Speculative Fiction by Asian Authors — #ownvoices” and “Fantasy of color.”

Find “The Poppy War” at your library using WorldCat!

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