Review: The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
Published by Harper Voyager on May 1, 2018
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.
The Poppy War is a fantastic read that I am sure will make Best Of 2018 lists come time later this year. It pulled me in REALLY fast! It starts with the main character, Rin, going in to take an exam. We don’t know anything about her or what the exam is for, but its immediately clear that the exam is serious business, and I think the lack of back story before this just made it incredibly intriguing. I wanted to know more about Rin and also more about how her life would change if she passed the exam.
We learn Rin is a war orphan, and of foreign heritage. Because the war left so many orphans in her land, families are paid to take them in. Rin’s guardians treat her more like a servant than a child, and as she matures, her worth turns into what they might be able to get in exchange for arranging a marriage for her. Of course, Rin is not the least bit excited by marriage, and especially not by the much, much older man they have selected for her. Passing the exam offers Rin a new and much different life. She is eager to escape and doesn’t hesitate to seize the opportunity. But that does not mean her new life is welcoming of her or easy for her.
Life at the school is cut throat, to say the least. And because Rin is different, she becomes a target for some who think she does not deserve to be there. But Rin is strong and determined. I love reading about her as she finds herself and her place at school.
I also want to mention that this book almost feels like two books. The first is a coming of age story, where I kept wondering why every one labeled this as “grimdark”. The answer is clear in the second half of the book. I loved both parts, but for different reasons. There’s a fun familiarity with the school setting, and reading about Rin, an outsider, make her way through. Her training is hard and sometimes baffling, and competition is fierce. She does not have the option of failing, as she has no where to turn if she does not succeed.
And then there is the second half of the story, which is the exciting, can’t turn the pages fast enough, did that really just happen??, pull at your emotions in every way, part of the book.
Kuang’s writing is superb. There are few books that get me so invested from the very first pages, and can actually hold that level of addictive story telling through out the entire book. This is easily one of my favorite reads in a while, and my biggest concern with it is that I’ve not heard when the next book will be available yet. This is an absolute must read for fans of Abercrombie, and others who enjoy grimdark. I think it can be enjoyed by most who love fantasy, but will add a disclaimer that the book takes a dark and bloody turn, so readers looking for lighter fare or those who are a bit squeamish of violence, may want to go into the book forewarned.