The Poppy War: Review
The Poppy War was one of my most highly anticipated reads in 2018 and it did not disappoint. In fact, I had to Google whether there was a Chinese translated version because I knew without a doubt that my dad- who loves kung fu movies like Ip Man- would enjoy this book immensely. This adult fantasy is so rich with detail and world-building, invoking East Asian mythology and inspiration, and pays homage to kung fu in a way that I haven't quite seen before in literature. Read on for my review!
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.
I looooooooooooved The Poppy War so much. There aren't enough words for me to describe just how magical this book is- how perfectly balanced it read. To be honest, I devoured this behemoth of a book in about twelve hours, on my flights to and from a recent trip to Iceland. The Poppy War follows the story of Rin, a girl who grew up in an impoverished town where her only options are prostitution or marrying a stranger to finance her adopted family. Instead, she forges her own path and studies in secret for the Keju, a civil service exam that seeks out the most talented students for Sinegard, an elite military school where graduates go on to lead armies.
I realize now that I love academy stories. You know, where characters are trained to be specialists in something- usually magic, war, weaponry, assassination. The vibes that I got from Sinegard reminded me very much of Nevernight, another beloved series of mine. It is unfiltered humor, realistic violence, with a fiercely strong protagonist that goes on an incredible character arc. Yes, we start out at Sinegard, but by the end of The Poppy War, I felt as though I'd lived a hundred lives. Rin is not the same naive girl that enrolled at Sinegard purely on her merits without the financial help of family or government members. By the end of the book, she is a warrior who is capable of burning down the world.
There is loads of action in this book with some real technicality paid attention to how Sinegard students train in the martial arts. It pays homage to the tradition, rather than stereotype it. It elevates it to an art form. There is something intensely beautiful about the writing because you can just tell that no word is added unnecessarily. The mythology and world that Kuang has created is lush and inspired.
The best part of all is that there was NO ROMANCE! None at all! Well, there may be something budding here and there but it's absolutely not integral to the plot nor the character development. This makes me so happy. Rin is capable of tearing down armies, and she is respected for her strength. Her will does not waver and her moral compass points north- well, her version of north anyway.