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.
Hardcover, 544 pages
Published May 1st 2018 by Harper Voyager
Rin defies the odds. She is a peasant girl NO MORE! Welcome to the most elite military school in Nikan!
Inspired by the history of China’s 19th and early 20th century, this fantasy novel eludes to the brutality of the Invasion of Manchuria by the Japanese and the awful medical atrocities committed by Japan. While the plot is infused with shamans, magical creatures and a bad-ass heroine, it parallels and draws closely to historical events worth brushing up upon.
This YA historical / fantasy novel may not be for everyone. Chapter 21, referring to the Rape of Nanking, was brutal to read with explicit scenes of rape, torture and medical experiments. Especially on woman and children. Hardly in disguise, it is written painfully raw and unforgiving.
Rin is a war orphan living in servitude with relatives dealing in the Opium trade. It is her dream to be accepted to Sinegard, the most elite military school in Nikan, to escape an arranged marriage and poverty. An agreement she makes drives her to study for two years for the entrance exam, and to the surprise of officials, she aces it.
Traveling to Nikan is Rin’s first eye opener of how different the world of Warlords and the privileged rich really is. Her challenges as a peasant girl with darker skin make her the target of bullies in class and proves to be an almost insurmountable feat in the social hierachy. Navigating through classes, making foes mostly and only few friends, she does not give up!
A teacher in shamanism has a liking for Rin's tenacity and takes her on to train in this art. His unconventional methods resemble the scenes of the original ‘Karate Kid’ to me, as she has to lug a pig up the mountain every day for fresh water for months. As Rin discovers that she is gifted with shamanic powers, she is taught how NOT to use them…counter-intuitively.
As time passes the country finds itself at the brink of a war between Nikan and Mugen. This is the part heavily influenced by real events in the 1930’s, specifically the Nanjing Massacre / Rape of Nanking. The scenes of Rin’s martial arts with a fellow classmate and bully in sync to fight together against the enemy, stands out as foes become equals when fighting for the same cause. Young people thrown into war and divvied to different military sections gave this part a sad tone, as many of the friends do not survive.
Rin is assigned to a company of misfits, with a commander whose expectations are vastly different from what she has been taught. She discovers that the two of them share a connected heritage and divinity. Uncertain if her powers can live up to his expectations, she is determined to try and succeed. A struggle ensues that leaves Rin a poor orphan no more, but ascends her to be the most powerful shaman to revenge with a hellish genocide.
“I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible. Was she now a goddess or a monster? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.”
― R.F. Kuang
I very much liked this book. Again for me, it is one of those history based novels that make me want to research the events inspired to write it. I am happy to see a trend in fiction where writers branch out into lesser known histories. In this case it’s at the YA level serving or perhaps creating an interest to delve deeper into the thoughts of this novel. Always a plus.
My favorite part in this was Rin’s tenacity, setting goals and working really hard to achieve them. The academy setting is not an untried piece of writing, but shows the characters humble beginnings in growth and ascend to power.
What I did not like as much was the very loud, action packed form that this novel shaped into towards the later parts. I know it is very appealing to the YA audience and goes along with others published recently, so technically it is really well done and hits all the notes for the intended audience. Personally, I cannot imagine where the next novel will take Rin. I am almost afraid I will not like it if the plot continues at the accelerated pace it ended. But I do not dislike it enough to not give it a try.
R.F. Kuang is a very talented young writer. This debut novel is an immense accomplishment and I am certain only beginning of her writing career.
If you like a blend of fantasy and historical fiction, I would definitely recommend this one, among a few others like ‘The City of Brass’ by S.A. Chakraborty or ‘The Conqueror's Saga’ by Kiersten White.
Happy Reading :)
I enjoyed my discussions on this book I had with my reading buddy Sophie on GR from France!
Meeting R.F. Kuang at the BookCon in NYC, May 2018.