Okay! I did not mean for this blog to be so full of book reviews, but I read this book and I want to talk about it.
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.
Fair warning- this book contains pretty much all the triggers surrounding violence (sexual and otherwise), racism, and war (including genocide and human experimentation). Not in a vague way, either, more in a Hannah Gadsby’s Nannette way; so if you prefer your fantasy to stay away from touchy subjects, this book is not something you should read.
Everyone else though, should.
Fantasy with a strong moral message, without being preachy or predictable is rare these days (or at least, I don’t find it often). This is RF Kuang’s first novel, which makes me both jealous and in awe, in roughly equal amounts.
As usual, this review is in no way spoiler free. For a censored version, see my review on Goodreads. Without further ado, here are the pros and cons of The Poppy War¹ by RF Kuang.
- This book is original. It bears repeating, so I’m repeating it. This novel is unique in its unflinching look at war, the complex moral situations it makes no attempt to water down, and in its equally strong worldbuilding and character arcs. Every part of this is good, go read it.
- One of the ways this book distinguishes itself is the strong female lead. I loved that Rin doesn’t want babies (duh, she risked a lot to ensure that wasn’t her job) and acts on it decisively. She’s ambitious, angry, bloodthirsty and determined in a way a lot of writers don’t let women be without some softening ‘flaw’. Rin is not that character. She kills her first person and doesn’t feel bad. She loses friends and gets angry, not weepy. She calls her leaders on their shit and doesn’t back down when threatened. She kills a monster wearing the face of a man she loves and feels proud of herself. Rin is a badass, and I am here for it.
That being said, I didn’t like the way Rin’s only female friend ended up being raped. However! It was a powerful turning point for Rin, and I understand that women’s role in wars has traditionally been a fairly non-consensual one. The Poppy War does a good job of not being sexist without eliminating sexism from existence in-world². I suppose one of the survivors being a friend of Rin’s is what allowed that particular branch of atrocities to be explored in further depth, and I don’t disagree with it being in the book, it just wasn’t one of my favourite parts.
- I very much appreciated that there’s no tiresome love triangle angst. There are only hints at the possibility of interest on either side of the object of desire in question, so no fear there. Characters aren’t reduced to the level of petty rivalries, or childish snubs by a momentary crush. The characters are adults, and soldiers, with far more important things to worry about, and they act like it. It’s very refreshing.
- I’m glad Rin didn’t sleep with Altan or Nezha, and also glad that she wasn’t rendered incapable of love or desire by virtue of being a ruthless and capable woman.
- I don’t think Nezha is dead yet, and I’m glad, because he just started to get interesting. I want to see what the dragon mark means and how Rin will fare when faced with someone she has such a complex history with.
- I’m glad Kitay survived, I think his calm logic, enduring morality and knowledge of existing power structures is a good foil to Rin’s… everything.
- I really liked the complex, diverse characters and promising tie-ins to future novels. Rin got a lot of power, very quickly, and a lot of the ties she forged are broken now. I want to see what she does with that power.
- The world RF Kuang has created is interesting, and the Chekov’s gun of the stone mountain is an intriguing set-up for a final showdown/world-ending event. I also liked the magic system, I liked that there are inescapable penalties payed for power, and I liked the way the small number of magic users was justified.
- There is a clear message of how too much power makes all choices moot, and war is always comprised of justified atrocities. If you get caught up in trying to make the right choice, you make no choices at all (looking at you, Jiang).
- This isn’t a con so much as it is a comment, but the graphic description of various atrocities was confronting. I appreciate, however, the way such horrific events placed Rin under increasingly brutal pressure before she caved. In a situation that incomprehensibly savage, what aren’t human beings capable of? I’d like to think the horrible things that happen in the book are unrealistic or exaggerated, but the unfortunate, horrifying truth is that they aren’t.
- The way the book portrayed unhealthy power dynamics between commander and subordinate seemed… dicey; likewise Rin’s use of self-harm to get good grades. That being said, the situations were never prevented as healthy or good, Rin’s just a brash, bold child with low self worth making the choices she’s been conditioned to make in those situations—disregarding herself, her feelings, her values, her judgement and everything but the decisions of those she’s told or trained to obey. She’s a soldier. An elite soldier, sure, but at the end of the day her teachers and leaders were shaping her into a tool, and treating her as such.
My favourite line occurs within the first chapter, and hopefully proves that the book isn’t all heavy themes and grim happenings, there’s plenty of light moments to keep you going.
“…a temple custodian strode out from behind the altar.
They blinked at each other.
Slowly Rin removed the incense stick from her nostril.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m praying.”
“Please leave,” he said.”
Overall, the book is a compelling look at the way war burns up and moulds brilliant people into weapons, and the toll it takes on them. It’s also a look at the way horrific choices are framed as the only option when you stop thinking of people as people and start seeing them as obstacles, as numbers, as animals or threats.
In that way (and with the obvious analogies to historical genocides that can be drawn, especially as regards the medical experiments), the book is also a condemnation of racism and the dehumanisation of vulnerable minorities; without sacrificing the characterisation, world-building or plot of the original story.
A great read, and one I would wholeheartedly recommend, but if you want a light, straightforward read, or don’t like unapologetically vengeful, ambitious or bloodthirsty heroines, choose something else.
RATING: 5 stars
¹The first in an as-yet-unnamed trilogy!!!
²Rin still lives in a patriarchal society, as proven by her arranged marriage being the pivotal motivator for her at the beginning of the book, but there are female soldiers, and the empress from all indications rules alone.