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.
My Rating: ★★★★★ – 5 stars
TWs: violence (a LOT – please don’t take this lightly), classism, racism, rape (not actually described, but extremely graphic descriptions of horrors leading up to it), animal death and cruelty, drug use and addiction, self-harm (by main character), sexism, death (very graphic descriptions of it), maiming
This is a very brutal and very dark book. Please make sure you’re in the right head-space to read this. These are all the trigger warnings I found, but I know this list is incomplete, so I recommend checking both Melanie’s and Fadwa’s reviews to see more complete lists of trigger warnings.
Thanks to The Poppy War, I got an average of three hours of sleep over the course of two days. Because I made a mistake. That mistake was reading the first few pages the day before I had to take two tests, turn in a bunch of homework, and try not to die. And then I added reading this book to the pile because it was so. Amazingly. Addicting. And thus the aforementioned lack of sleep happened.
So. It appears I have a new favorite book.
War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.
The Poppy War is a book that’s set in a world based off the Second Sino-Japanese War. And like all wars, many of its realities are frightening. The world is developed so vividly and realistically through the brutalities and injustices mentioned that it’s never too hard to suspend your disbelief and lose yourself in the story.
And. This. Story. Doesn’t. Pull. Its. Punches.
It really doesn’t. There were some parts I had trouble reading, to the point where I flinched – and I’m usually okay with descriptions of gore, but this book…was a bit of an overachiever in its descriptions. The writing builds startlingly complete pictures in your head, and they are more often than not very horrifying.
But what makes this story stand out isn’t just its worldbuilding and its amazing descriptions, it’s the main character: Rin, the Sumpreme Badass of all Badasses.
Seriously, this girl. She isn’t messing around.
Fang Runin (call her Rin though) is a war orphan, with very little future prospects. Her foster parents use her to deliver opium shipments to people in their village, and they are very very eager to marry her off. Especially since Rin’s wedding to the merchant will help their opium business.
Needles to say, Rin isn’t as thrilled as they are about this. And she’s willing to do anything to avoid marriage.
Fuck the heavenly order of things. If getting married to a gross old man was her preordained role on this earth, then Rin was determined to rewrite it.
Enter the Keju: an exam that teens spend their entire lives studying for. Passing the exam means getting accepted into a good school, which leads to a better life. Rin only has two years to study for it. And in those two years – that’s when we begin to see her iron will.
She willingly forgoes sleep – which, how? – and sets an intense schedule for herself to study, all while keeping her job at the shop and running “errands” for her foster parents. And when she gets too tired, when she starts feeling like she can’t stay awake – her desperation to leave, not to get married kicks in and she continues. She knows she can’t afford to waste a single minute, so she keeps going.
Pain is just a message, she told herself.
Sweetie, no. It’s not.
Rin’s fierce, single-minded drive to succeed, to win, to prove that those who doubted her were wrong about her is fucking terrifying. She pushes her body to unnatural limits, willingly inflicting pain on herself just to reach her end goal. Like, I want to be her. Not the hurting myself part – that’s definitely not healthy – but I want her determination, her refusal to lie down and take things as they are.
And her character arc is so well-done and realistic and beautifully dark. She isn’t the same person as she was in the beginning of the book, and we can see why. But more importantly, we can understand why. This isn’t a story where the hero overcomes all the odds and keeps their morals every step of the way. Rather, this is the story of a good person – because she was a good person in the beginning – slowly realizing the horrors of war and losing parts of her humanity as she’s forced to commit atrocities, to the point where she begins willingly committing them.
Children ceased to be children when you put a sword in their hands. When you taught them to fight a war, then you armed them and put them on the front lines, they were not children anymore. They were soldiers.
And another thing I like about her is that she isn’t the perfect, good-at-everything heroine. It would’ve been easy for her to be that, especially considering she’s one of the few shamans in the book. For example, she isn’t overly intelligent. I mean, she is intelligent – her memory is insane – but she also has to work hard to understand things and to do well in class. It made her much more down to Earth and more accessible/easier to relate to.
And the rest of the cast is equally accessible. There’s such a wide cast of characters, but somehow the author made them all so nuanced. They have believable motivations, backgrounds, everything. I’d say the major players of the cast – if I had to choose – were Kitay, Nezha, and Altan. And Jiang. Of course Jiang. (How could I forget Rin’s crazy mentor?)
Kitay is a sweet cinnamon roll. I will always protect him. Forever. even though he and his eidictic memory make me insanely jealous and make me want to cry because how are people that smart and he doesn’t have to study?? He just remembers after he reads it the first time?? WHY DO I BOTHER.
But I hope we get to see him in the next book. I really want to see him and Rin interact more. Also, the author said in this interview (be warned – the interview has spoilers!) that Kitay is both aromantic and asexual.
–> Which, quick tangent: In the interview, the author states that she is tired of seeing romantic plots in books they don’t really fit into, and that Rin’s story is not about who she wants to bang and that Rin has bigger problems to deal with.
Yes. THANK YOU. I mean, has anyone ever wondered after reading a fast-paced fantasy novel how the hell the characters had time to make out for an eternity while the world was ending? And how feelings developed so fast? I have. And it confuses me.
–> Alright, getting back on track: Nezha. I was ready to reach through the pages and punch him in the first half of the book. He bullied Rin just for being different and made her life a living hell. But he changes. His character arc was a pleasure to watch, and while I’m still teetering on the fence about him, I don’t hate him anymore. He also apologized to Rin, which improved my opinion of him.
And then there’s Altan. The last Speerly.
My heart actually physically hurts for him. The things he’s had to see and live through…and it’s handled in such a good way throughout the story. You don’t really get how much his life messed him up until the very end, which. Wow. Poor guy.
Life definitely didn’t treat him right. Which is unfortunately applicable to all these characters, because they have to live through this war.
And Jiang. He was very entertaining! I want to see more of him in the next book, but…probably not happening. Still! One can hope!
The fantastical aspect of the story was also very interesting. Namely the shamans, people who can channel the power of the gods through them and unleash it on the world. But they apparently can only access those powers when they get high???
I don’t know. We aren’t questioning it.
Are they overpowered? Yes. Do I care when people are overpowered and complain about it? Yes. (Superman, I’m looking at you.) But this power has consequences. Most shamans go crazy at young ages because the power of the gods eventually overtakes their sanity and get imprisoned for eternity.
And guess who’s a shaman????
Did you guess Rin? If so! *ding ding* We have a winner!
Yeah, the next book is going to be interesting. Except it comes out in August and I’m going to slowly shrivel up and die while waiting for my goddess Rin to return to me.
ALSO – did you know that the author of this book is TWENTY ONE YEARS OLD?! HOW?!?!?!?! The writing is so gorgeous and the book is so brilliant…
Some people are just. Unfairly talented.