Series: The Poppy War #1
Published by Harper Voyager on May 3, 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Historical, War & Military
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A powerful epic fantasy novel with roots in the 20th-century history of China.
A brilliantly imaginative talent makes her exciting debut with this epic historical military fantasy, inspired by the bloody history of China’s twentieth century and filled with treachery and magic, in the tradition of Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.
When Rin aced the Kejuthe Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies it was a shock to everyone. That she got into Sinegardthe 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 aliveand 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 am deceased. I am a living husk of a human and no longer have any control over my limbs. That’s the typical reaction for someone after finishing The Poppy War, and being my second time reading it, I’m now completely devoid of emotion because the book TOOK THEM ALL AWAY.
If you’re anything like me, you’re a total sucker for books that are raved about in the bookish community, and The Poppy War is one that comes up time and time again. Why is that do you say? It’s brutal, it’s bloody, it’s completely unexpected. Rarely do we get a book that explores the depth of war, human emotion and suffering as acutely as The Poppy War does, and it seems like that’s what readers want.
Just a warning before we go into it: The Poppy War is a grimdark fantasy that is an adult fiction book. There are a range of triggering themes in the book and it’s definitely not a YA book (even though it may seem like it at the start).
Six things you’ll find in The Poppy War:
1. Chinese mythology and setting
Set in the world of Nikan, The Poppy War integrates aspects of Chinese modern history into this tale. From the opium-addicted denizens, to the magic of lore and Phoenix Gods, to a serpentine Empress sitting on the throne, it’s completely fascinating from start to finish.
2. An ambitious girl with a penchant for suffering
Fang Runin, or Rin, is a truly ambitious girl borne from poverty and suffering. Out of sheer will to survive and hope for a better future for herself, she beats all odds and is chosen for the Sinegard Academy. Rin is the type of person who will obliterate anything in her way, whether that’s her own bodily functions, mentors that warn against danger or cocky sons of Warlords who choose to pick on her. She starts off being incredibly naive about her goal, but guided by her kind best friend and a mentor that teaches her about undefeatable power, she eventually learns what her goals and limits are. There’s little this girl won’t do and that’s what is scary and bloody glorious about her.
3. A military Academy setting
The book starts off fairly innocently as Rin enters Sinegard, and truly encounters what being poor and inferior to rich children of Generals means. Bullying, name calling and being written off by teachers of the Academy is only the start of it. This is a true learning for Rin, who believed that once she entered Sinegard, that would be the end of all of her suffering. At Sinegard, she learns that there are some things that ambition can’t get you – respect from others above your station. She spends several years at Sinegard and the conflict with her colleagues, including the rich, beautiful son of a Warlord Nezha eventually gives way to mutual respect.
The military Academy (Part 1 of the book) was one of my favourite parts of the book as we learn how Rin overcomes her challenges there.
4. Martial arts and military tactics
The great thing about Sinegard, is that it also offers the perfect setting for us to learn about the military tactics based off the Art of War by Sun Tzu, and the philosophy of martial arts utilised by the Nikata Generals. Between the drug-addicted mentor Jiang Ziya, to the intelligent strategy teacher Irjah, we learn about the ongoing war between the Federation and the Empress. It was fascinating learning about lore and how only those trained in it could harness the devastating power of the Gods.
5. The true horrors of war
Part 2 and 3 of The Poppy War takes a dramatically different turn, as the students and mentors of Sinegard become Generals and soldiers of the War. Not only must they harness everything they’ve learnt at Sinegard, but they must put aside their differences to work together to defeat the Federation soldiers. Not many books choose to explore the depths of rape, torture, mutilation and the pure evil that happens during War, and The Poppy War chooses to go there and back. It’s incredibly violent, brutal and triggering, and for those who wish to avoid it can skip past Chapter 21 of the book. The scary part is that it’s actually based off a dark time in Japanese/Chinese history: The Rape of Nanjing, which is incredibly horrific and buried in the past.
5. Characters that won’t let you go
You know the characters in the book have completely clutched your heart when by the end of it, you can’t stop yourself from weeping after them. I absolutely loved the cast of characters in The Poppy War, and the author isn’t afraid to make them suffer and bleed (and in turn, making us suffer). Some of these characters include:
- The zany drug-addled mentor, Jiang Ziya who teaches Rin about lore and magic
- The best friend Kitay, whose kindness and eidetic memory helps her through Sinegard
- The revered speerlie Altan, who’s power and influence makes him somewhat of a legend
- The archnemesis Nezha, who’s lineage proves he’s beyond Rin, but not in skill
- The seer Chaghan, member of the Sike class who guides Rin on her journey.
For those who dare venture there, The Poppy War is a tantalising tale of ambition, revenge and military warfare. It’s a satisfying tale from start to finish, as we follow Rin who climbs out of poverty into a soldier with incredible, god-fearing power at her fingertips. From each distinctive part, the book slowly builds up to an incredible crescendo that will have you weeping on the floor, screaming for mercy, leaving you with just enough sense to pick up the next book, The Dragon Republic (which is out now).
Rating: 5 out of 5
Trigger warnings: mutiliation, rape, torture, animal cruelty, genocide, human experimentation, substance abuse, ableism, self-harm
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