Book Review – The Poppy War

  • Title: The Poppy War
  • Author: R.F. Kuang
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 09/26/2018

**Spoiler Alert** The Poppy War is an engrossing first novel, that was hard to put down at times. Most fantasy novels have a Medieval European background to them – the technology, clothing, weapons, armor, use of animals or other transportation, etc. is all based on a Medieval European background and then other magical forces are added into that based on how the author wants magic to work in their world. Even more modern fantasy novels are set in the Western world, most of the time. The Poppy War is the first fantasy novel I’ve read personally set in China – with Chinese history, technology, and mythology at its heart. Now, the author gives original names to her fantasy country and it’s enemies and allies, but even in the map – it’s China. That makes this a unique novel. Going beyond the background this is also a good story and it’s hard to put down at times.

Fang Runin is a war orphan. By order of the Empress, after the Second Poppy War, all families with less than three children were ordered to take in one of the many war orphans in the Nikara Empire. Runin, who goes by Rin, thus is raised by shopkeepers in Rooster Province. Rooster Province is one of the poorer and more rural provinces of Nikara. At fourteen, her foster mother informs her she’s made a match for Rin – and older, wealthy man that if they form an alliance will increase her foster family’s drug smuggling profits by making it easier to access the nearby port. Rin does not want to marry – and really doesn’t want to marry the disgusting older man her family has picked for her. So she makes a bargain and manages to talk her foster mother into letting her wait and study for the Keju Empire-wide test for admission into one of the Empire’s academies. No one believes Rin will be able to do well on the test so her foster mother agrees to the two-year delay. Rin then finds a tutor to help her study for the test – paying him in stolen drugs from her family’s business since she has no money of her own.

The novel opens with Test Day for the Keju, where a great deal of emphasis is placed on stopping cheating. A few days after taking the test, Rin gets the news – she passed. And not only did she pass, but she got the highest score in Rooster Province, securing her a place at the exclusive Sinegard Military Academy. A place at Sinegard is exactly what Rin wanted – it gets her away from her arranged marriage, it gets her out of Rooster Province, and it will secure her a good job after college (so to speak). She’s frightened but excited and she and her tutor set off for the capital city and Sinegard.

Rin’s first year at Sinegard proves to be extremely difficult – she’s bullied by other students and teachers alike. She learns that because she has dark skin and comes from the rural Southern part of Nikara, she has to prove herself over and over. She is actually attacked by a bully in her Combat class, and sees her bully suspended from class for a week – only to have her Combat instructor who had berated her with racist comments throughout class – kick her out of class entirely. Not only is she prevented from attending a required class, but she’s barred from training with other students, using the training room, or obtaining her combat training in any other way.

However, Rin is determined to succeed, so she goes to the library and starts studying martial arts books. She eventually borrows some texts forbidden to First Years and tries to teach herself martial arts (not her best idea). She also has a class called “Lore” but the teacher never arrives for class and by the time Rin is kicked out of Combat class, the rest of the students have given up on even pretending to show up for Lore class. Since the outdoor or indoor (depending on the season and weather) classroom for Lore is empty, Rin uses it for training. She catches the eye of the Lore instructor who sees something special in Rin and begins to train her. Rin also slowly but surely becomes adept at Strategy and catches the attention of her Strategy teacher in a good way.

After several more months, Rin gets used to life at Sinegard, starts to learn Lore, is given an insane exercise program (consisting of running up and down a mountainside carrying a piglet on her back. The pig, of course, grows heavier and bigger, until it’s time for it to be slaughtered for food. As crazy as it sounds – as an exercise program, it works.) Rin is also taught martial arts by her Lore instructor and gradually does better in her other classes, especially Strategy.

At the end of the year, all the students have to take finals. If they pass their finals they will be invited by their instructors to be apprentices in a particular track (Strategy, Medicine, Combat, etc). Lucky students may even be able to pick a specialty from multiple offers. Those who fail a test will be kicked out of Sinegard. The Combat final includes a series of bracketed fights or matches. Students do not have to be the best or number one standing to continue at Sinegard, but they must do well enough. And Rin has missed most of her first-year Combat class. However, between the power in her now muscular body, her self-taught footwork, and the martial arts taught to her by her master, Rin does well in her fights – even against one of the boys who bullied her. She gets into the final, and is forced to fight someone much bigger and more powerful than her. The two really beat each other, and when it seems Rin will lose she erupts in fiery power. She runs to the Lore Master for help, and he knocks her out with cold power. She wakes up tied down in the school basement, having no idea what happened.

Rin gradually puts things together, with help from a few friends. She is given two offers: Lore and Strategy – and even though the Combat Master wants her kicked out, she’s allowed to stay at Sinegard. Rin chooses to pledge Lore.

For the next two years, Rin is apprenticed to her Lore Master, while continuing to take other required classes at Sinegard. The students also know tensions are rising between the Nikara Empire and the Federation of Mugen. Mugen had fought Nikara in the First and Second Poppy War. Nikara lost the First Poppy War to Mugen, and barely won the second one thanks to intervention by a Western power called Hesperia. These Wars had left behind large numbers of war orphans like Rin, an Empress who forbid all dealings in narcotics (that is, poppy flower products), and a political policy of isolation. Yet Nikara and Mugen are again rattling the sabre. Border skirmishes and minor attacks continue through Rin’s second and third year. Sinegard being a military academy, these skirmishes are the daily talk of the students and everyone expects a new war to happen soon. The summer of Rin’s fourth year – it does and open war is declared. Mugen attacks the city where Sinegard is located and the military academy itself. The attack looks extremely bad for Sinegard, when the students get involved in the middle of the battle. During a particularly intense battle – Rin again calls fire powers. She manages to kill the leader of the attack but also hurt one of her fellow students. Once she’s recovered, she is sent to the Cike – elite soldiers, assassins, and shamans.

The Cike, having just lost their own leader in mysterious circumstances are now being led by Altan, an older student from Sinegard. They are assigned to protect a port town. They have an early win – but it makes Altan over-confident and doesn’t help with the other provincial warlords assigned to protect the port. The Federation pulls a very sneaky attack, which kills a lot of civilians, and then the port gets stuck in a very long siege. Even the arrival of another warlord and his troops doesn’t help matters much.

After a very long stalemate, the Cike get some new information. They thought they were protecting the Port to prevent Mugen from getting a beachhead and advancing to the wartime capital to the South. Unfortunately, the Federation has found another way to get to the other city and attack it.

The sequence of the warriors from Cike heading into the Southern capital city is one of the most horrific in the book. They go by boat because it’s faster than marching or even on horseback – and the boats encounter a river of blood and corpses. They get to the city, and it’s all over – everyone is dead. The city is a city of corpses – often laid out in grotesque ways meant to intimidate whoever finds it. Even women, children, and babies suffer and are killed by the Federation. This disgusts and angers the Cike. They eventually find a handful of soldiers who hid under corpses or deep within buildings. The soldiers confirm what they know and they try to figure out what to do.

Altan gets the brilliant idea to go to the stone mountain to release insane shamen to continue to fight the war. It’s a bad idea. They release Rin’s master who had released his god, but he pleads to be encased in stone again. They release an old friend of Altan’s – but he goes mad and escapes as the wind god. And to make things worse: Altan and Rin are attacked by the Federation and taken to a lab to be studied and dissected. Altan had been in a lab before and is freaked out. He uses his fire powers to get out and destroy the lab – but ultimately has to destroy himself. Rin escapes into the water and swims to Speer – Altan’s home, and home to the people massacred in the Second Poppy War. There Rin again contacts the Fire Goddess or Pheonix and uses it to strike out at Mugen. She learns just how dangerous calling a god can be – but is also oddly calmed by what she does. She’s rescued by her fellows in the Cike. She’s informed that Altan named her his successor before they even left on their final mission together. The last two paragraphs suggest there will be a sequel.

This was a truly different novel. The mythology and history are different than one is used to in European Medieval based fantasy novels. Rin is a very strong character, and the novel is completely in her point of view, if Rin falls sick or is knocked out – we don’t know what is going on until she wakes up. If Rin is confused – so is the reader, but in a good way. There is one brief bit not in Rin’s point of view, and it honestly seems to be there so the reader realises than when something is revealed to the Cike later, the reader understands it and believes it – rather than thinking like some of the Cike it can’t be true. This seems to be setting up a book two. I liked this book – Rin is a badass, and her fellow students and later fellow warriors in the Cike are interesting, well-rounded characters. Plus it was just fun to read a different type of fantasy novel. I highly recommend this novel.

Note: This novel is not for young readers – there is swearing, rough language, and some very intense descriptions of warfare. Overall, I’d give it a PG-13 though, rather than an R rating.

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