This is my mostly spoiler-free review of the Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (spoilers are clearly marked by blue text and you are warned beforehand♥). I went in to this book, I’m not going to lie, with some really high expectations. When Piera Forde freaks out this much over a book, you tend to expect it to be freaking gold. I am happy to report that this book blew all my expectations out of the water, and I can guarantee this will be on my list of the Best Books of 2018.
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.
I’m taking an excerpt from Kuang’s own blog post for this, which you can read here.
“I would rather not fade to black. I’d like to depict the acts in bloody, brutal, stark, detail. Stare at it. Let it burn your eyes. Let it carve marks into your skin. Watch until the finish and never forget what you saw here today.
Take care of yourself, readers. If you can’t finish the book–don’t. If you know you shouldn’t pick it up, I’m warning you now. Here are all of your content warnings in one place. This book is about:
- Violent rape
- Sexual assault
- Substance abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Physical abuse
- Relationship abuse
- Human experimentation
- Chemical warfare
The most triggering chapter–the Rape of Nanjing chapter–is Chapter 21. The Unit 731 chapter is Chapter 24. These aren’t the only chapters where the CWs above are discussed but they are the ones that almost every single reviewer has reeled from.
Please, for the love of god, if you cannot handle mentions of these things, then for your own sake don’t pick up the book.
But here is why I wrote it: because silence hurts so much worse.”
This might be slightly all over the place, but the first thing I want to say is that it seems I was less affected by the violence in this book than most people. It’s been a bit since I’ve read the book, so I just might not realize it, but it didn’t come across as gorey and horrible to me as it did to the majority of the readers. I think the fact that I do read books regularly with very dark, horror-esque themes and scenes may have contributed to this; but I really don’t want to downplay it.
There comes a point in the novel, which seems a little more sudden to me after finishing the book than it did while reading, where the book suddenly switches over from an epic fantasy that could easily be considered YA to a very dark, brutal, and bloody world that is most definitely ADULT in content. I personally think this drastic change was intentional on the author’s part. There is a huge difference, which is shown in the book, between preparing for a war that may happen, with no experience on a battlefield and not a drop of blood on your hands, and actually experiencing the fighting, exhaustion, horror, and death that happens during a war. I think the sudden change in the book was meant to symbolize how quickly things change once the fighting begins.
Another thing that’s really stuck with me, and I think every reader (especially the female readers), after completing the book and that is how a woman’s period was handled.
There are mild spoilers here, but it’s nothing that affects the story in any way. If you don’t wish to read any spoilers, continue after the blue text ends. 🙂
So basically what happens is, while Rin is at the Academy training she experiences her first period. Terrified that this will affect her performance at the academy and that she will be sent back to her abusive foster parents, she does something drastic. At the suggestion of the Doctor at the Academy, Rin takes a potion that effectively destroys her womb. While she doesn’t feel any loss at this because she never wants to have children, I know a lot of readers felt that this was a sort of cheap solution to the problem instead of actually writing Rin as having to deal with it like most women have to do.
She glanced down at the basin with a deranged satisfaction. Better to get the blood out this way, she thought, all at once, rather than slowly, every month, for years. While she continued to retch, she heard the door to the dormitory open. Someone walked inside and paused in front of her. “You’re insane,” said Venka. Rin glared up at her, blood dripping from her mouth, and smiled.
I can see where they are coming from with that, but honestly I have a totally different opinion. When I read this in the novel the first thing I thought was how brave not only the character was to do this, but the author was to include this in her novel.
Voluntary sterilization, if you didn’t know, is a really huge obstacle to overcome in the real world for a woman who knows she doesn’t want to have children. On top of this, the topic is obviously very taboo, and any woman who verbally considers this is often looked down upon. In the real world, getting your tubes tied without first having a child is something most doctors actually refuse to do, on the assumption that you’ll change your mind in a few years and suddenly gain a mothering instinct.
Before I continue on my tangent on this topic, I thought the author was extremely brave to offer this as an option to someone as a realistic solution to Rin’s problem. Some people argue that Rin is too young to know what she’ll want in the future, and to those people I ask you to consider that Rin is fighting in a WAR. If she’s old enough to be a soldier, she’s old enough to make this decision for herself.
End of spoilers 🙂
Alright, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, the next thing I want to talk about is the characters.
I definitely adored Rin. She’s smart, capable, and very determined to forge her own path in the world. One thing that surprised me about Rin, but that definitely fit her character, was just how power hungry she was. There was never a time where Rin wasn’t thinking about how she could use the shaman powers she has to her advantage, or wondering how she could gain more power. She was also…how to put this… logical almost to a fault most of the time, and there were points in the story where she definitely did not display that she had any sort of conscience whatsoever.
“…make them burn. Every last one.” “And what will you give me in return?” inquired the Phoenix. “The price to alter the fabric of the world is steep.” What did a god, especially the Phoenix, want? What did any god ever want? “I can give you worship,” she promised. “I can give you an unending flow of blood.”
Altan. He is that guy in high school that is super hot and untouchable, or that girl that is better than you at just about everything. Add in opium, a hell of a temper, a grudge against the world based on the genocide of his entire country, and his belief that he is the last living Speerly, and you’ve got the makings of one angry and powerful person out for revenge. I was pretty back and forth on his character. In the beginning I loved him, but near the end of the book he gets strung out from the stress of the war and is using opium as a crutch which results in him treating his team horribly and making some pretty rash decisions. I understand how this would happen, he had a lot on his shoulders, but it made me uncertain, even at the end, whether I actually like him or not.
Meals became silent and reserved affairs. Everyone ate with a book held before his or her nose. If any students ventured to strike up a conversation, the rest of the table quickly and violently shushed them. In short, they made themselves miserable. “Sometimes I think this is as bad as the Speer Massacre,” Kitay said cheerfully. “And then I think—nah. Nothing is as bad as the casual genocide of an entire race! But this is pretty bad.”
“Kitay, please shut up.”
Kitay is tied with Jiang as my favorite side character. He is totally different from Rin; rich, privileged, and yet unlike most in the academy he treats Rin like a real human being. He has a joke at the ready no matter how fucked up the situation is. He’s loyal, and he doesn’t take any shit and I can really appreciate that. He is really giving, going so far as to take Rin home with him over “vacation”. I don’t know what else I can say. He’s just a genuinely good friend, and a very solid side character.
Jiang is Rin’s mentor once she gets to Sinegard, and he is an amazing and goofy character and I just love him. For example:
In the months since the semester began, Jiang hadn’t shown up once to class. Students occasionally spotted him around campus doing inexcusably rude things. He had in turn flipped Nezha’s lunch tray out of his hands and walked away whistling, petted Kitay on the head while making a pigeon-like cooing noise, and tried to snip Venka’s hair off with garden shears. Whenever a student managed to pin him down to ask about his course, Jiang made a loud farting noise with his mouth and elbow and skirted away.
He definitely has his good parts and bad parts as a character. I think he’s hilarious, tries to always do the right thing, and he really did his best to steer Rin in the right direction. But I think he definitely comes across very naive. This isn’t a spoiler, you find out in the beginning when Rin starts to train with him to hone her Shaman powers that he expects to somehow teach her how to do this while also expecting her to not use these powers to defend her country. It would be obvious to anyone who knew Rin for more than five seconds that this definitely was not going to happen.
There are two more characters I want to quickly mention, because I have feelings about them but also not really that much to say.
The first is Nezha. I think the author did a very good job of making me feel exactly what she wanted me to feel about him at every point in the book. In the beginning you really dislike him because he’s a little entitled, rich boy, douche but over the book he grew on me so much and now that the book is over I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about everything that happened with him.
And the very last is Chaghan. When we meet him, he is described as being the mythical second to Altan. When he comes into the picture he’s a total douchebag and is really freaking unlikeable and even at the end of the book I still mostly dislike him.
“You are going to paint the world in (spoiler)’s blood, aren’t you?” “I’m going to find and kill everyone responsible,” said Rin. “You cannot stop me.” Chaghan laughed a dry, cutting laugh. “Oh, I’m not going to stop you.” He held out his hand. She grasped it, and the drowned land and the ash-choked sky bore witness to the pact between Seer and Speerly.
One thing I will say, that many other reviewers seem to agree with, is that the ending wrapped up almost too perfectly. Everything just seemed very convenient, and I don’t know why but I expected the book to end on a cliffhanger or some kind of crazy, gorey battle or something and that isn’t really what happened. I think compared to the rest of the book the ending just didn’t work for me. I almost wish the book had just ended with Rin on the beach, and that’s all i’m going to say about that to avoid spoilers.
I think I’m going to actually reread this before the end of the year because I am dying to read it again and I bet there are a ton of things I might notice the second time around that I didn’t on the first read. 🙂
Thank you all so much for sticking around and for taking the time to read my thoughts on this amazing book. I definitely recommend this book, to everyone but especially those who like historically influenced grimdark tales. I’ll see you all on my next post ♥