Published by Harper Voyager on May 1st 2018
Genres: Fantasy, grimdark, Historical
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.
The Poppy War was everywhere on social media, so when it popped up on Scribd as an audiobook I picked it straight up. I didn’t have much of a commute at the time so it took me almost two weeks to listen to, but I looked forward to my commute every day during those two weeks!
The Poppy War is historical, military fantasy, which feels like a weird combination, but absolutely works. The historical inspiration makes it feel completely believable, and the sheer amount of detail in everything from the world to the military actions to the opium trading is utterly immersive. Kuang herself has said “the book ended up being my creative smorgasbord of ATLA, Ender’s Game, The Grace of Kings, and Game of Thrones” – if I were going to draw a mash-up comparison I’d have gone with Game of Thrones, Red Rising and The Name of the Wind. The book is definitely not light or YA fantasy: it’s brutal, graphic and in no way watered-down. I don’t generally consider myself a grimdark fan, but there’s no denying that’s what The Poppy War is, and I loved it. I think maybe because the war based setting meant that the violence and graphic scenes felt more logical and less gratuitous or like they were there just for shock value. Of course it’s equally possible I’ve maybe just gotten tougher since I fell in love with A Game of Thrones…
The characters are a strength of The Poppy War, though I definitely had some I preferred over others. Rin herself is a bit too perfect at times but she developed throughout the book and became more relatable. Jiang is very similar to Elodin from The Name of the Wind, and I found both characters irritating, though Jiang grew on me throughout the book. I loved Kitay and Nezha’s development throughout the story was one of my favourite things.
Emily Woo Zeller did an awesome job on the audiobook, so I can strongly recommend that format if you enjoy audiobooks or are looking for one to get you started. It does feel almost like a book of two parts – the initial storyline at Sinegard feels like it may well be a fairly standard YA school fantasy (and of course there’s nothing wrong with that) whilst the second half is noticeably darker and more grim. I liked both halves but it did take me a little while to adjust to the second half. I found some of the plot twists in each a bit predictable, but the story itself is so addictive I didn’t mind much. The one other thing that’s worth mentioning is the content warnings: there are a LOT for The Poppy War, and with good reason, so it might be worth having a skim over before you start reading. There were a few things featured which although not a deal-breaker for me, I’d rather know to expect!
Buy it? Absolutely, The Poppy War went on to become one of my favourite books of 2018, and I’ve recommended it so many times since!
In a nutshell: An incredible debut, worth the hype.