Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Rating: 5/5 stars
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.
Well, where do I even begin? I have been savoring this particular read for the longest time – only picking it up when I really feel like reading it instead of purging through it in a matter of days. The Poppy War is definitely not one for the lighthearted. It deals with so much war violence, emotional and physical abuse, rape, drugs, and a plethora more trigger warnings that you can find listed here. That being said, this books is not for everyone. It is heavy and very painful to read, but the story.. the characters, the writing.. there is this very otherworldly sensation when you read the book, and it is amazing.
The academia themes start off the book, and I was hooked from the very beginning. I read through the first 100+ pages in one sitting, and it has been a while since I flew through a book like that, especially one this dense. I tried to really pace myself so I do not devour this book in one go, and I ended up taking two months to finish it. I did not want my studies to deter my excitement for the book, so I took my time and savored every single page. Kuang’s way of storytelling is just brilliant. She is able to create such vivid (albeit gory) imagery, and writes with this sense of urgency within the story from the possibility that a huge war could break out at any moment. The intensity of it, the desperation, the pain and horrific realisation that everyone’s life is at stake.. it’s like the author lived through the Poppy War herself, and we’re reading this through her own point of view. It has so much ruthlessness and inhumane cruelty, but it makes the story more real and impactful.
The characters, oh gosh.. you feel so much for them. I can already tell how badly my heart will be shredded when I read the next two books. There were talks of Gods and Shamans, the study of lore and combat and war strategy.. the emotional battle and trauma that goes through fighting and enduring the war.. everything flowed together so seamlessly and beautifully. The Poppy War is just sensational, and undoubtedly one of the easiest 5 stars I can ever give to a book. What a cerebral and profound novel. Truly cannot wait to read the sequel (I am ready and not ready at the same time!! 😥 ).
Definitely a book I cannot recommend enough, but be warn of the heavy themes contained in the story. Pick this up with the many trigger warnings in mind! I will mention again that this is NOT for everyone, nor is it an easy read (if you do pick it up). But if you do, I thoroughly hope you enjoy it!