Mount Readmore Book Review, 2018 115/200
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
Finished on 7/13/2018
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.
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Adult, YA, Grimdark, Military Fantasy
Get High, Get Magic
I read this book as a part of the r/Fantasy book club.
What would you do when you’re put in an impossible situation? You’re given the choice between two clearly evil things: an enemy nation will commit genocide against you, unless you commit genocide against them first. What would you do?
The Empire of Nikara and the Mugen Federation have been rivals for as long as anyone can remember. Nikara invaded Mugen and enslaved them using opium. Mugen committed genocide against the Nikaran island of Speer. Nikara raises it’s children to believe the Mugenese are only monsters. The Mugen do exactly the same in reverse. One nation invades the other, and then the other side does the same using prior invasions as justification. There is no possibility for peace.
In this setting Nikara is an Alternate Imperial China, and Mugen is an alternate Imperial Japan. Twenty years prior to the events of this book Nikara and Mugen were at war. But when the Mugen invaded and killed everyone on Speer, the war ended after the genocide. The peace of twenty years is nearing the breaking point.
Rin is a war orphan of that twenty years ago war, raised by people she’s not related to. She’s nearly forced into marriage with a man three times her age, a prospect which does not appeal to her. To get out of it, she studies for years to take the Keju, the Imperial Bureaucracy Exam. She aces the test and goes to the the best school in Nikara- think Hogwarts, but instead of magic they learn martial arts. Thus begins this book.
This book’s characters are interesting to read about. Most of them are flawed human beings. Rin is impetuous and rash, but she has commitment and discipline in spades. Altan is a roiling ball of hatred, but that hatred is bottled up in an official personality. I was even decently impressed with Nezha, who started the books as a particularly nasty Draco Malfoy analog and wound up being Rin’s primary best friend/love interest.
The book’s pacing was good. The author avoided any major boring patches. This was perhaps this book’s strongest feature.
The plot was a hodgepodge. The first third of the book was about Rin going to school. The second third was Rin attempting to defend a city against the brunt of the Mugenese invasion. The third third was Rin and Atlan pulling out all the stops in an attempt to save Nikara, even if it means terrible, terrible consequences. The first third of the book and the last two thirds were thematically unconnected from one another- the first third seemed like a YA ‘going to magic school’ novel while the last two thirds were tonally much, much, much grimmer than that. The plot was fun to read, but such a major tonal transition didn’t quite gel.
(FYI: Reading this book I was repeatedly reminded of THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT, for using similar themes of sacrifice not matter the cost, as well as going to a colonialist military academy, as well as a sexually non-traditional main character. That book was also fairly dark, though not so dark as this. If you liked one, you might like the other.)
This book was a good debut novel, but it contains a lot of unforced errors. Here’s some constructive criticism.
As mentioned, there is a major tonal imbalance between the first third and the rest of the book.
The ‘wise but loopy mentor’ figure suffered from Dumbledore ‘I don’t tell the chosen one important information because lol’ syndrome, which was frustrating. This made this Adult book feel YA. As a whole there were a lot of YA tropes in the first third, which built up false expectations for the tone switch in the last two thirds.
This book’s ending didn’t really click for me. Imagine reading a book about a character you never really enjoyed reading, and then have her wrap up the book by making a decision you don’t enjoy reading.
The ending might be a bit weak, but the rest of the book was strong enough to make up for it so I will check out the sequels. This is a quintessential first book in a series, and doesn’t really stand on it’s own.
Highly Recommended if you want to read a book about martial arts, drugs, military campaigns or a Grimdark representation of the Rape of Nanjing.
Recommended if you just want to read a good fantasy book.
Not Recommended if you’re squeamish. The author pulls no punches when it comes to describing genocide in gruesome detail.