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 is an incredible debut novel that borrows heavily from Chinese culture. I am not well versed within that topic, so I won’t say much else about it other than that people knowledgeable within the subject will be pleasantly entertained.
The Poppy War follows Rin as she’s accepted into a military training program. The first portion of the novel is incredibly slow paced as Rin learns the ins and outs of her new school, makes friends and enemies, and tries to decide on a discipline. Despite the slower pace, I absolutely loved it. The writing is accessible in a way that makes it read quickly as the reader progresses through Rin’s slow training.
The Poppy War focuses almost solely on Rin as character with a few exceptions. Rin is stubborn, intelligent, and resourceful. I loved reading about her despite her many flaws that I will not expand upon because of spoilers. The other characters Rin interacts with, namely Kitay and Altan, are interesting. Kitay and Rin develop a kinship towards each other despite their very different upbringings. They are two very different people who manage to find friendship amid a tumultuous world. Altan and Rin’s relationship is easily the most developed of all. The growth of their relationship from adoration on Rin’s part to solider and commander to kin in the middle of powerful emotions of rage and vengeance is captivating and where Kuang truly shines as a writer.
The Poppy War is not for the feint of heart as it depicts in detail the true horrors and brutality of war and all the awful aspects that follow, such as rape, mass murder, animal cruelty, human experimentation, etc. So, if these subjects are triggering to you I would hesitate in recommending The Poppy War.