Book Review: The Poppy War

Title: The Poppy War (The Poppy War #1)
Author: R.F. Kuang
Genre: Adult | Fantasy 
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication Date: May 1, 2018
Source: Purchased
Format: Physical

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 (goodreads).

Well, shit. 
Plot: The Poppy War followed a young Rin as she worked to be admitted to the Nkan Empire's elite military school. Through her journey, she learned about her country's history and fear of poppy/opium, the eradication of an entire race, and how to call a god to her control.

The Poppy War seemed like a pretty simple story at the start - a young peasant girl defeated the odds and joined a school that was typically for the empire's elite. In school, she had to deal with bullying and trying to keep up with her peers who have been training for this moment their entire lives. Fast forward a few years and the country was flung into war with all of the students joining the battle ranks. What I loved was that war put everything in perspective for Rin's friends and enemies. It didn't matter that they were schoolyard rivals, in the face of a foreign enemy, they trusted each other and recognized the true danger they were in. 

Being over 500 pages, it took me a while to get through this one, but that was because I had a busy April. Kuang's pacing was tight and I could see myself rereading this book to find things I may have overlooked the first time around. The one thing for everyone to note is that this book needs every single trigger warning possible. War in The Poppy War isn't some off-screen tragedy, it's horrific, illogical, and a lot of bystanders suffer. I felt physically sick reading some scenes, but it didn't take away from my  overall enjoyment. As a reader of fantasy, I thought it was good that The Poppy War was grounded in the man-made horrors. Fantasy has a tendency to fix everything with magic, and that was not the case in Kuang's novel. Many reviews call this book brutal and that is not an understatement. If you're interested in reading this book, be prepared for awful imagery to be seared into your mind. 

Characters: I'm a character-driven reader and The Poppy War satisfied my need for complex characters. Rin was driven and would not let anything stand in her way. She was scary at times, and at other times she was fragile. I loved her growth and could easily understand her reasoning behind her actions, regardless if I agreed with her. 

The secondary characters were just as intriguing. There was the beautiful and frightening empress, Rin's school rival Nezha, the elusive master Jiang, and Altan, the commander who was the last of his people. Everyone reacted differently to war and it was interesting to see each one change over the course of three years, especially Altan who was trained as a weapon instead of a person. To say I'm terrified to see what will happen in the sequel is an understatement. 

Worldbuilding: If you ask me, a fantasy novel is 50% worldbuilding, 30% characters, and 20% story. The world is what makes a fantasy book stable and The Poppy War had a world I couldn't escape, even when I set the book down. Kuang's world was filled with gods who could be summoned by shamans, a country on the brink of its third war, and the genocide of an entire people. Kuang states repeatedly on her website that these fictional countries don't resemble real countries, except to my untrained eye (cough cough), they look exactly like South Korea and Japan. 

Short N Sweet: The Poppy War will leave you feel completely broken while salivating for more.

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