The Poppy War by R.F Kuang (The Poppy War, #1)
She is a peasant.
She is a student.
She is a soldier.
She is a goddess.
When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to study 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 always thought they’d be able to marry Rin off to further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was now 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 the Nikara Empire—was even more surprising.
But surprises aren’t always good.
Being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Rin is targeted from the outset by rival classmates because of her color, poverty, and gender. Driven to desperation, she 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 her powers could mean more than just surviving school.
For even though the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied the Nikara Empire for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people in the Empire would rather forget their painful history, 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 who has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her her humanity.
And it may already be too late.
TITLE: The Poppy War
AUTHOR: R.F. Kuang
PUBLISHER: Harper Voyager
LENGTH: 544 pages
GENRE: Fantasy, War
Queer Rep Summary: No canon queer rep.
I feel a bit broken and shaky, like I'll probably cry when I get a chance. I’d been warned that there were very graphic depictions of trauma in this book, so I spent the first three quarters wondering whether I just had a high threshold for fictional depictions of trauma or if I just hadn’t gotten to the worst of it yet. I just hadn’t gotten there. There are some things so awful that just saying what they are is enough to turn your stomach, and the litanies of events in this war are such things. It's not made any easier by knowing that they're based on real events, for more information please refer to "A Note from the Author" at the back of the book. These events are crucial to the plot, as it's a story about how a teenage girl gradually breaks from a focused and idealistic war orphan into a shape driven to wield rage and wage war, and how the power she intends to wield is so immense and all-consuming that only the driven and damned would court it.
The characters are vibrant and distinct, even the ones the MC doesn't like are interesting as individuals. I felt like I really got to know them during the first half or so of the book. It showed at times how individual characters understand the same events differently, and I didn't always find myself agreeing with the MC's interpretation. I understood why even some minor characters made their choices. The narrative continually conveys nuanced and varied interpretations of events, making it feel simultaneously like there were so many better options and also like, for these particular characters, there was no other way. It's deftly done.
Read this if you like books featuring war in a fantasy setting with excellent worldbuilding and a large cast of complex characters. Read it when you're ready to feel broken.
For historical context and inspirations for this trilogy, I recommend reading the excellent blog post from Read by Tiffany: Everything You Need to Know Before You Read The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
CW for ableism, racism, xenophobia, drug use, drug abuse, emotional abuse, bullying, confinement, self harm, excrement, blood, gore, rape (graphic), body horror, child abuse, violence, sexual violence, animal cruelty, animal death, torture, suicide, genocide (graphic), parental death (backstory), child death (graphic), major character death, death (graphic). Contains graphic descriptions of genocide, including various means of rape and death in the context of genocide during war.