Published by Harper Voyager on May 1, 2018
Sometimes I find it difficult to write a review for a book that I loved wholeheartedly, mainly because of all the emotions I’m feeling and it’s as if every single one of them is vying to burst forth from me all at the same time. The Poppy War is one of those books. There’s so much I want to say about it, like why it’s so awesome, why it spoke so strongly to me, and why you should drop everything and read it at once. Really, I just loved this book so damn much, I’m at a complete loss as to where to start.
But perhaps a brief rundown of its premise would be a good first step. The Poppy War is the story of Rin, a war orphan who was adopted into an opium-running peasant family from a poor southern province of Nikara. Life was hard, but tolerable—that is, until they tried to marry her off to a man three times her age. A girl like her has few other options, however; but Rin is determined not to become some fat merchant’s bed slave, surprising everyone when she decides to study for the Keju imperial examinations and ends up acing them to get the top score in the province. An achievement like this automatically gets her into Sinegard, the empire’s foremost academy for military and combat training, and more importantly for Rin, it also gives her a way out of her arranged marriage and a reason to finally leave her old life behind.
But as it turns out, Sinegard is no easy place for a poor southern girl, where the student body is mostly made up children of the Nikan Warlords and elites. To earn an apprenticeship, Rin must work harder than everyone else in the first year to prove her worth. Eventually though, the school’s eccentric Lore master agrees to take her on, recognizing in her a deadly potential. Under Jiang’s tutelage, Rin begins to learn of secret histories and the lost art of communing with the gods, beginning her journey to master the near-mythological forces of shamanism. But before her training can be completed, tensions between the Nikara Empire and the warlike Federation of Mugen across the narrow sea finally reach a breaking point, erupting into all-out war. Along with her fellow students, Rin is conscripted into the militia, providing support in the ensuing evacuations and fighting. Despite their efforts, however, Nikara quickly begins losing ground against the Federation’s might. The Empire’s enemy fights as one, while their side is fractured with indecisiveness and bickering Warlords. Unearthly powers possessed by Rin and those like her may be the only way to save her country now, but tied as they are to terrible and vengeful gods, unleashing them fully can spell deadly consequences for the entire world if she’s not prepared.
Inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War in the early half of the 20th century, The Poppy War includes many parallels to real events, like the 1937 massacre at Nanjing. The setting, however, more resembles the culture and civilization of the Chinese Song Dynasty, where religion and worship of folk gods played a large part in the people’s daily lives, standardized competitive examinations (which the Keju was based on) were heavily emphasized, and the level of military technology was still mostly limited to premodern armor and weapons. The result is a heady mash-up of fantasy and historical fiction, peppered with many elements derived from Chinese mythology, traditions, and folklore.
Initially anticipating this novel to be somewhat akin to Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, I was at first taken by surprise by the writing style, which was much less literary than I expected. At the same time, this made the book much more approachable and easier to read, and the first part of the story even resembles a YA novel in tone and style (though it must be noted, The Poppy War is decidedly NOT a YA novel, but more on that later). Rin’s time at Sinegard is in some ways a very typical “combat/magic school story” in that she must compete for a very limited number of apprenticeships. Along the way, she makes friends and enemies among the students and teachers, while also facing discrimination from certain corners who look down on her and see her humble beginnings as proof that she won’t cut it in the Empire’s most prestigious military academy. If you enjoy books like Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song or Pat Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, you will find plenty to like in this introductory section.
But then, the book moves on to its second act, in which Rin begins her shamanistic training in earnest. I would liken this part most to Karate Kid or Star Wars, where Jiang plays Yoda to Rin’s Luke Skywalker. There’s even a conversation paralleling Han Solo’s famous skeptical quote about the Force, but in Nakara, it is the study of Lore that is widely considered a hokey religion, and few remain in the Empire who believe in the power of an always-present, mystical energy. Rin flirts with regularly with the “Dark Side”, the destructive part of shamanism that, if left unchecked, could be used as a terrible, unstoppable weapon fueled by her anger and hate.
Then, with the invasion of the Federation, the book shifts gears for the third and final time to become more of a military fantasy novel. And here, The Poppy War gets dark. Really dark. Multiple sieges and scenes depicting pitched battles remind me of works like Django Wexler’s The Shadow Campaigns series, with emphasis on military strategy and military life.
In Part Three, we’re also hit with one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever had to read. When you’re Chinese, it’s inevitable that you grow up hearing lots of stories about the Chinese-Japanese conflicts during the Second World War. Countless family histories have been shaped by those events, including mine. It wasn’t until I was older that my grandmother told me her family were landowners who lost everything when the Japanese forces invaded China; the warlords took advantage of the chaos to seize power, her father was set on fire, and she and a great many others had to flee to the cities in order escape the coming onslaught. So there were plenty of sobering moments when reading this book, especially the scenes describing the plight of the villages and the haunting descriptions of the trail of belongings left behind by refugees. And of course, there were the horrific atrocities. Huge warning here: the author drew from actual history for these parts, using accounts of some of the unspeakable acts perpetrated in Nanjing, or the heinous lethal human experiments that took place inside Unit 731, and she does not spare any of the brutal details. At times, it almost got to be too much, but I believe this is because Kuang truly wanted to show the sheer scope of the horrors that took place. Reading about them really shook me up and gave me chills.
Looking back, The Poppy War feels a lot like three books in one. Mainly, the last quarter of the novel feels like a completely different beast compared to everything that came before. It’s a very jarring change, but at the same time, I could understand the reasoning behind the author’s choice to present things this way. The story “grows” with Rin, and so when you look back and juxtapose the darkness in the later chapters with the early sections of the novel, all the character’s difficulties with her studies or her petty squabbles with her schoolmates now feel so trivial and far away. It really hits home just how much the protagonist and the world around her has changed.
In terms of criticisms, I really don’t have any, though I do have some questions on certain aspects of the magic. Like, how exactly does the use of the psychoactive drugs unlock a shaman’s connection to their gods, or why are certain individuals more predisposed to having these powers? And why don’t more Nikarans believe or even know of shamanistic magic when shapeshifting monkey-men and water-people are literally performing incredible, supernatural feats out in the open, right before their very eyes? Still, obviously, these minor concerns are far outweighed by the sheer multitude of positive aspects of the book, like amazing characters, deep and meaningful relationships, well-written and robust world-building, and one hell of an addictive story (no pun intended).
To say I wholeheartedly recommend The Poppy War would be a massive understatement. In fact, I’m only sad that I can’t suggest it to absolutely everyone, mainly because there are some very disturbing scenes in the later parts of the book that I would warn readers against if they are uncomfortable with lots of graphic violence and brutality. If you are okay with this though, then I strongly urge you to give this one a try, as this novel has already rocketed up to the top of my list of favorite fantasy reads of all time. It was everything I wanted and more, and my book hangover is so severe right now that the only thing keeping my spirits up is the knowledge that The Poppy War is intended to be the first part of a planned trilogy, because I seriously wish it never had to end.