Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with a copy for review, this did not affect my opinion of the book in any way.
So, I finished this about a week and a half ago and I had to sit and percolate on this one before gathering my thoughts to write a proper review. This book devastated me, y’all.
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang is a fantasy story that is a bit coming of age, and a lot military fantasy dealing with the harsh reality of war. Rin is a young girl from the country with little prospects. A war orphan, she’s been raised by guardians that are eager to marry her off in order to help their business. Vehemently opposed to this plan, Rin becomes determined to study so she can score high enough on the test to be admitted into the country’s most elite military academy, Sinegard. Once there she learns her path ahead will be tough–she’ll be ostracized by her fellow students and even some of the teachers. One of the only people to believe in her will be an eccentric teacher that isa a master of the ancient and mostly defunct art of shamanism. Meanwhile, the tentative peace between Rin’s homeland of Nikara and their old foe, the Federation of Mugen, begins to waver. Soon the peace will be shattered altogether and Rin and her schoolmates will be faced with the harsh realities of war.
The first forty percent of the book focuses on Rin trying to get into the school and her experiences once there. This gives us a very good picture of Rin’s character overall–she’s doggedly determined to the point where she pushes herself almost beyond her limits in order to achieve her goals. It’s obvious she yearns for friends, but having always been an outsider in one way or another, it’s difficult for her. And she has to constantly harden herself at the school and remind herself that she’s not there to make friends. As much as she does want friends she won’t let that stand in her way either. She has a chip on her shoulder from everyone constantly looking down on her and again with that determination, she wants to prove the students and teachers wrong, show them she not only deserves to be at Sinegard, but that she can best them. I love her tenacity but her stubbornness is both her greatest strength and her greatest weakness. Rin isn’t a perfect person, and I feel like she’s such an interesting character because of all her flaws.
I also really love the other characters that Rin meets along her journey, both at the school and some of those after. I feel like they all multi-faceted and I want to get to know some of them more and I hope we’ll get to see some of them again in the next book. The parts at the school and the interaction between Rin and the other characters there were some of my favorite parts of the book. And, here especially, there is actually a good deal of humor in these pages.
Once we get to part two of the book the tone changes a bit. There were already some grimmer things in the beginning of the book, but in part two things take a turn. War breaks out and it gets real. School is not a safe haven. No where and no one is safe and once you realize this it keeps you, as a reader, on edge. The battle/fight scenes were well written and made me feel as if I were experiencing what Rin was during those times. I also really love the whole idea of shamanism in this universe and the way the gods possess a human and work through them is both intriguing and terrifying.
I feel like I can’t say that I enjoyed this book entirely because if I do then people may begin to question my sanity–because this book goes to some very, very, very dark places. But, I did like this book, very much, and I respect it because it doesn’t hold anything back and goes right into the heart of nightmares. The thing is, if you know the history that a lot of this is based on, specifically the second Sino-Japanese war and certain events therein, then it makes those sections of the book even more of an uncomfortable read. Because it’s not just fantasy ultra-violence for the sake of ultra-violence the way some grimdark can be…it’s uncomfortable because the atrocities written on the pages in this book are pulled right from human history. This book is a stark reminder of the human capacity for violence and what can happen when some people refuse to see other people as fellow human beings.
Overall, The Poppy War was quite a reading experience for me. I don’t think it’s going to be a book that I can recommend to everyone but it’s definitely going to stick with me for a while and continue to make me think. 5/5 stars.