“The Poppy War” Review

The book cover has a white background and there is a person sanding on a rock holding an armed bow ready to fire and carrying additional bows. Her outfit is blowing in the wind to the right. The title of the book is at the top and has smoke coming off the letters going to the right. In the bottom half of the book next to the figure is the text "They trained her for ward. She intends to end it" and then the author's name at the bottom. Written by R.F. Kuang
Published by Harper Voyager, May 2018
544 pages
Completed June 22, 2023

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.

I really enjoyed this book even with the very dark tone. It’s not a light read and while it’s set in a fictional world it’s based heavily on China and China’s various conflicts with other countries. The characters are interesting and I liked all of them even when they weren’t the nicest characters. The main character, Rin, has a complicated background and she’s definitely going to be a complicated character going forward in the next two books. Some might question her choices and mindset (she’s very focused on revenge) but it’s easy to see where all of it comes from based on what she’s been through and what she knows. I’m definitely going to finish the series at some point.

Also – I found this great post and review that provides the historical context for the book: Everything You Need to Know Before You Read The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang by Tiffany at Read by Tiffany and contributing writer & editor Kevin Kaichuang Yang. It provides a lot of information about how everything in the series lines up with history. From the various wars to the character parallels and the landscape. There are spoilers for all three books so consider before reading through it if you like to avoid spoilers.