Review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

This is the first in a brand new series by author R.F Kuang. I had heard so many good things about this book and could not wait to pick it up.

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 . . .

Before I start my review I will warn you that this book is not for those faint of heart. Not your typical YA fantasy, you should proceed with caution if you are sensitive to scenes of Drug-abuse, self-harm, rape, war, torture, genocide and racism. Most of this is described graphically and I would certainly make yourself aware of this before reading.

This was one of those books that hooks you from the first chapter and stays with you long after you have finished it. Filled to the brim with action, and with a heroine you’re not sure is a hero or a villain, the twists and turns of this book are sure to keep you hooked until the very last page. I only recently found out that this draws inspiration from the Second Sino-Japanese war and the Rape of Nanking, and I love, though am slightly disturbed that this takes inspiration from real life events.

I always enjoy a brilliantly written literary school and the Sinegard was no exception. Described as the elite military school in Nikan, which only accepts sons and daughters of members of the nobility, until Rin. Despite all the trials that Rin faces at Sinegard, there is one saving grace in the Master of Lore Jiang ( who is a cupcake and I adore him!). He teaches Rin the basics of Shamanism, how to reach the Pantheon, and then how to cut herself off from the God’s. which is the exact opposite from what Rin wants to learn.

Rin is a beautifully written character, she has the best of intentions, but her thirst for revenge is what eventually takes over, and drives her down the path of the Phoenix God. Though not necessarily a “hero” you cant help but feel that Rin’s choices are made from the heart and with the best of intentions, she simply feels that there is no other way to exact her revenge.

Altan is the reason for Rins choices and the main director of the path she takes. A boy that has had so much taken away from him, and far too much power given to him. He feels wholly the pain of the destruction of Speer, and the weight of being the last Speerly, until that is, he meets Rin. Together they make a hugely powerful team, however, there are those who believe them unnatural and unholy who would seek to ultimately destroy them.

This book is split into thee parts. Part one is mainly focused on Sinegard and Rins first year at the academy, learning who her supposed enemies and friends are. Part two focuses more on her training with Jiang and the initial onslaught of the Mugen heralding the start of the third Poppy War. Part three follows Rin as she is eventually put to use in battle under her commander Altan, and her realisation that everything she thought she knew can be turned upside down.

This was an easy 5/5 for me. I loved everything from the plot, the character and the world that Kuang builds. A must read for anyone looking for a dark and gritty Fantasy novel, with characters whose decisions don’t always fall on the side of good. Though please do take note of the trigger warnings before reading.

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