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.
A really good book has a beginning, a middle, and then it absolutely ends you. The Poppy War is a really good book. The kind of book that makes you want to take part in some ritualistic bonfire—it doesn’t even have to be ritualistic as long as you get to yell and scream and dance around it.
I wish my pupils were at least heart-shaped so I could more accurately demonstrate my passion but if I ever die suddenly and don’t have time to say anything profound, just know that my real last words will always be about how much I love this book.
So, what’s this book about?
The Poppy War is a historical military fantasy grounded in the bloody history of China’s 20th century in which Rin—a dark-skinned war orphan from the rural south—has fixed her heart on passing the Empire-wide placement test and attending the most prestigious military academy in Nikan, as a desperate lunge at the hope of escaping the gruesome inevitability of an arranged marriage.
A year at Sinegard of her rival classmates—all heirs of the Warlords and the wealthy and privileged—telling her to cease the folly of imagining herself their equal only gave Rin’s determination a more savage edge, and soon Rin learns, with the aid of her seemingly insane and much-disdained teacher, that she possesses a lethal aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism.
But the chain of wonders and horrors hadn’t ended with her discovery: the Nikans had lived with the certainty that sooner or later the Federation of Mugan would come and blood would flow, and when they did, Rin finds herself assigned to a company of the Cike—oddball misfits with shamanic powers—fighting for her country’s very survival. Through their shared heritage and a connection to a perilous divinity, Rin glimpses the world as her Commander—Altan—sees it: made simple by the righteousness and fury that were the legacy of their unjustly murdered people. And it made a good whetstone upon which to sharpen her own rage. Rin is determined to win this war and do whatever it takes to ensure that her country would never again be forced to its knees.
But just how many of those unavoidable choices will result in unforgivable consequences?
“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”
To be honest, summing up the plot of The Poppy War does it a huge disservice. For one thing, it unfurls into at least three books’ worth of plot, but without ever feeling rushed or anything less than sure-footed and scrupulous in its exploration of character and setting. This is a dazzling debut painted by an inventive hand that takes hold and doesn’t let go. It’s full of imaginative flair, mad entombed gods, truths too heavy for the hearts, and a high-stakes quest for revenge—blending magical elements with a culturally vibrant cast of characters and creating a shadowy world dripping with blood and revenge, in which our fierce, head-strong heroine must claw her way to the top of a deadly pecking order.
This is not a book for the faint of heart. The Poppy War is a wide array of unpleasant possibilities. My mind was unwinding the tangled threads with tattered patience, following each thread from one end to another through a thicket. I never knew in which parts to be elated and terrified. The author is so good at building tension and sitting tone and once the action gets going, she only delights in twisting the knife deeper and deeper. I continuously felt the caution of wondering whether everything was a trick, or another lie. My expectations were so uprooted and jumbled that I was constantly forced to sit rapt with attention just to get my bearings.
But what truly snagged at me the most is waking up to the gruesome horrified realization that the author’s depiction of the war between Nikan and Mugen was strongly influenced by the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s, and specifically the Nanjing Massacre (also known as the Rape of Nanking). I just can’t hold the reality of it all in my head without stirring a war in me between grief and utter disbelief.
“Children ceased to be children when you put a sword in their hands. When you taught them to fight a war, then you armed them and put them on the front lines, they were not children anymore. They were soldiers.”
Rin’s character radiated such an extraordinary vitality and her arc was nothing short of astounding—the years that stretched between the book’s beginning and its ending feeling impossibly vast. Everything Rin was, everything she’s become, grew out of the carnage of her people. Anger and indignation carved away everything else inside her—doubt, fear, embarrassment—leaving room for nothing else, and her will was a blade forged by the sight of her country being whittled down one small piece of itself at a time, despised and taken advantage of.
I felt her every sorrow and anger and disappointment and so much loss with a keenness that often forced me to exclamation, to stamping my feet or clutching my book to my chest. And then she meets Altan and together, their wrath ignited, impossible to quell—carving through their minds and pushing everything out of its way.
Altan’s life has been a sequence of monsters one after another tossing him about to suit their whims, and it all eventually twisted into wild distorted rage and thwarted fury. He and Rin were two hollowed-out halves of a whole, two allegiances doing battle but the one that has been sewn into their blood since birth winning out, because they would always be the last remaining survivors of their kind, and that has become a truth that both guarded and isolated them.
And as much as I tried to take heart from their successes and intent on revenge, it was precious little to take heart from when it’s matched by horror at its costs and the knowledge that they both had finally become the worst of what they had always had the potential to be. Especially when I still can’t shake off the feeling that all the characters are merely pawns in a very treacherous game.
“But I warn you, little warrior. The price of power is pain.”
Equal parts heartbreaking, and thoroughly satisfying, The Poppy War is the fantasy novel I feel I’ve been waiting two lifetimes and a half for. So clear your schedule before picking it up—you won’t want to put it down.