The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
Series: Unknown, trilogy planned
Adult ∴ Historical Fiction > China ∴ Historical Fantasy > Magic, Shamanism ∴ TW (see below)
Published May 1st 2018 by Harper Voyager
Hardback ∴ 544 pages
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.
*To start this off, I want to be clear about the content warnings in this book. Kuang wrote a whole blog post about why she wrote what she did and lists the CWs as such:
- Violent rape
- Sexual assault
- Substance abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Physical abuse
- Relationship abuse
- Human experimentation
- Chemical warfare
If any of these make you uncomfortable or trigger you, please don’t read it. Put your health first.
Wow. Wow wow wow. This book is incredible!
I’m not sure where I thought this was going when I started the book. It started off as kind of a by-the-book YA beginning (yes, I’m aware it’s adult, just wait). Girl has crappy home, girl studies like crazy, girl gets into prestigious school, girl overcomes bullies, that kind of thing. But when the Federation invades, all of that goes out the window and the real story starts.
Inspiration for the novel comes from the Second Sino-Japanese War from 1937-1945, specifically, The Rape of Nanjiang (or Nanking) in 1937, where a troop of Japanese soldiers massacred an entire town, competing for the most kills, raping women, murdering children, more than 300,000 people, and left the whole village in ruin. I won’t go into more detail here, but I encourage you to look it up for yourself if you can handle it.
As Kuang says in her blog post about brutality, that the Western world is most likely unaware of the event because the West doesn’t care. And she’s right. I had no idea that this ever occurred because schools don’t teach it. They will spend weeks on the Holocaust (which is at the exact same time, mind you), but say nothing about the war between China and Japan. I intend to learn more and understand what happened then, because frankly, I think it’s stupid. As an adult, I see now how biased and skewed public learning is. It’s not about teaching or students actually learning, it’s a numbers game and those with the highest numbers succeed. Anyway, that’s not the point of my review.
I’m absolutely in love with this book. I can’t wait to see what happens next because Kuang left me hanging from a cliff. Her writing is beautiful and vivid and lovely, the world seems very gray but on fire (literally, sometimes), and the characters are so real. I spent a lot of time going, “No, I don’t like [this person]. I lied, yes I do. Wait, no, never mind.” It was all over the place.
Let’s talk content warnings. As listed above, Kuang doesn’t hold back. For me personally, I’m not usually triggered by mentioning things or reading them. It takes more than that to mess me up, but this book is by no means gentle. Kuang isn’t here to sugar coat or hand-hold, she tells it straight up, in stark detail. Some things are more in the background, like the emotional and physical abuse between characters. Where it happens on-page and then is over. But other things, like genocide and rape, she goes into full detail, walking the you through like you’re on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney or a drive-thru safari or something. It shocked me, but more in a morbid curiosity way than a triggering way. I strongly urge you to think carefully if you want to read this because the content warnings are not a joke and almost don’t prepare you for what’s in store.
I had few to no problems with this book. Everything written is intentional and there for a reason. Nothing is a mistake. It’s beautiful and brutal and magical. I cannot wait to read the next book!