The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
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.
Me: typing this post while trying not to move my neck because this book gave me a spine-cracking case of whiplash…
What just happened? I haven’t experienced booklash this bad in years. It’s like this was written by two people. One would be an author I would add to my auto-buy list. The other I would never read again.
Let me go ahead and throw out the obligatory “SPOILERS” warning now, because I have some feels and I need to talk about them without censuring myself.
This book is written in three parts. The first part takes place in a small rural town and a military academy, the second revolves around a prolonged military siege, and the third is the aftermath of a crushing defeat where all the characters are desperate and make dumb decisions.
The first part was a solid five-stars for me. It was fucking incredible. Rin, the MC, proves herself to be intelligent, driven, logical, and inquisitive. In the second part, all this wonderful characterization starts to deteriorate, and by the third, it was like she had become a completely different person.
She spends two years at the aforementioned military academy, training from the best of the best, competing against the most intelligent children in the country (or, arguably, the most prepared for this school). As she’s from the poor, peasant class, expectations for her are low. Does she cave under the bullying of both the students and the teachers? No. She faces a seemingly impossible situation and responds by proving she has what it takes to be where she is.
I cannot stress enough how much I enjoyed this part of the book. The world building was phenomenal. This is a mythical land based on Chinese history. I was never lost or confused or wanting more information. And I can’t tell you how much I loved Rin throughout it. Her drive was inspiring. There was so much show here that I really, truly believed her to be the most intelligent student in the entire school.
Which is why it was such a shock that after two years of watching this brave young woman learn military strategy, rational thinking, and advanced combat, she turns into an illogical, cowardly, hero-worshiping shade of her formal self by the end of the book.
In short, her country gets invaded, she ends up having powers, and gets shoved into an “elite” branch of the military who can call on the gods to possess them. This elite branch is made entirely up of teenagers, which is supposed to make sense to the reader, since people can only channel gods for so long before they’re inevitably driven mad by the power and entombed in a prison.
It did not make sense. Because they weren’t all able to. There was a totally normal kid in there. Which begs the question, why wasn’t the person in charge of them also normal? Someone over the age of 25, with years of military strategy under his or her belt that could provide some much needed consistency to a unit with such a high turnover rate?
Answer: because that would have taken away from the love interest.
UGH, this shit again. Where an otherwise phenomenal book turns into a typical YA romance in which the formally intelligent MC turns into a moron for the male lead.
And this male lead, Altan. What a fucking piece of work. He’s allegedly the last of a warrior class of a race that was completely wiped out in the last Poppy War. In the beginning of this book, he’s a badass. I was intrigued by him. I wanted to know more about him. I lost all interest around halfway through, when he began to bully Rin.
And then he hit her.
And I kept reading, because I thought that it was because the author was going to make a point about this. Have the MC be like “fuck you” and abandon him.
Instead, at the end, when she’s forced to choose between her old master, Jiang, and Altan, this happens:
“But what had he (Jiang) ever promised her? Only wisdom. Only understanding. Enlightenment. But those meant only further warnings, petty excuses to hold her back from exercising a power that she knew she could access…
“I taught you better than this.” Jiang put a hand on her shoulder. He sounded as if he were pleading. “Didn’t I? Rin?”
He could have helped them. He could have stopped the massacre at Golyn Niis. He could have saved Nehza.
But Jiang had hidden. His country had needed him, and he had fled to ensconce himself here, without any regard for those he left behind.
He had abandoned her.
He hadn’t even said goodbye.
But Altan…Altan had not given up on her.
Altan had verbally abused her and hit her, but he had faith in her power. Altan had only ever wanted to make her stronger.”
Whoo boy. There is so much to unpack there, and you don’t even know. Taken at face value, that’s fucked up. But when you add in the fact that Jiang was trying to keep her from her power because the god she can access eventually destroys everything it touches, it becomes a little darker. And then when you realize that he couldn’t actually have stopped the massacre and that Nehza needed saving because ALTAN FUCKING LEFT HIM TO DIE, you realize just how bad this is.
And yet, she goes on to realize she loves Altan.
Because, like I said, this turns into romantic YA trash.
The MC continues her downward spiral, until the book ends with her calling on her god to literally kill every living soul of her enemy nation, because they’re animals (oh, hello, racism), and then after she does, she’s made the commander of her unit and pledges to kill everyone and everything that ever hurt her one twu wuv.
Does she realize that Jiang was right all along? Nope. That Altan was wrong all along? Nope. That she should have listened to everyone’s warnings? Nope. That she’s the world’s biggest hypocrite? Nope.
She’s spun as some sort of hero to her people.
I’m praying that this is all a set up. That in the next book she’ll realize how much she fucked up. But the fact that she doesn’t show any remorse at the end of this makes me worry about that. And it also makes me want to abandon all hope in this series. Because without even a glimmer of character redemption shown to me, I don’t have any faith that there will ever be any.
Not after that ending.