Book Review – The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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Goodreads Synopsis:

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.

Review:

So this is yet another very delayed review from #readtheworldathon – this time for the ‘Celebrate WOC’ square. I’d owned this for ages, having actually received it as an ARC but I forgot all about it until suddenly I started seeing hype for it everywhere and knew I had to read it.

This book can be split into several parts and so just when you think you know what’s going on, things take an unexpected turn and suddenly it’s a completely different novel. I adored this book for a multitude of reasons and it’s hard to narrow it down.

Firstly, this book is incredibly heavily inspired by Chinese history and culture which makes the world so rich and interesting. Some of the events are inspired by real events (I won’t say what because of spoilers, but suffice to say that a lot of the “bad” things that happen are based on real events) but as well as big things like that, it was also nice spotting the much smaller references. For example, the Keju is clearly inspired by the Gaokao and then there are throwaway remarks such as warning Rin to be careful of ‘gutter oil’. There’s probably way more references that also completely flew over my head due to my lack of in-depth knowledge about China and I definitely think I’m going to want to read this again to try and spot as many as I can.

The novel starts off with Rin at her academy and I’m a huge fan of novels that involve studying (I love school) so the setting appealed to me straight away. We don’t stay at the school for the entire novel, but the other settings are just as interesting. The characters are all very interesting too and it’s really rewarding to watch Rin evolve as a person throughout the novel.

There’s a lot I could say about this book, but I’m aware of the levels of hype surrounding it and I want to avoid saying too much because of potential spoilers. All I’ll say is that I highly, highly recommend it and have been recommending it to a lot of people. Indeed, the only people I wouldn’t recommend this to are those that don’t enjoy books with a lot of violence.

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