REVIEW: The Poppy War by R.F Kuang
The Poppy War by R.F Kuang is inspired by the second-Sino war and mid-20th century China. We follow Rin who is a war orphan and was taken in by the Fangs. The Fangs are opium dealers and once business doesn’t go their way, plan to marry Rin off to some wealthy man. Rin being not about that married life studies to get into the most prestigious school in the country, Sinegard. Sinegard Academy has many tests and she must pass each one of them to achieve entrance into the school. With the help of tutor Feyrik, she studies day and night and becomes one of the highest scores in her entire province thus leading to entrance to Sinegard. Once there, a boy named Nezha insults tutor Feyrik and so she punches him in the face. He deserves it though. He threatens to kill her and this starts a feuding relationship between the two that fuels most of the book.
Classes begin and Rin eventually gets kicked out of combat classes for fighting with Nezha. This begins her longing for learning about combat and so decides to do it another way, by reading books. This interests Master Jiang, the Lore Master, and offers to train her. They make a great team but when Rin decides she wants to apprentice in strategy instead of Lore with him, he becomes upset and stops training her.
The apprentice exams take place and most of her tutors are impressed by the answers that she gives to them. Rin takes part in a tournament and fights Nezha but whilst she does win, she gets so angry and starts to burn herself up. She runs to garden in the hope of cooling her anger down and Jiang realises that she needs his help more than ever and helps her calm down. He tells her that he will train her to control her powers like he was going to do with Altan Trenzin, the last surviving speerly. Rin admitting that she needs help, pledges Lore and becomes one of the few apprentices of that subject.
Rin starts to train more and more with Jiang and he slowly introduces her to the idea of shamanism, something that she thinks is ridiculous at first but knows that there is truth behind it. Rin learns to meditate and Jiang sends her to a cave for many days so that she can talk to the Gods. She meditates and sees the Pantheon but a woman is they’re telling her to turn back. Jiang explains that the Gods require a price to be summoned.
War eventually breaks out in Sinegard the city and Sinegard students stay to fight for their country as after all, that’s what they are there for. Rin is fighting alongside the one person she hates most, Nezha when Jiang arrives and saves them with his magic. The general attacking them, recognises who he is and Jiang makes the wall collapse on top of the general by opening the gates so that otherworldly creatures walk through. The general survives and stabs Nezha in the process. Wanting to save herself in this situation, Rin calls the Phoenix and destroys most things around her. Irjah, the Strategy master, calls for Rin to join the cike, a specialist unit of the military that is armed with Shamans. This unit is now commanded by Altan. When Altan plans to attack the federations ships and asks Rin to call on the Phoenix as well, but she cannot. He calls her useless and tells her not to talk to Nezha who she met up with earlier.
Whilst on watch, a crowd starts running towards her and away from a mysterious creature. It is revealed that it’s a chimei, a creature that was released when Jiang opened the gates to help Nezha and her escape. Rin and Nezha volunteer to go kill the creature but find it is taking the form of a child. They get distracted by this realisation and in the nick of time, Rin kills it.
Later on, the militia is trying to break the federation strong hold when the Mugen soldiers attack Khurdalain with a gas. Nezha gets caught in the midst and is taken away by the enemy and at this point presumed to be dead. In retaliation for the attack, Altan takes one of theirs as a prisoner of war. Rin is angry that Altan saved her but not Nezha as well, Altan hits her and in spite of him, she finally summons the phoenix. Rin goes to talk to Chaghan, Altan’s second in command about Altan and also about the woman that scares her when she goes to the pantheon. Chaghan takes her to a divinatory and she casts a hexagram. The divinatory speaks in riddles but Chaghan understands what she is saying and goes to warn Altan to leave Khurdalain. Altan in turn interrogates the prisoner and finds out Khurdalain was a distraction and the real goal was Golyn Niis.
When they reach Golyn Niis, they find utter disarray and destruction. The federation pretty much blitzed the place and it’s a massacre. Corpses are covering the streets. Bodies upon bodies are scattered across the place. Luckily though, Rin finds her friend, Kitay alive after enduring the genocide and also finds Venka who they both know from the academy. It seems though that Venka has gone through a lot including rape among other things. Rin hears Altan and Chaghan fighting about what to do. Altan wants to free the gods from the Chuluu Korikh, the mountain prison where shamans are kept when they go insane from using the power of the Gods and Chaghan thinks it is such a bad idea. Of course, Chaghan is right and Altan ignores him. Rin and Altan head of to the Chuluu Korikh where they find Jiang who is about to imprison himself and warns them against their plan. Altan frees Feylen and he escapes them. It turns out though, the federation has been waiting for them to leave the mountain and take Rin and Altan to where Altan was experimented on by them as a child.
Rin and Altan eventually escape the torture and use their power to escape but in the process, Altan is killed by burning the laboratory down and is caught in the fire whereas Rin heads to the island of Speer. When she gets to the island of Speer she connects with her ancestors and goes to the Phoenix’s temple. When she is there, she channels the phoenix and calls upon it to destroy the federation and the island of Mugen. The Phoenix does so and Rin collapses. When she finally returns to Kitay, he is disgusted by what she has done as there were innocent lives on the island by Rin does not care. It is revealed that the Empress of the country sold out the rest of the country to the federation and so Rin swears vengeance on her.
This book is utterly stunning. The story telling is just simply awe-inspiring and I cannot think of one fault with it. R.F Kuang’s writing truly captures your mind with how spellbinding it is. The book goes into a excruciating detail of what it’s like to be at war, which means there are trigger warnings galore for this book. R.F Kuang does not shy away from the awful things that really did occur in the wars that inspired this tale. In fact that she goes into the raw details and does not sugar coat it is something to be admired for.
5 out 5 stars.