“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”
This is not a timely review. The Poppy War was one of the most anticipated releases of 2018 and it took me quite a while to read it. I picked it up, after reading five chapters left it, then went back to it by listening to the audiobook (which is fantastically narrated, by the way) after my friend read it and told me she loved it. It’s the sort of book that demands you to fly through it even when you might not help being haunted by it, especially the second and third parts when it dives headfirst into war and atrocities.
And here’s the thing: it does not pull its punches when it comes to dealing with such topics. Around the main character Rin is a world inspired by 20th century China, and events that shadow the real-life Nanking Massacre so even if, or maybe because of, it takes place in a secondary world, The Poppy War is steeped in horrible, not so distant history. Before ever reading the book, I had read the author’s essay on ghosts and what they represent in Chinese fiction, which I definitely recommend because it gives perspective as to what she’s trying to accomplish in The Poppy War and is just an all around wonderful, chilling piece of writing that I feel is relevant.
Some content warnings to be aware of before reading The Poppy War are: body horror, drug use, (secondhand but still jarring account of) rape, war, experimentation on people against their will, self-harm and extreme gore.
“She squeezed her wrist, fingers closing over pale burn scars, and inhaled. Focus. In the corner, a water clock rang softly. “Begin,” said the examiner. A hundred test booklets were opened with a flapping noise, like a flock of sparrows taking off at once.”
The Poppy War consists of three parts, part one perhaps being the most recognizable one in structure to the YA Fantasy genre, though most tropes are shifted and shaped to accommodate the scope of the story, which is definitely Adult in execution rather than Young Adult. We follow Rin as she prepares for the Keju, a nation-wide test that will hopefully land her a place in Sinegard, a military academy that trains the best of soldiers. She, unlike most heroes seen in fantasy, works her ass off to get into her defining school.
Here the worldbuilding is imbued in the storytelling as Rin learns about the history of Nikan in her classes along with the reader, learns war strategy and meets all sorts of side characters we see break apart in the following chapters. My favorite has been Nezha, Rin’s rival turned friend at Sinegard and Jiang, the elusive Lore master who pushes Rin to think differently about the magic and faith system of the world they live in. Later, when Rin meets Altan, he offers yet another view for her to consider which in my opinion one of the reasons why the magic system of The Poppy War holds strong: it’s what Jeannette Ng says here about grounding the magic with reality and imperfect understanding vs the underlying rules of the world and Kuang does this masterfully.
“The gods were simply those beings that inhabited that space, forces of creation and destruction, love and hatred, nurturing and neglect, light and dark, cold and warm… they opposed one another and complemented one another; they were fundamental truths.”
The second and third parts of The Poppy War centers on the war between Nikan and the opposing Federation of Mugen. Rin plunges into the thick of it, both learning more about her own history and trying to survive and let others live. Unfortunely, the story grows darker and darker and she is not able to sustain her anger. She learns how to wield it instead. She is almost always the controlling agent of her actions, even when she is ambushed, beaten, starved and tortured which ultimately leads her to a dooming decision. It feels satisfying, like chess pieces finally coming together to deliver the finishing blow. But it’s also terrifying, the reality of it becomes too much for her to fathom. She is a changed person, we are invited to feel what she feels and anticipate the next step of her revenge.
The Poppy War is the most solid start to a series I’ve read in a while. I’m hoping in the sequel, The Dragon Republic, Rin lives the consequences of her actions because the foundation is there. It’s straight onto Book 2 for me!