Ahoy Mates !
So the first official stop of The Bookish Crusade is going to be a review of ‘The Poppy War’ by R.F Kuang.
Let me just start by saying that this book was published when R.F Kuang was only 22 years old ! That itself is mindboggling to me but there are other things that blew my mind as well, lets see it aye?
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.
First of all, we at The Crusade love some diverse books and The Poppy War happens to be just that. Its a Grimdark Chinese based military fantasy that throws light on the Chinese culture and explores a lot of themes like shamanism, politics, myths and history. The way R.F. Kuang brutally showed us what power, violence and oppression can do to people is truly astounding.
The setting –
The story takes place in the Empire of Nikara which is ruled by a powerful Empress. The Empire is weak and the warlords of the 12 provinces are busy in their own battle for the power. Amidst this, Nikara’s old enemy The Mugen Federation threatens an attack to restore all its lost glory in the previous Opium Wars.
“Great danger is always associated with great power. The difference between the great and the mediocre is that the great are willing to take the risk.”
The Characters –
The main character Rin (Fang Runin) is a dark skinned war orphan who lives in the servitude of her relatives who are involved in the illegal dealing of Opium. When she finds herself cornered to be a bride, she decides to take up the famous and rather difficult Keju test (a test required to join the military school). After 2 years of inflicting pain on herself and studying hard she finally succeeds.
“Well, fuck the heavenly order of things. If getting married to a gross old man was her preordained role on this earth, then Rin was determined to rewrite it.”
In this military school of Sinegard, Rin finds herself being a target of bullying due to her dark skin and peasant background. This is also where we meet our other characters- Nezha, Kitay, Venka, Altan and Jiang.
Nezha is one of the top-tier students, rich and liked by all the teachers. I am not quite sure how I felt about him in this book, hopefully we will get to see more of him in the sequels.
Kitay on the other hand I loved. Perhaps I loved him even more than Rin herself, He is snarky and sharp and a very good friend of Rin. Despite, being privileged he is not very narcissist and has a very strong moral opinions about the world. I want to protect him at all cost ❤
Then there is Venka, our typical arrogant girl boss kind of character. I did not really like her for the most part of the book, but due to later events I did gain a soft spot for her maybe (we will know for sure in the later books)
Altan, oh Altan. His character work is really good, the most powerful warrior with a tragic past and lots of depth.
Jian happens to be a Teacher of Lore and takes Rin as his apprentice. He engages Rin is tiresome training to build body strength, teaches her to control qi and also how to use the drug fueled magic. He is a mysterious character and has a lot of secrets himself.
This book is written in 3 parts and to be honest by the end of this book I felt like I just finished an entire trilogy. But despite of the fact that it packs a lot, R.F. Kuang managed to do so in a impressively smooth way. I really admire her for doing so, I was not confused or tired even once.
Now, in the first part we follow the military school, there is some training montage, meeting all the characters and a little bit of political feud.
The second part is where we really see Rin explore the magic system, more of shamanism and gods and its also when we see the war start.
The third part is completely about the war and the events that takes place in the war, we let go of the old characters and meet some new ones (CIKE). The author has mentioned in many interviews that she has also taken the inspiration from The Nanjing massacre. And let me tell you folks, each and every word from these chapters felt like a punch to my gut and it left me feeling breathless by the end. R.F. Kuang surely doesn’t shy away from taking you to some very dark places.
“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”
I could tell by the end that Fang Runin is made to be an anti-hero, so I am bracing my heart already for The Dragon Republic because I know its going to hurt ! Overall, I loved this book. It has everything I look for in a fantasy book. A great debut and a great addition to the fantasy world !
“I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible. Was she now a goddess or a monster? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.”
Trigger Warnings –
Genocide; self-harm; drug use; substance addiction; misogyny; abuse; animal cruelty; rape; death (often graphic); torture; child death; starvation; mutilation; bodily experimentation; gaslighting; suicide; cannibalism (alluded to off-page, committed by background characters).
Until next time,