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.
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This book is centred around war and the gruesome politics, violence, and dark themes that come along with it. Set during the Second Sino-Japanese War, it takes opium as a source to possess shamanic powers to consequently, destroy in order to save. The themes of lost humanity, gore violence, calling Gods, and doing too many wrong things while aiming for what’s right can quickly turn dark, but I’m all here for such exploration so this is easily one of my favourite fantasy books ever!
The Poppy War is a historical fantasy where Gods are called for powers and fiery ambitions are sought.
This review is difficult to write because this is one of those books that has so many appreciable and amazing themes that if all of them are mentioned in this review, it’ll turn into a massive load of spoilers (and pure fangirling). If you’re not a fan of long reviews, here’s my one-line take on this book: it’s perfect and you should totally pick it up right now!
The main character, Fang Runin (Rin) is worth mentioning first because she’s such a central part of this story that it’s amusing how every event influences her but is also, in a way, influenced by her. She starts off as a war orphan who needs to be accepted into Sinegard, the topmost institution that doesn’t charge for its militia education, in order to escape the brutality of her foster parents and the plausibility of her getting married to a man who was far older than her. And that happens, her hardwork pays off. But that’s not the end of her struggle. She gets even more stronger while making a place for herself at the academy where elites line up every class. The growth is stunning, amazing and subtly aspirational. Even after the academic setting is left and the war required her, she discovers even more about herself, takes tough decisions and uses her free will to reach wherever she reaches in the story.
If you thought Rin’s character was great, you’re in for a surprise because everyone else, the side characters, are carrying a story as moving and a personality as impressive as her. Though the book focuses a lot on Rin, it doesn’t shy away from making you admire or cheer or lightly idealise some of the many side characters. You’ll keep praying for them to stay. Just stay. And breathe. But your prayers won’t always be answered, thanks to Kuang.
↦ Jiang is the lore professor who teaches balance of life and clears Rin’s head; believes in ‘ki’ and meditation; Rin’s opium-smoking mentor; has powers he prefers to hide; is hard on keeping the fabric between the two realms intact; is adorable.
↦ Altan : Last of the Speerlies (an island’s inahbitants who were wiped away), has red irises, connected to the Pheonix god; strong, brave, and commander of the Cike; broken yet powerful; Rin’s fire-yielding mentor.
↦ Nezha : Rin’s bully; annoying, uptight elite at the academy; thinks everyone should worship him; fights like he’s born to; you will surprisingly like him afterward.
↦ Kitay : Rin’s true friend at the academy; the one who knows everything about everything; says he only reads about the interesting things; intelligent, smart, someone who probably quizzes you during quizzes.
Several other characters include Qara, from Hinterlands, as a part of the Cike, who has an eagle and an anchor bond with her twin; the mother of the squad; can shoot with a bow like no other. Chaghan is also from Hinterlands, is a part of the Cike, is Altan’s lieutanat, and a seer. Ramsa is the precious bean of the Cike; science is his power, which is evident from the way he uses faeces to make explosions. Baji is the thickly-built mercenary type who carries a rake with nine prongs as his weapon. Aratsha is the Friar, someone who can disguise himself as water. Unegen is the shape-shifter so he usually turns into a fox while Suni is the giant man with a boyish face who channels the Monkey God.
The plot of this book is complex and if you really want to enjoy it, I would honestly suggest you to go in blind. It’ll help to not have any expectations because the themes can be so subjective, it’s better to experience them without another’s opinion about it. But if you want a gist of what it’s about, I would say: it follows a war orphan who finds her identity through the Militia academy and then through a journey that’s filled with war and herd truths. It lays down the concepts of shamnism and religion and magical powers and the prize you pay for it all. The secondary themes of humanity against violence is commendable because it’s not easy to use a morally grey protagonist and successfully show what’s actually right and wrong. Friendships and relationships that one forges without any romantic element is one of the strongest aspects for fans of platonic connections. There are twists and revelations that will shock you but through the wider lens, you’ll be able to understand everything. Oh, and you might cry.
Overall, this is a historical fantasy fiction that will impress you with its complex concepts, theme exploration, reality’s depiction, dark setting, and characters that come alive very easily.
my rating ↣ ★★★★★
N O T E
I’m in no place to give detailed comments on the representation or historical accuracy in this book so please pay heed to the ownvoices reviews for these aspects above mine.