mini-review · stuff I read

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (The Poppy War #1)

poppySummary from Goodreads:

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.

In looking over the Spring Discover selections for BN, R.F. Kuang’s debut, The Poppy War, just stood straight out. A fantasy novel on the epic scale of Game of Thrones, with perhaps a bit of The Once and Future King or Harry Potter thrown in, but based in Chinese history and storytelling. Oh, yes please.

Let me tell you – this book is bananas. BANANAS. We have the smart orphan at boarding school plot and then it takes a LEFT TURN into a major military offensive and then about halfway through I realized I couldn’t quite figure out where Kuang was taking the plot. I could see myriad ways Rin could go, like the many different moves of a chess game, but I couldn’t predict the path (I had sort-of guessed part of the end, but definitely wasn’t prepared for it). This is a fantasy novel grounded in the shamanism and politics of the Asian continent. The world-building is astounding. And the reader is left on a bit of a cliff-hanger at the end.  Well-played, Ms. Kuang.

But fair warning: reading this book is rough. So rough. There are events in the book inspired by the atrocities committed during the invasion of Nanking during World War II. There are scenes that very clearly are reminiscent of ethnic cleansing. Trigger warning for extreme wartime violence (think Khmer Rouge plus Nazis, just as a warning) and rape.

The Poppy War is out today!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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