The Poppy War: A Review

Synopsis (Good Reads)

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.

I was delighted to find that R.F. Kuang is a fellow Cantonese-born author. I have really enjoyed this fantastic novel – Harry Potter meets Sword In the Stone meets Hunger Games meets Opium Wars meets Wuxia, and much more.

It navigates the reader through complex Chinese concepts such as the Keju exams in an accessible manner, fleshing out the well-explored coming-of-age genre with plenty of in-depth historical and cultural world-building. I loved the use of Wuxia literary tropes like the hermit master, the subtle reincarnation of the inimitable scholar Zhu Geliang (Kong Ming) in the story, and the reveal of Master Jiang, based on one of China’s most famous military strategists, kingmakers & fantasy characters.

Whilst the Pan-Asian feel of the book conveyed through the naming of the characters, places, iterations of cultural differences do render the story more accessible to a very wide readership, I find certain naming jarring. The representation of the 12 provinces by animals, and the presentation of animal gods as the source of shamanistic powers are perhaps, a tad simplistic. The book’s reinterpretation of the goddess Nüwa I also find rather peculiar. Snake symbolism in traditional Chinese culture is quite the opposite of Western associations.

Having said that, The Poppy War is the kind of novel I had wanted to see published ever since I started my work propagating Chinese culture a decade ago. Just a trigger warning to those who may need it, there’s an interpretation of the Nanjing holocaust, which, albeit very distressing, I’m very glad to see featured. It’s important that the younger generations remember, that they interact with this memory and come to terms with it. And something as wide-reaching as a novel can help many readers explore the impact of historical trauma, whatever their connection might be to the events.








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