*This review may contain spoilers.
4.27 stars from The StoryGraph
Fiction, fantasy, historical
Graphic: Genocide, violence, rape
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. (Source)
The Poppy War has some of the best worldbuilding I've seen in a long time. Like, The Book of the Ancestor trilogy was good, but I feel like this book brought in more of it's history into the present and gave us all these pieces of the past to sort through and make sense of through the narrative.
I absolutely adore the diversity in the culture as well. The architecture, the fighting styles, the clothing they wore, the food they made. It's not often I see fantasy inspired by other countries and cultures and now it's a whole tag on my tbr list.
Diverse Fantasy is something I didn't know I needed or wanted until I started reading it. And it's funny to think back now to my own writing because a lot of the fantasy I like to write explores other cultures. I like to take bits and pieces from other places and practices and weave them into my own fantasy stories.
Rin as a Main Character
Fang Runin, or Rin, is our main character. She is a child at the beginning of the book and is still only 19 years old by the end. Similar to Nona in the Red Sister by Mark Lawrence, Rin can be naïve, headstrong, and somewhat arrogant. She's a teenager that never left her small hometown until she makes it to Sinegard.
This, ultimately, brought depth to the character and made her very realistic. It also made her a character I couldn't make my mind up about. Sometimes I liked her and could understand her thought process. Other times, it was clear she had no idea what was really going on. She was a child amongst politically-driven leaders and an enemy that for a large portion of the book remained faceless.
"She was disappointed by how very similar they looked to the Nikara."
Rin, in reference to the Federation of Mugen, their enemy.
I should have paid more attention to the content warnings on this book. I knew it was a more graphic than I was used to, but I thought I was ok throughout the better part of the book. I've read the entire Dark Tower series by Stephen King and his descriptions can get pretty graphic. In the Poppy War there were a few graphic descriptions of violence, death, and medical procedures, etc. But they were only a few sentences long. I was ok.
Then I got to chapter 21.
Chapter 21 is as graphic as it gets. And the rest of the book doesn't shy away from anything either. Instead of a few sentences, it was pages of graphic content that I had a hard time reading. This includes: sexual assault and violence, torture, death, genocide, fire/fire injury, animal cruelty, child abuse, and so on. Check the content warnings I've linked above before you fully commit to reading this book, or consider skipping some parts or chapters.
I will definitely be reading the second book to this series and likely the third. I highly recommend The Poppy War, but again pay close attention to the content warnings and be aware that it discusses some pretty heavy topics throughout.
All in all, Rin is a delightfully complex main character, the worldbuilding is superb, and each character has their own goals and their own opinions on the war they are fighting. It's intricate and violent and so, so good.
Diverse Fantasy TBR List
Incendiary by Zoraida Córdova
Jade City by Fonda Lee
A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown
The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury
Hidden In Darkness by S.J. Stewart
View the full tag list here.