The Poppy War (Book Review)
Holy hell, what did I just read??
➽ A fantasy military school
➽ A rich world based on modern Chinese history
➽ Shamans and gods
➽ Detailed characterization leading to unforgettable characters
➽ Adorable, opium-smoking mentors
That’s a basic list, but this book is all of that and SO MUCH MORE. I know 100% that The Poppy War will be one of my best reads of 2018.
Isn’t it just so great when you find one of those books that completely drags you in, makes you fall in love with the characters, and demands that you sit on the edge of your seat for every horrific, nail-biting moment of it? This is one of those books for me. And I must issue a serious content warning: this book explores some very dark themes. Proceed with caution (or not at all) if you are particularly sensitive to scenes of war, drug use and addiction, genocide, racism, sexism, ableism, self-harm, torture, and rape (off-page but extremely horrific).
Because, despite the fairly innocuous first 200 pages, the title speaks the truth: this is a book about war. All of its horrors and atrocities. It is not sugar-coated, and it is often graphic. The “poppy” aspect refers to opium, which is a big part of this book. It is a fantasy, but the book draws inspiration from the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Rape of Nanking.
It begins with one of my favourite things: a downtrodden orphan attends a fantasy boarding school. However, Rin doesn’t get to attend her school by being “chosen” or “special”. She works her ass off studying for the Keju test, which allows her to go to the prestigious Sinegard — the best military school in the country. I absolutely love the message this book sends about the merits of hard work and perseverance over genetics and natural specialness. Nothing is handed to Rin on a plate.
This first part is much lighter than the rest of the book, but I enjoyed it immensely. And there are still many challenges to be faced in these early chapters. Rin must go up against school bullies and racist teachers who don’t want a backwater war orphan in their classes. But she also encounters friendship and delightfully quirky teachers who like to get high on opium. And secrets. Secrets like that of the shamans who can conjure gods and use their powers — but those are just a myth, right?
But there’s trouble brewing outside the school’s walls. War is coming and Rin and her classmates will be put to the test again and again.
If she went with him, she would help him to unleash monsters. Monsters worse than the chimei. Monsters worse than anything in the Emperor’s Menagerie — because these monsters were not beasts, mindless things that could be leashed and controlled, but warriors. Shamans. The gods walking in humans, with no regard for the mortal world.
This is where things get very dark. The strong world-building and carefully-crafted characters set us up to care even more when the action really kicks in and lives are threatened. It is the very opposite of the “mindless action scenes” I have been complaining about recently in fantasy novels. I cared so deeply about the characters that the action scenes were extremely tense and terrifying.
I feel like my heart was pounding for the majority of this fantastic story. I can hardly recall the last time I was this engrossed in a book, and I am so so glad there will be more books to come. It’s just a perfect blend of action, memorable characters, vividly-imagined setting and a look at humanity at its very worst. There’s no romance, but there is a wonderful enemies-to-friends relationship that I can’t wait to read more about.
I am so very excited about this series and seeing where the author takes us next.