The Poppy War
The world is being inundated with young adult fantasy series, and while I’ve loved quite a few of those I’ve read over the past couple of years, I can definitely understand why some people are growing weary of them. R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War is a little different in that it appears to be a standalone novel, so readers won’t be forced to commit to an ongoing series.
Sixteen-year-old Rin is desperate to find a way out of the marriage her guardians have arranged for her. As a war orphan of unknown origin, she’s grown up feeling like a burden to the family who has reluctantly cared for her for as long as she can remember, and she knows they’re more than ready for her to move on. But she can’t bear the thought of marrying the elderly man her guardians consider suitable.
Fortunately, Rin is a resourceful and extremely intelligent young woman, and she’s pretty sure she’s come up with a stellar plan for the rest of her life. Each year, young people are invited to take the Keju, a notoriously difficult exam that was created to discover the best and brightest citizens and train them as soldiers. Rin has always known she’s smart, so the Keju seems like the perfect way out of an untenable existence. She studies hard and manages to ace the exam, securing a place for herself at Sinegard, the most prestigious military academy in the empire.
From the moment she arrives at Sinegard, Rin realizes the next several years of her life won’t be easy. She’s constantly ridiculed because of her intelligence, her dark skin, her accent, and her gender. Her classmates seem to hate her, and even her instructors appear to have it in for her. There are times when Rin wonders if entering the academy was a terrible mistake, but she refuses to give up, and her determination eventually pays off.
Toward the end of her first year of study, Rin becomes aware of a strange power building within her. With the help of a rather insane teacher, she slowly begins to explore her new gift and her life is forever changed. Rin is one of very few Shamans, individuals who possess the ability to call upon the gods for aid. It’s a dangerous gift, and Rin is forced to be constantly on her guard against those who would see her killed because of her ability, but it’s something that just might save the empire from total annihilation.
I love books set in schools and so the first half of The Poppy War was right up my alley. I adored watching Rin struggle to make a name for herself. Sinegard is an incredibly brutal place, and I sometimes wondered if she would be able to survive all the horrible tests her instructors put her through. Fortunately, Rin is exactly the kind of strong-willed heroine I love, and I was so thrilled when she was able to prove herself to both her classmates and her instructors.
Sadly, the second half of the novel didn’t turn out to be nearly as enjoyable. The empire goes to war with a neighboring kingdom, and I’m not really a fan of super detailed battle scenes. Ms. Kuang seems to love them though, and I struggled not to just skip a few of them. I’m not usually turned off by violence, but this book seems to take it to a new level. I understand that violence is a part of war, but I’m not sure things needed to be described quite so graphically, especially since this is a young adult novel.
For some reason I will never understand, love triangles seem to be a staple of today’s young adult fantasy. Personally, I can’t stand them, so the fact that The Poppy War doesn’t contain one is a definite point in its favor. Some readers may be disappointed to learn that romance doesn’t play a part in the novel at all, and, while I’m normally a huge romance fan, I can see why the author chose not to include it here. Rin is busy discovering who she is and how she can affect the world around her, and it would have been hard for me to believe she had time to find true love along the way.
Some readers might be troubled by the descriptions of drug use in the book. Rin is taught to use mind-altering substances when she needs to make contact with her gods, and while I didn’t take issue with this aspect of the story, I can definitely understand why some people might dislike it. Luckily, the author does a great job showing us what happens when these drugs are abused, so I never as though drug use was being glorified or glamorized.
The Poppy War is not without its problems, but it’s still an enjoyable book. I wish more of it had been set in Sinegard, but that’s a personal preference I know not everyone will share. The cast of characters is quite diverse, and present day issues of racial inequality are handled quite well here. So if you’re someone who likes your fantasy a little on the darker side and if you’re not turned off by violence, you might want to give this one a try.