Adult Books, Diverse Books

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang – Book Review

This book was so good but omg it was so dark and one chapter in particular was really difficult to read, but I loved it!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Synopsis 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.

Before I share more I would recommend checking all the trigger warnings: racism, war crimes, genocide, abuse, animal death, animal cruelty, substance addiction and abuse, self harm, bullying, brutal torture, mutilation and murder, brutal rape (off screen but described), experimentation on people against their will, graphic descriptions of death of babies and children.

I listened to the audiobook which was really engaging and kept me hooked but also meant that, I could not skip some of the more graphic descriptions of some of the really dark themes. So please be aware of this before deciding to read or listen to the book.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” “You’re so young,” he said softly. “You have no idea.”

How do I describe this book? It left me in a reading slump because I just could not stop thinking about this book and that ending because OH MY GOD what was that ending?! The events in this book slowly got worse and worse and Rin’s spiral to wanting power was truly something to behold. This book is very dark and has lots of dark themes and doesn’t hold back from showing these in the book. But I really loved it.

The book begins with Rin, despite all odds, being accepted to study in the most prestigious school but she quickly finds that her being able to get in the school doesn’t mean she will be accepted by her peers. There is discussions of class divides where the rich continue to prosper at the expense of the poor and how their privilege and wealth gives them that extra boost to get ahead in life. I really loved seeing all that in the book.

War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.

The story continues to Rin and her classmates being drafted in the war that has erupted around them and Rin must decide what she is willing to sacrifice for the power the gods are willing to give her. Despite being warned against it by her teacher she accepts that power. She is someone who was always told that she was lesser because she was a poor orphan so the power is very tempting to her. I really loved watching Rin grow and change and how the events of the book influence her decisions along with the people in her life.

This book is full of morally grey characters who often have to choose between two bad choices and deal with the consequences of their choices and actions. Terrible things happen throughout the book that not only affects the main cast of characters but also everyone else in the world and it was really interesting to read a story where there is no clear cut hero/villain because they all do terrible things. There was however a particular chapter that was incredibly difficult to read and I had to stop for a few days before continuing.

This book is action packed from the beginning and takes you on a wild ride. You can see the characters are spiraling and you can’t stop them but you also can’t look away. Just incredible storytelling and worldbuilding. I loved Rin and Altan and Jiang who had such interesting stories that were intertwined together. Altan has an especially tragic story and my heart broke for him. I loved seeing his and Rin’s relationship develop and change and they were both in difficult situations but I was really rooting for them.

“They were monsters!” Rin shrieked. “They were not human!” “Have you ever considered” he said slowly “that that was exactly what they thought of us?”

Kitay was the only voice of reason in Rin’s spiral and honestly I felt terrified for him throughout the story, he is a cinnamon roll and must be protected at all costs. I loved his friendship with Rin and how he supported her when no one else would and told her the truth and tried to make her see reason. I am terrified of what could happen to him in the next two books. I really didn’t like Nezha, he was a privileged spoiled brat used to getting his way and bullied Rin because she didn’t bow to his greatness like the rest but later as they got older and had to put aside their school feud they actually worked really well together and became tentative friends. I am interested to see where this relationship goes.

I am simultaneously excited and terrified to start The Dragon Republic because no matter how bad this book got I feel it can get worse and I am terrified for the lives of my faves. I would recommend this book to anyone who is okay with being able to read the book after checking the trigger warnings. There were some incredibly important poignant discussions of colonialism and genocide and what it means to have power.

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