Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The Poppy War by R F Kuang

The Poppy War by R F Kuang is the author's debut novel and, I have just learned, the first in a trilogy. It's a fantasy book set in an Asian-inspired part of its world (compared with the multitude of fantasy books set in European-inspired parts of their worlds), and follows a teenage girl as she goes from being a poor rural shop girl to playing a prominent role in the titular war.

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.

This book is many things, and long enough to fit them all in. It starts out with Rin, our main character, working hard to escape a crappy life of being married off to some old guy by her foster parents. Once her hard work pays off, the book takes on the feel of a boarding school story while she trains at the prestigious military academy and butts heads with other students — and, of course, stands out for being the poor girl from a southern province. The school part of the book was probably my favourite. It sets up a lot of relationships for Rin, builds up the world and some of its history, and introduces the shamanic aspects that become so central to Rin’s story. This section and what preceded it made me love this book. 

Rin’s time at school culminates in the outbreak of war. For all that it happens around the halfway mark, I don’t think talking a bit about it is a spoiler, given the book’s title. The war heralds another change of fortune for Rin and the story shifts from boarding school yarn to a) being about a ragtag band of misfits and b) a brutal war. (And who doesn’t live ragtag bands of misfits?) The brutality of the war sort of snuck up on me, although perhaps it shouldn’t have since the signs were there. I don’t want to get spoiler-specific, but I do want to give a massive trigger/content warning for pretty much all the wartime atrocities you can think of, many of which are described in horrifying detail. I was not fully prepared, and it took me some time to process enough to keep reading and to write this review when I was done.

The thing is, because this book ends in war — especially war that isn’t fully resolved because there’s a sequel to come — it’s easy to focus on that aspect and overlook the earlier and more general aspects of the book. For example the world building was excellent. It’s clear that the main setting is based on China and the nation they are at war with is based on Japan. However, there isn’t an obvious/specific real-world analogue for everything, the geography is quite different to that of China (looking at the map, there is, for example a west coast) and of course magic plays a significant role in the story. It felt a lot less artificially “and here is what not-Japan did next” than other books I have read (The Tiger’s Daughter immediately springs to mind). Instead, for a lot of the book, it felt like the Asian version of non-specific European fantasy books, which I really appreciated. That said, I do have to note that some events towards the end of the book clearly were inspired by real-world events, which kind of undermines my point, but whatever.

The important things to take away from this review are that this is a really good book and that it contains a brutal account of war. It grapples with class divides (until these suddenly matter much less), drug use (which is also entwined with the magic system), and vengeance. Rin's conversations and internal monologue are interspersed with dry/dark humour, which I enjoyed and which made me snort out loud several times. I highly recommend this book to all fans of fantasy, especially those that enjoy the elements I mentioned above (poor girl does great things, military boarding school, asian setting, horrifying war, etc). Although it's the first in a trilogy (according to the author — it's really not made clear elsewhere), it does wrap up a lot of the story at the end. There are a few loose ends and a strong sense of "well, here's what we need to do next" but it doesn't feel unfinished. No need to fear cliff hangers or put off reading until the rest of the series is out. Personally, I'm glad of the gap so I can finish processing before moving on to the next in the series, which I will definitely be reading.

5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2018, Harper Voyager
Series: Apparently the first book of a trilogy, no series name as yet
Format read: eARC
Source: HarperVoyager UK on NetGalley

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