The Poppy War, R. F. Kuang. New York: Harper Collins, 2018.
Summary: First of a fantasy trilogy, focuses on an orphan woman, Rin, who escapes from her village by testing into a military academy, overcomes prejudice, only to discover disturbing powers that reveal her true identity, thrusting her into life-changing choices as war breaks out between Nikan and the Federation.
Rin is an orphan in a remote village of the country of Nikan, facing an undesirable marriage match. She determines to take and pass the test to win a place at Sinegard, the country’s military academy. She ends up achieving the highest place, only to find she is an outsider among the children of the country’s warlords and other elite families. Nezha, son of a warlord, despises her, even as she becomes his principal rival. Prevented from training in martial arts, she finds a mentor, Jiang, who trains her in older ways. In an annual match, she defeats Nezha, but awakens a fire within that only with the help of Jiang she comes to understand.
She becomes his only apprentice in Lore, learning to commune with the sixty four gods of their pantheon. She learns her “fire” is connected with the god of fire, the Phoenix, but Jiang discourages her from seeking the power, which he believes will destroy her. Her training ends when war breaks out anew between Nikan and the Federation. When the Federation is on the verge of taking Sinegard, and Nezha, who has become a friend, is severely wounded, Rin summons the fire, destroying her enemies and barely avoiding destroying everything.
When other surviving students of Sinegard are assigned to different divisions, Rin is assigned to a different group, the Cike, a group of crazy, powerful misfits, all able to summon the power of a different god, led by Altan, an incredible fighter Rin had admired and felt drawn to. Altan is, so it is thought, the one remaining Speerly, of a race obliterated in the Second Poppy War when betrayed into the hands of the Federation.
As she works with Altan, and is frustrated in her ability to summon her power, she comes more and more to face the question of whether to fully surrender to the god, which likely would lead to the destruction of her personality. As the war goes badly, descending into genocide and betrayals, Rin comes to understand her own identity, to the choice she must make, and the terrible consequences that could follow.
The fantasy world created by R.F. Kuang, a doctoral student in Modern Chinese studies creates a world similar to a Chinese, east Asian context, with threatening island nations and another power, Hesperia, that sounds like the U.S. It is also a world of shamans, of opium and psychedelic use, sometimes to attain transcendence, more often to feed and fail to satisfy addiction. There is brutality–rape, genocide, and gruesome deaths. Prospective readers will need to consider whether such content is appropriate for them.
Even with her petulance, we are drawn to the fierce resolve of Rin, her journey of self-discovery, and the choices she must make, a choice between the wisdom of Jiang, and the quest for power of Altan. As conditions worsen, we wonder whether Rin and her people will be able to stop the relentless Federation, perhaps aided by the apparent betrayals and flight of the Nikan Empress. The intensity of the book continues to grow from the rivalries of the academy to the desperation of the fight. It was one of those books you wanted to read whenever you had the chance.
The second book, The Dragon Republic will be out in the summer of 2019. I’ll be looking for it.