Fantasy, High Fantasy
The Poppy War, Book # 1
May 1st 2018
May 29, 2021 June 4, 2021
Beat the Backlist, The Backlist Reader
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.
About the book
We follow the story of a war orphan, who despite living in a remote province, Nikan, and despite not having an excellent education, manages to pass a very difficult exam to enter the military academy in the capital. At the academy, however, she clashes with the prejudices of the empire’s elite, boys and girls of her age, but who have studied for years for this very purpose. Obviously not everyone accepts that a simple girl from a peasant province can be better than them. Here, Rin discovers that she has a power that few others have, but will she be able to use it or will it only lead to the destruction of the world?
What I think
I have to say I thought it was a different book. It is said that the book is raw, there is unprecedented violence, and it is true, but only a small part of the book is like that. The rest is a “normal” book that everyone can read. Obviously, since the last part is so much bloody and violent, it is not a book for everyone. (I know I contradicted myself, but the first part is really normal).
I can’t understand, however, on which story the author based the narration, or rather, I understand which story she refers to, but I see something else. I know that she is of Chinese origin and therefore she wants to talk about Chinese history, the enemies of Nikan (which represents China), the inhabitants of Mugen, should be the Japanese, but honestly they seem more like Germans to me… Most likely I don’t know a part of the history of the Sino-Japanese war, but I see the Germans with their experiments on Jews (in a nutshell, I don’t know if the Japanese have done experiments on the Chinese, sorry for my ignorance; instead, I know that story of the pleasure houses for the Japanese army, or their massacres of Chinese civilians and much more). Perhaps this is the beauty of books, which everyone interprets based on their own story. The rest, however, is clear that the author is inspired by the Sino-Japanese conflict.
I liked the first part (but also the second one) more than the third: the part where we see Rin in her “hometown” (even if it is not where she was born), the life that the adoptive family makes her lead and the toil of a young woman who wants to be more than a wife; I also liked her life at the academy, as it is told, also it is true that Rin is teased and discriminated because of her origin, but it is not the kind of story that makes you hate only those who are against her and that’s it . Also I liked the book because Rin can defend herself and many things are only said and we don’t read pages and pages of abuse and teasing even if you know they are there, the focus is on Rin and her progress, on what she discovers about herself and how this will then lead to the second part.
The world built by the author is particular and we learn about the presence of shamans and their function thanks to Rin. There is a lot to learn and I really enjoyed this, because I love detailed word building, but which is not concentrated in just one point of the book with infinite explanations, but which you learn as you read the book.
The last part… I don’t know… I like the fact that the author is not afraid to go into the macabre, that she describes in detail what happens and what happens in a war, but reading, I had the feeling that something was missing and I can’t explain what it is.
All wars bring out the worst in men, not just those in certain parts of the world and I found an apt phrase to describe war, which is that “war does not determine who is right, war determines who remains”. And it is true. Both sides think they are right, so the winner is not the one who is right, but who managed to overpower the other and here we see it, especially given the reason why Mugen attacks Nikan or also why Altan continues to defend a city that has capitulated.
The writing style is not complex, but above all it is not a deterrent to the narrative. It is not a style with refined words (even if in the Italian translation there are two or three words whose meaning I do not know) and with a poetic prose. The epic nature of this book derives from the whole, not from the writer’s style alone, which in any case is not bad. We are at war, we cannot speak of philosophy in war (so to speak) even if there is a character who is more of a philosopher than a warrior and therefore his language is a bit sophisticated. So, despite being a war book, the language is suitable for every character and every occasion.
Rin is the undisputed protagonist of the book and is such a complex character that it is a pleasure to see how she is developed. From a simple peasant almost illiterate (even in this world the writing system is similar to the Chinese one, so you can imagine that knowing some characters does not make her a scholar) she becomes the best in the province in just two years, so much so that her examiners think she cheated. Her determination to escape from a near-slavery situation, from an arranged marriage (and I must say I was surprised when her adoptive mother agreed to let her take the exam) and to not accept of not being considered just because her skin is a little darker than “normal”, to be the best in the academy and the path then during the war, this is what attracted me to her character.
Above all I like that in this book there is not the usual cliché that the heroine needs a partner (be it a man or a woman) to become the best of all. The friendship theme is very present, these friendships could become something else but it is not present in the book and above all no triangle (unless you want to see it).
Another character I really liked was Kitay. He also enters the academy with Rin and unlike her other classmates, he immediately bonds with her despite their social differences. Despite the ending (but I think Kitay will understand later) their friendship is so genuine and pure. Unlike Rin and Nezha who “understand” only after the war has begun. However, I also liked that, that once under siege both Nezha and Rin put aside their differences (and conflicts) for the common good.
I don’t know what to think of Altan. It would take a bit of back story to understand this character, but I prefer that you read the book to understand the various details of the character. On the one hand I like him, I like the characters who have an idea and continue their journey focused on that idea and there is nothing and no one who can make them change tactics, on the other hand I would like to shake him and say why?
I am glad that such a young female author was able to write such a masterpiece. The book is not for everyone so I don’t feel like saying “read it because you won’t regret it” as I do with some books. If you can read about war and the violence it brings then I recommend it but if you are sensitive to certain topics then this is not a book for you. And that’s not to say that those who read it are not sensitive! I too am always struck by reading about certain topics and often have to leave the book for several days before continuing.
I wish my knowledge of Asian culture was greater because I think I have lost many references to this extraordinary world. Because already from the map I can understand that the world created by the author refers to China and Japan (I mean, the lands are very similar to these two lands and Speer could be Taiwan?), but also all the deities mentioned, or even the names used I’m sure there are references I don’t know. All the more reason to keep studying this world.
And now I don’t know whether to read the sequel immediately or wait a few weeks because it wasn’t an easy read anyway.