“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.“
Trigger warnings: War scenes, vivid descriptions of murder (both adult and child), rape, drug use, self harm, genocide, bullying. Proceed with caution when picking this book up!
I’m so happy I decided to read this one because I missed out on so much information. When I read this back in 2018, I think I was dipping my toes in the fantasy pool. I don’t think I was as interested in fantasy as much as I am now. With that being said, this wasn’t a perfect read for me, but I’ll get to the flaws later.
I’ll start with all of the positives. The writing is well done and easy to understand. I thought it was going to read like a young adult novel, but that’s not really the case. It doesn’t info dump on you like a lot of fantasies will do. Kuang takes it steady with world and character building. There was a great balance of being at the academy and fighting the war. It’s so brutal, and I don’t think you find that kind of brutality in war novels. I’m not saying that it’s fun to read, but it makes me want to flip the pages faster. It’s not all sad, though. There is a lot of bonding between characters, and there’s a lot of humor and wit. It just flowed so well.
Typically, a fantasy will bore me with the history of the world. Authors tend to make it one note, and it makes me want to skim it and move on. I think this accomplishes world building in a fun way. The characters explain what’s happening through the history of their people / city / empire. You learn about Shamans, Gods, Cike, etc. I thought it was interesting, but a lot to learn about. Thank goodness all three books in the trilogy are 500-600+ pages. It allows it to have that much information.
Amateurs obsess over strategy, Irjah had once told their class. Professionals obsess over logistics
Moving on to what didn’t work for me. I’m sure a lot of readers see Rin as a strong main character, but I just couldn’t get on board with her. I know that her journey up to this point has only been full of hard work and determination, but her demeanor hit every nerve.
Continuing on with Rin, the scene where she gets her period was just so unrealistic. I thought that was a poor way of handling it, even though I’m sure that’s how someone would want to handle it in that situation. I won’t spoil anything for you, though.
Overall, this book was much better than I expected. I don’t know why I didn’t focus on it the first time around, but that’s beside the point. I highly recommend this if you love fantasy and can handle all of the triggers that tag along. I’m hoping it only gets better from here.
Rebecca F. Kuang is a Marshall Scholar, translator, and the Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award nominated author of the Poppy War trilogy. She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford; she is now pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale. Website: rfkuang.com
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