How have you not heard me screaming about The Poppy War?
This book made my life. I swear, I would sacrifice my right heart and my wishes to have R.F. Kuang sign my copy. I was completely invested in this book. Picture me lying in bed, my heart rate pulsating wildly as I tear up then rage then cry over this piece of masterpiece.
Can we just take a moment to appreciate this header? I am so happy with how it turned out. Vicky from Vicky Who Reads provides a helpful and easy tutorial on how to make your own!
The Poppy War is both glorious and tragic. I’m so thankful to Dani for accompanying me on this reading experience. We buddy read this book in March; Dani and I are both major fans of Asian fantasies. I’ve long admired their blog and the reads they recommend, so it was about time we read something together. You can check out my own interview questions and Dani’s thoughts over at Perspective of a Writer.
The Poppy War was the perfect pick as for its historical influence and the Chinese inspired magic. I loved the strong-headed heroine, Rin, and the people she met on her journey. The characters are what we can call morally grey, however, I feel it doesn’t truly describe each of them. The Poppy War depicts the atrocities and the things people do in the name of family, and for the people they love.
Note: Below is the blurb of the book, after which are the interview questions! Dani’s questions are presented with the emoji, 🐦. After the fifth question, there are five potential spoiler questions. I have an orange text indicating the start and end of the spoiler questions. After that, there are three fun questions!
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 WARNING: DEATH, BLOOD, PTSD, RAPE, DRUG USE, TORTURE, HUMAN EXPERIMENTATION
GOODREADS || AMAZON KINDLE || AMAZON || BOOK DEPOSITORY
🐦 I’d heard a lot of good things about R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War before we started the book. What were your expectations going in and were those expectations met or exceeded?
I had initially assumed The Poppy War was a historical fantasy! I don’t even know why but I never read the blurb for this book. All I had to go on was the cover and the title, so before reading it I thought it would be a historical retelling of The Opium Wars. Needless to say, once I started the book I knew I was going to love it. The Poppy War exceeded any and every expectation I had for it.
🐦 The Poppy War is divided into three parts. The first part feels quite different in tone to the second and third parts. Which part of the story was your favorite part and which your least favorite and why?
If I remember correctly, Part One is about Rin’s time and training at the Sinegard academy, Part Two is the war, and Part Three is her time as a soldier. I’m trying to be as vague as possible here. It’s hard to say which I liked most because the story flowed so smoothly and R.F. Kuang always kept us guessing. Each and every character had a story-line of their own that we only saw through Rin, never having the full of it. So no matter where in the book I was, I was fully invested but if I had to choose my favourite part would be the third. This is the moment when we’re given a chance to explore the world outside of the Academy. It is also the time when Rin is completely isolated from the Academy and has to make a lot of choices on her own.
🐦 (Possible spoiler question) Rin’s personality is shown quite strongly in the first part of The Poppy War. What words would you use to define Rin? Did you relate to how she handled passing her test, her first meeting at school and being ejected from an essential class?
I would describe Rin as ambitious, disciplined, and self-destructive. That girl has a lot of fire in her. No pun intended there.
Reading about how Rin prepared for her tests sort of brought me back to my own school days. Academics were rigorous for my classmates and I. It was a competition and we all sacrificed our health to reach the top. So I was able to relate to Rin’s desperation and the things she did to be able to pass the exams. Moving into a new city alone was also something I could relate to. I was never bullied like Rin was and I was glad to have a few friends but I could still understand her isolation and relate to it. But what Rin experienced because of bullying and social status, I experienced because of mental illness. I really admired Rin’s stubborness because, in spite of the rejection, she pushed herself to be a succeed at Sinegard.
🐦 You mentioned one of the pivotal moments of Rin’s story is when she gets her period. Why did you see this as a pivotal moment? Did you relate to her or the other girls in her dorm? Why do you think Rin chose what she did?
For me, I consider this as a pivotal moment because it was the first of the many decisions Rin would make for her future. Unfortunately, this is one decision she makes without any guidance. Women have the right to choose what happens with their body. But it worried me that in Rin’s case, there was no information about the procedure, no one to seek guidance from. And so, I saw this as a moment where Rin was willing to risk anything to secure her place in Sinegard. It was her expression of empowerment.
🐦 Jiang was hands down my favorite character in The Poppy War. I marked so many passages with him!! He started off as quite a mystery and even later when we get answers I still felt like I had more questions. Do you think there was method to his madness? Was his purpose in training Rin realistic? Where do you think his duty as her teacher began and ended?
Jiang is still a complete mystery to me. Besides mentoring Rin, his motives were vague. I think his main goal with Rin was teaching her how to tame her magic. To give her a sense of control, and a fear of what the gods could do. He wanted her to be more aware of the universe, and to follow a path of the least violence. From what I’ve read, I assume that to Jiang brute strength and power is not end all. To Jiang, cunning and intelligence was what he was trying to pass on to Rin. (spoiler) There was so much tension in that scene where Rin has to choose between Jiang and Altan. I think Jiang could have easily overwhelmed Rin and as her mentor demanded she not follow Altan but then all of his teaching would have been for naught. I think when Rin chose Altan, that was the moment Jiang stepped back from his responsibilities as her teacher. (spoiler ends)
🐦 There are four pivotal people for Rin in Sinegard (Nezha, Kitay, Jiang and Altan). They each play their part in forming who she is after the training they endure. What did you think of each of her relationships with these men? Who was the most influential and why? Who was your favorite and why?
Nezha – I hated him! All I wanted was to throw Nezha out of a Sinegard balcony buuuuut as the series progressed I started warming up to him? He hasn’t done anything particular to warrant Rin’s forgiveness or acceptance but Nezha in Part II seems to have more of a conscience. So I’m hoping to see something bright for him.
Kitay – I LOVE KITAY! He is an absolute sweetheart with a good head on his shoulder. As I’ve mentioned I see him being a good influence on Rin, being her voice of reason. However, I think his time at the academy and in war made him a bit harder. Not aggressive. In the latter part of the book he seems to be more outspoken and firm.
Jiang – I love the whole whimsical mentor thing Jiang had going on. Yet in spite of that, Jiang is more cunning and alert than he lets show. The way he trained Rin made her more aware of her surroundings and herself, and also trained her intellectually. It was more about understanding the power she had and I though Jiang was a good influence on Rin.
Altan – Unlike Jiang, Altan was more aggressive in his tactics. He pushed Rin into her powers but in spite of Rin’s admiration of him I found him to be abusive towards Rin.
🐦 Rin’s strongest relationships were all with men. There were a small handful of women though who profoundingly effected Run in unexpected ways. Why do you think R.F. Kuang chose to limit the effect of other women on Rin to these few? What does this say about our society today?
This didn’t strike me until the end of the book. It was also mentioned that a majority of Sinegard’s students are males. So, the lack of female presence might contribute to that. There is Jima, of course, but I think because Rin favoured Strategy she had a closer relationship with Irjah. Rin did have Niang and Venka but, then again, competition in their class kept them from getting too close. The lack of female in Militia positions could have certainly influenced Rin’s societal circles which is definitely telling of the patriarchal system. It has been the case that the lack of women and the competitive nature of the setting made the girls see each other as the enemy rather than someone to befriend. The closest female relationship Rin has had is with Qara but that also was not explored in depth, for one, they were in war and secondly, Rin was constantly working to earn Altan’s praise.
🐦 We meet a group of shamans in part two of The Poppy War. What do you think about the shaman magic? Who was your favorite shaman from her unit and why? I noticed some readers felt this was too late to be introducing new characters, what did you think?
It was amazing to read about how the magic works and how it manifests in people differently. Meeting the shaman from the Cike was refreshing because it gave a change of setting from competitive to friendly. I didn’t find this change at all jarring because we are following Rin’s life from her time at Sinegard to outside of it and I don’t think anyone remains with the same set of people their entire lives so I would have found it more unrealistic if that happened. It’s hard to choose but I would say Chaghan. He is described as similar to Jiang which might be why I am drawn to his character. Although he seems to have an air of whimsy about him, unlike Jiang, his is unsettling and cold. After Altan’s disappearance, I wonder now what his motives might be and how Altan’s absence will change him.
🐦 I read up about the Nanjing Massacre and it is hotly contested to have even happened because the war crimes were so horrific, even though men who were there have said that it happened. In The Poppy War events mirror the massacre. What did you think about the graphic nature of the torture? Did the fact we got events second hand after the fact help you to deal with the brutality? Does it make sense that those who were not there would doubt the capacity of humans to do these things to other humans?
I went into this book expecting the violence and gore, however, I had not anticipated my emotional reaction to it. Although I’m not Chinese and have only read of the Nanjing Massacre from history books, I was affected by the descriptions and scenes in The Poppy War. I don’t think anything could ever help me better deal with historical atrocities. I was also aware that R.F. Kuang researched a lot to make her writing of the war as historically accurate as she could, so knowing that I was unable to disassociate myself from the war and massacres in The Poppy War.
Does it make sense that people would doubt the capacity of human cruelty? Maybe. I think people don’t want to believe that any human being could commit genocide, human experimentation, torture, and so on. We do not want to believe that humans can be violent and cruel without a thought to other humans. It’s scary but with these kinds of truths – they have to be acknowledged and faced. The world loses its compassion when we don’t.
🐦 Do you agree with Altan and Rin’s choices at the end of The Poppy War? What do you envision for Rin in The Dragon Republic? Do you see the mythological connection to the Empress playing a big part?
I sympathize with what happened to Altan and Rin at the research facility, but I cannot agree with what they did. It was genocide. This turn in the story makes it hard for me to support Rin or even hope for redemption for her, so I think The Dragon Republic will have a lot to live up to. I want to hope that there will be a better change in the sequel but at the same time, I can’t fully expect it. The Empress Su Daji is almost a mythical figure in The Poppy War. We know very little of her expect of her legend as The Vipress but I do think that the Empress and Rin are tied in ways that relate to The Trifecta.
END OF SPOILER QUESTIONS
You mentioned that you’d like to include some fun questions in our discussion!! I loved this idea and found myself wanting to know your answers to the questions you chose, so I’m totally stealing them!!
🐦 If you could choose one comfort food to pair with The Poppy War, which would it be? What is your favourite scene from The Poppy War?
Firstly, nothing that would spill! While reading The Poppy War I was constantly shutting the book in fear or just shifting about restlessly. But any meal I pick would have to be a bit spicy. I’d probably go with some spicy tapioca or banana chips.
🐦 What other adult fantasy reads similar to The Poppy War would you recommend?
I actually haven’t read many books like The Poppy War. It transcends the fantasy genre, in my opinion. Narrative-wise I think Damsel by Elana K. Arnold is similar. The Bone Witch trilogy by Rin Chupeco also follows a young girl who risks anything to protect the people she loves.
Books I haven’t read but think would be similar to The Poppy War are Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang and The Armored Saint by Myke Cole. I gifted my partner a copy of The Armored Saint, so I hope to get a chance to read it.
🐦 And for my own personal fun question… What mythological god would you want part of The Poppy War pantheon so you could call them down to fight through you if you were a shaman?
I really liked how Aratsha could turn his body to water, so I would call down a river god or even a winter god. I can’t imagine how much fun it would be to be a blizzard. I haven’t come across this goddess but if there was, I’d call down a goddess of the underworld. I have such a fascination for necromancy. Blame The Bone Witch.
Do you like this form of review? Would you like to see more?
Have you read The Poppy War? What did you think of it?
Choosing from your culture, which god would you call down to fight through?
Disclaimer: The header image was taken from The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang’s audiobook cover. The poppies in the image were downloaded from Freepik.