Finally managed to get around to another Nebula nominated book, and THE POPPY WAR by R.F. Kuang is a marvelous debut, that is layered in all the right ways. I listened to it on audio book, narrated by the perfect Emily Woo Zeller and it is a riiiide.
Content warnings: sexual assault, rape, extreme violence, self-harm
Rin is a war orphan from a backwater province, dropped on the doorstep of a seemingly good matured married couple. They try to manipulate her in order to achieve better leverage for their licit and illicit business, but she passes the Keju, and is accepted into Sinegard, the best military academy in the Empire of Nikan.
Soon, Rin finds herself the most privileged in the realm and being a dark-skinned orphan from the south puts a target on her back. Yet, she works hard and stumbles on a dangerous, unearthly gift, shamanism. Under the strange, but effective tutelage of an enigmatic master, along with the aid of psychedelics, Rin will learn to control this power and commune with the gods.
Yet, war is coming and it will be up to Rin to decide for herself, what sort of warrior she needs to be and if she’s willing to give up everything in order to protect her people and the Empire.
Juggling both war politics, racial prejudices, and the philosophy of violence, Kuang has been extremely thorough in the foundation to her first trilogy. Everything is thought of and nothing is left to chance, both at the macro level of empire building, to the tea that Rin and friends imbibe. All of this plays into a rich setting that feels expansive and lets the reader stretch their mind to imagine what’s happening in the countryside surrounding Sinegard.
Following Rin is both a fun, but infuriating experience. She’s impulsive, short sighted, and foolish, which is best summed up that she’s a kid forced into a war not of her making. Given how much slack you’re willing to lend her, your mileage may vary. Her choices are often bad, but they feel realistically made, as if anyone would make the same choice if in her position. And she is also contrasted well with Alten, her commander, since everything that made Alten strong, was what was weak about Rin and vice versa. I really appreciated how they balanced one another out.
Another thing that I did not realize I missed was the action and fight scenes, which are superbly drawn out and kept me engaged. It’s my first real experience of a wuxia-fantasy and I very much enjoyed this component, yet when Kuang brings up the realities of war, she does not shield the reader. Everything is brought up in its grotesque reality. It’s done not only to evoke the horror from our experience, but to also create the tension found in Rin as she experiences the bitter truths of conflict.
All things considered, Kuang has clearly made a splash with this book and it will be exciting to see where this series goes, but one this for sure, I’ll be rooting for Rin to make the right choices the entire way, even if its in vain.