In Nikan, opium opens the gateway to the gods. Confined to their Pantheon in the spirit realm, they can only hope to influence the choices of those on earth with whispered promises through the haze of pipe smoke. For Rin, an undersized orphan, the thought of communing with the gods is terrifying. But as the drums of war begin to beat in R.F. Kuang’s extraordinary debut novel The Poppy War, Rin discovers that a day might come when she has no choice.
After testing into Sinegard, the most elite military academy in Nikan, Rin Fang discovers she is special. Through training with a seemingly insane professor, her shamanistic ability to conjure fire starts to blossom. When Mugen, a militaristic empire who defeated Nikan in previous Poppy Wars, invades their homeland, the students find themselves dispersed into the middle of a horrific ground war. Rin, conscripted into a misfit band of shaman outcasts, must fight both the ever-advancing Mugen army and her increasing sense that something inside her desperately wants to escape. Her sanity might be the price of finding the answers.
R.F. Kuang must first be congratulated on seamlessly drawing on and then reshaping Chinese history as influence for the world Rin inhabits. Martial arts sparring sessions and colorful street parades instantly conjure images of western Asian culture, but at no point does this world ever feel like a simple reflection of our own. Nikan’s richly detailed culture and history feel substantial and authentic, supporting the characters’ actions as the war unfolds.
And when that war begins, it’s almost shocking in its realness. It is not a conflict fought far away as Rin sits idly in a classroom. The violence is immediate, visceral and wrenching, pulling on the reader’s sense of disgust and anger. The “war is hell” trope plays out solemnly and intimately here, leaving no character untouched. By the climax of the narrative, everyone the reader meets is scarred.
Thank goodness we have Rin to lead us through it. Her tenacity, stubbornness and insecurity are instantly sympathetic and Kuang’s attention to Rin’s feelings opens up oceans of emotional depth. There’s a definite weight to Rin’s conflicting choices that only builds as the suspenseful final act plays out. It would be a thrill to see Rin, fresh from the crucible of The Poppy War, on the pages of a sequel novel. With such a brilliant start, one can’t help but think how certain hers and Kuang’s futures surely are.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with R.F. Kuang about The Poppy War.