Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Series: The Poppy War #1
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
The Overview: 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. -Goodreads
What a cool book! I’d been saving this one for a rainy day. Which in hindsight wasn’t the best idea because parts of it were downright depressing, but it sure did give me a wonderful new POV to experience.
The main character was brilliantly done. She’s exceptionally talented, but deeply flawed. Obsession ruled her life and it was clear from the start she was willing to sacrifice anything needed to get where she wanted to go. There just so much nuance of psychology to her behavior. I remember hearing about some controversy over her decisions early on in the book, and while her actions triggered a bigger response from me than usual, the shock of it was far outweighed by how well I thought her choices established character and set the framework for her short-term rationalization going forward.
I also loved the book because it contained a satisfying school setting!!! With plenty of student dynamics, tests, and learning. It somehow managed to be both a grimdark tale and a delightfully fun adventure at the same time. Through most of the book, anyway.
I’ve been reading a lot of grimdark lately, and I have to say parts of this book were among the most graphically described that I’ve ever read. I skipped a paragraph or two, and I’m usually pretty numb to graphic writing. At the time, it struck me as unnecessarily vivid, perhaps taken too far for shock-value alone. After finishing the book, however, I can grudgingly see the need for its inclusion to justify all the things that came after… I just didn’t particular enjoy experiencing it in drawn-out detail. It soured my overall experience with the story just a bit. This is a personal preference thing, but I will say it has me nervous to continue on in the series (but how can I not?!). I don’t trust this author to nurture my sensibilities, but there’s kind of a masochistic thrill in that, I suppose.
Recommendations: I knew from the first chapter this was going to be an excellent fantasy novel. And it was!! Even if it contained more graphical content than I was expecting. The squeamish be warned, and everyone else hop aboard for a brilliant newcomer(ish) to the genre.
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