War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.
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.
(I cut half of the synopsis because I went into this not knowing much about it and it was actually a great experience! Sorry, though. You can find the whole thing on Goodreads, etc.)
Usually, I am not a big fantasy reader. Lately my mood has shifted a little, partly because of how much I’ve been enjoying the Gemma Doyle series by Libba Bray, and partly because of this book. The Poppy War is one of many fantasy books that usually go under my radar because I’m simply not that interested. But this one specifically did catch my eye after seeing all the glowing reviews: I kept finding one five-star rating after the other among reviewers that I trusted, so when I got in a bit of a fantasy mood, I decided to give it a try.
I have to say, I believe that the voices that have been calling this the best fantasy book of the year might be right, since it definitely is one of the fantasy books I have enjoyed the most in forever —I don’t read much fantasy so don’t pay too much attention to this fact, though—. This has also been said a lot, but there is a lot of potentially triggering content in this book: drugs, violence, a brief but extremely intense mention of violent rape, etcetera. I do have to say, these warnings have been in every single review I saw of the book and almost made me scared of it, to the point that I actually started this book in July and put it down because one scene had been really upsetting and I expected it to get even worse; and as somebody with not much of a stomach, I was able to then resume the book and could actually get through it without problems. During the war, atrocities do happen, and they leave an impression, but don’t get too scared of the reading experience if you just consider yourself somebody with a weak stomach and not somebody with very serious problems when reading about those things. I’m just saying this because I believe that, partially, the reason why the violence I encountered at the beginning of the book left such a big mark on me was because I was expecting this to be inhumanly cruel and violent and went in already freaked out. There’s no need to get unreasonably scared! Still, here is what the author said about triggers in her book, so do check the list here.
After that, let’s begin the actual review. The Poppy War is a fantasy novel, but it is deeply inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War. The main characters come from a country called Nikan, which resembles China, and their enemy, Mugen, would be Japan. The author has talked, even in the triggers list I just linked, about the reasons which led her to write this story. I am now going to quote her (this is also from her blog): “I have long asked myself how the world could have looked away when millions of Chinese perished under horrific conditions of warfare and famine. I have asked how Japan could to this day refuse to acknowledge the Nanjing Massacre, the rapes of tens of thousands of women, and the grotesque experiments conducted by Unit 731. Most of all, I have asked how Mao, the same man revered by millions as a god of liberation, could have become a genocidal dictator in the span of a decade.” So many of the events of the war told here resemble those of the Second Sino-Japanese War, though the ones that are most important and that the author has discussed most are the Rape of Nanjing and the experiments that happened in Unit 731. I have actually learnt about Unit 731 while doing my research for this review, and I’m definitely stricken to find out this was also inspired by actual events.
In the novel, the first part has an academic setting: our main character, Rin, manages to attend the Sinegard Military Academy after working extremely hard to pass a national exam designed to only allow those with time and money to get an education. Despite being a peasant and a war orphan, Rin passes the test with the highest grade in her province. She does not manage this on sheer luck: as I said, she works really hard, uses questionable methods that include self-harm, and shows from the beginning an ambition and recklessness that were one of the strongest points of the novel: unlike other examples of genre literature where the plot has all the importance and the characters seem to dilute in the narrative, Rin is a stellar protagonist, power-hungry and willing to use any means to achieve her ends. Did I want to slap her and tell her to be careful constantly? Yes, but that’s part of her charm, really.
This first academic part is already interesting: we get an explanation of the world, we start seeing the forces at play, we get to know our main character and we also see the racism and classism she experiences from her richer, lighter-skinned classmates. We start to experience Rin’s rage and determination and see her get through various obstacles in realistic ways —that is to say, working her ass off every single time— until she becomes the girl she is when she is thrusted into a war. We are about halfway through the book when that happens, and let’s now talk about that.
When researching, I have discovered that even tiny details from the Second Sino-Japanese War, like the incident that caused it to start, have been replicated in the war Rin has to deal with. Though I really enjoyed the first part, I might have liked the war section even more: it felt like such a terrifyingly realistic glimpse into an actual war, into what the soldiers must have felt when fighting, when waiting for the enemy, when being under a siege… This does imply violence. In the Rape of Nanjing part, lots of violence, a kind of violence it is hard to believe could be inflicted in cold blood by human beings. The Muganese soldiers are depicted as vicious people who worship their emperor so deeply —emperor worshipping links them to Imperial Japan— that they don’t care what they have to do to complete his orders. They don’t think of the enemy as human beings; it is chilling. And despite being a fantasy work, this can be read as any war we could encounter in our world. One of my biggest problems when reading fantasy is that it is just so distant from my world that I find myself asking —why should I care? But here, even taking out its connections to real life events, the narrative feels close and possible.
Let’s move on to the writing. Not bad, not wonderful. Definitely not complicated. I can see that this is one of the books I will list when asked for recommendations of books to start reading in English. It was also compelling—the story moves along perfectly, does not drag or become tedious at any point, though this can also, of course, be partly attributed to the fantastic plot. If I did not consider the closeness to the Second Sino-Japanese War, this would still be at least a four-star book for me: great characters —not just Rin; so many other secondary characters were very well crafted, getting me to care about them deeply without even noticing—, a compelling storyline, breath-taking war scenes, extremely interesting reflections on military strategy, the magical element, which is one of my favourites to date, and the terribly difficult choices that flood the story, filling it with a delicious tension for the reader.
All of this combined with the enormous new dimension its historical references give it would quickly get me to a five-star rating, which is truly unusual for me, especially in a year that’s been quite poor for reading. I’m now going to be linking the Wikipedia articles —if you don’t trust Wikipedia just read the Wikipedia article on Wikipedia’s realiability. I don’t have time for this— for the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Rape of Nanjing and the experiments conducted in Unit 731 & that would be all for today! Just go read this book. Really.