The Poppy War is a story centred around war and the gruesome politics, violence, and dark themes that come along with it. Set during the Second Sino-Japanese War, it takes opium as a source to possess shamanic powers to consequently, destroy in order to save. The themes of lost humanity, gore violence, calling Gods, and doing too many wrong things while aiming for what’s right can quickly turn dark, but I’m all here for such exploration so this is easily one of my favourite fantasy books ever!
“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”
✔ Magic intertwined with religion
✔ Pure friendships without a hint of romance
✔ Spirit realm meets Mortal realm
✔ Geopolitical strategies during war
✔ Militia training & preparation
✔ Raw, angry need for vengeance
✔ Honest transformation of a bully (enemies to friends)
✔ Squad of uniquely powerful misfits
✔ Found family and heartbreaking sacrifices
✔ MC grows through free will and hard decisions
✔ Aspiring mentor-mentee relationship
[-] had taught her to erase her own will. [-] was asking her to impose her will on the gods.
This review is difficult to write because this is one of those books that has so many appreciable and amazing themes that if all of them are mentioned in this review, it’ll turn into a massive load of spoilers (and pure fangirling). If you’re not a fan of long reviews, here’s my one-line take on this book: it’s perfect and you should totally pick it up right now! However, there are various scenes and themes in this book that can be potential triggers so if you’re not comfortable reading about some things, quickly scroll down to see clear trigger warnings.
This was a full grown Speerly. This was a god in man.
⇾ Ill-treatment toward orphan
⇾ Drug smuggling & offering
⇾ Self-harm (like burn scars)
⇾ Physical & mental abuse to oneself by overworking
⇾ Colorism (toward brown skin)
⇾ Bullying (verbal & physical)
⇾ Confined wrestling
⇾ Discrimination by teachers
⇾ Raging fire burning everything
⇾ Graphic descriptions of killing or torturing
⇾ Drug intake/inhalation
⇾ Drug addiction
⇾ Painful drug weaning effects
⇾ Heightened genocide
⇾ Gore descriptions of dead bodies
⇾ Violent attack by a dog
⇾ Detailed retelling of rape & sexual abuse
⇾ Deaths due to bombing
⇾ Deaths due to suffocation
⇾ Drowning for a split-second
⇾ Constant pressure & abuse by superior
⇾ W A R
I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible. Was she now a goddess or a monster? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.
The main character, Fang Runin Rin is worth mentioning first because she’s such a central part of this story that it’s amusing how every event influences her but is also, in a way, influenced by her. She starts off as a war orphan who needs to be admitted to Sinegard, the topmost institution that doesn’t charge for its militia education, in order to escape the brutality of her foster parents and the plausibility of her getting married to a man who was far older than her. And her hardwork pays off. But that’s not the end of her struggle. She gets even more stronger while making a place for herself at the academy where elites line up every class. The growth is stunning, amazing and subtly aspirational. Even after the academic setting is left and the war required her, she discovers even more about herself, takes tough decisions and uses her free will to reach wherever she reaches in the story.
Because all the Cike knew how to do was destroy. For all their powers, for all their gods, they couldn’t protect people. Couldn’t reverse time. Couldn’t bring back the dead.
If you thought Rin’s character was great, you’re in for a surprise because not just the main character but literally EVERYONE are carrying a story as moving and a personality as impressive as her. Though the book focuses a lot on Rin, it doesn’t shy away from making you fall in love with so many of the side characters, you’ll keep praying for them to stay. Just stay. And breathe. But your prayers won’t always be answered, thanks to Kuang.
✹ Jiang : Lore professor who teaches balance of life and clears Rin’s head; believes in ‘ki’ and meditation; Rin’s opium-smoking mentor; has powers he prefers to hide; is hard on keeping the fabric between the two realms intact; is adorable.
✹ Altan : Last of the Speerlies (an island’s inahbitants who were wiped away), has red irises, connected to the Pheonix god; strong, brave, and commander of the Cike; broken yet powerful; Rin’s fire-yielding mentor.
✹ Nezha : Rin’s bully; annoying, uptight elite at the academy; thinks everyone should worship him; fights like he’s born to; you will surprisingly like him afterward.
✹ Kitay : Rin’s true friend at the academy; the one who knows everything about everything; says he only reads about the interesting things; intelligent, smart, someone who probably quizzes you during quizzes.
✹ Qara : From Hinterlands, part of the Cike, has an eagle and an anchor bond with her twin; the mother of the squad; can shoot with a bow like no other.
✹ Chaghan : From Hinterlands, part of the Cike, Altan’s lieutanat, a seer; has no irises or pupils; the judgemental one of the squad; demands respect because powers you want to read to find out; Qara’s twin.
✹ Ramsa : The precious bean of the Cike; science is his power, uses faeces to make explosions; needs to be protected at all costs.
✹ Baji : Thickly built mercenary type; has a rake with nine prongs as his weapon.
✹ Aratsha : The Friar, can disguise himself as water; will receive gasps every time he’s introduced to someone new.
✹ Unegen : The shape-shifter, usually turns into a fox.
✹ Suni : Giant man with a boyish face; channels the Monkey God.
“A shaman who’s addicted is better off dead.”
Rin hadn’t considered that. “Does that happen often?”
“In this line of work?” Enki said. “It’s almost inevitable.”
The plot of this book is complex and if you really want to enjoy it, I would honestly suggest you to go in blind. It’ll help to not have any expectations because the themes can be so subjective, it’s better to experience them without another’s opinion about it. But if you want a gist of what it’s about, I would say: it follows a war orphan who finds her identity through the Militia academy and then through a journey that’s filled with war and herd truths. It lays down the concepts of shamnism and religion and magical powers and the prize you pay for it all. The subtle themes of humanity against violence is commendable because it’s not easy to use a morally grey protagonist to easily show what’s actually right and wrong. Friendships and relationships that one forges without any romantic element is one of the strongest aspects. There are twists and revelations that will shock you but in a wider viewpoint, you’ll be able to understand everything. Oh, and you might cry.
She saw now that reality was a facade; a dream conjured by the undulating forces beneath a thin surface.
Overall, this is a historical fantasy fiction that will impress you with its complex concepts, theme exploration, reality’s depiction, dark setting, and characters that come alive very easily.
Disclaimer: I received a digital copy of this via Netgalley but that, in no way, affects my rating and/or opinions about it. Thank you, Harper Voyager and R.F. Kunag! This post may contain affiliate links.