Before going into the book I strongly recommend reading the trigger warnings for this book, a few include; sexual assault, rape, self-harm, drug abuse war themes (death, murder, violence, mutilation, etc.)
This is dark and heavy and not at all an easy read. It’s a story of vengeance, hatred, and manipulation. Added to the bleak retelling of the darkest period in Chinese history, it’s a painful book to read. But it’s so, so good. The writing was absolutely wonderful. It sucked me in and didn’t cut loose. Everything was so vivid, mesmerizing, real, and painful that it seemed like I was playing a movie in my head. From the scenery descriptions to the history and world-building. Incredible. I’m utterly blown away by the author’s talent. I felt more and more immersed in this universe and story with each chapter.
This book does not romanticize war, and I’m thankful for that. We live in a culture where fighting is glorified and praised as heroic. The Poppy War presents a brutal, raw, and honest perspective where war is seen as the horrific, cruel act it truly is, instead of being glossed over. It’s a commentary on the horrors of human brutality and the violence we are capable of.
The author’s depiction of the war between Nikan and Mugen was strongly influenced by the Second Sino-Japanese War in the 1930s, and specifically the Nanjing Massacre. There’s sadly nothing too far-fetched or too unbelievable about the horrors in this book and I just can’t hold the reality of it all in my head without stirring a war in me between grief and utter disbelief.
There is also a dangerous magic system in the book as much as there is war, and the author is just as thorough in capturing the mystical shamanic powers. Often associated with indigenous and tribal societies, shamanism is a system of beliefs surrounding a spirit world that a shaman can interact with through altered states of consciousness. Not only does the author portray this fascinating practice as accurately as possible, but she also includes the structural implications of colonialism and imperialism and how rare and limited these communities have become.
Rin’s character radiated such an extraordinary vitality and her arc was nothing short of astounding — the years that stretched between the book’s beginning and its ending feeling impossibly vast. Everything Rin was, everything she’s become, grew out of the carnage of her people. Anger and indignation carved away everything else inside her — doubt, fear, embarrassment — leaving room for nothing else, and her will was a blade forged by the sight of her country being whittled down one small piece of itself at a time, despised and taken advantage of.
This book is about strategy, politics, sacrifice. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s intense, bloody — but extremely intelligent. Only a portion of the book is spent in the academy, but the lessons are well-researched and incredibly thoughtful. I’ve never read a book before that consisted of such well-thought-out discussions about the use of hallucinogens and how it related to connecting with the gods in their world (albeit this being in a fictional context could very easily be interpreted into a real-life).
This is not your typical fantasy school story. It’s not really a fantasy school story at all. It’s a reflection on the ethical dilemma of sacrificing everything for the greater good, despite the unthinkable costs.