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Publisher's Summary

A brilliantly imaginative talent makes her exciting debut with this epic historical military fantasy, inspired by the bloody history of China’s 20th century and filled with treachery and magic, in the tradition of Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings and N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.

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.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away....

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity...and that it may already be too late.

R.F. Kuang studies modern Chinese history. She has a BA from Georgetown University and is currently a graduate student in the United Kingdom on a Marshall Scholarship. The Poppy War is her debut novel.

©2018 Rebecca Kuang (P)2018 HarperCollins Publishers

What members say

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Wow. Wow.

I...am full of emotions. I went to bed thinking about this book. I was rearranging my schedule to get to another chapter. There are authors who...write well. There are few who invoke emotions you didn’t know you had. Make you think about situations in a new way. This book was amazing and I absolutely cannot wait for the second one.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Opium, War Crimes & Magic!

The Poppy War by R.F Kuang is a book with many faces.

We begin our journey with Rin, a war orphan fostered by a pair of illegal opium traders. The first third of the book deals with her journey to the capital city where she attempts to gain entrance into a military academy and trains there. This part, while never light, feels a lot like Ender's Game or Red Rising. Rin struggles to make friends, learn strategy, and outwit the bullies who are upset that a peasant has risen so high. It's brutal, but fun.

The fun stops around act two.

It happened gradually enough that I didn't realize how dark the book was until we reached the end of it. Dark revelation after dark revelation unfolds, not just about the world around the characters, but about their internal lives and vices. It doesn't surprise me that this book was written by someone who studies "collective trauma". By the time I'd reached the last page, I felt if I understood the emotional cost of war in a way I hadn't before.

This is an author with something to say about war, power, and addiction, and she says it so beautifully. As much as I love books like Red Rising or even Ender's Game, I feel since they aren't as strongly rooted in one countries history they lack the intimacy and raw rage I found in the Poppy War. Despite being a book about a whole country, every sentence, every plot moment felt personal. It helps that the prose is excellent. I can't wait to read the next book.

Side note: I also really enjoyed the magic system, which is based around the use of drugs. I found the role Opium played in the world fascinating. Some of the most heart-breaking moments of the book dealt with addiction.

Performance notes:

I really loved the performer of the audiobook. She did a great job, with the exception a the fighting masters voice which really did sound like someone strangling Kermit the frog. Otherwise, though she killed it!

11 of 13 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Wow. Just... wow.

Wow. Where to start?

This one started out with Rin taking her exam, and I thought to myself ‘this isn’t so bad’ because, of course all ten of the people that recommended this book to me said that it ends a lot differently than it starts. Yeah… uh… not a lie, that.

This is the story of Rin, who is a a war-orphan in a small village in the south of the Nikara Empire, which is more-or-less China. She works in her foster-parents’ shop, which is a cover for their opium smuggling operation. She’s regularly beaten and starved by them, and all she dreams about is a way to get out. She dreams of taking the Keju exam, which, if she does well on it, could get her into a school far-far away from her village where she could thrive. She aces the exam, which nobody expected, and gets to go to Sinegard, which is a prestigious military academy in the north. When she gets there, Rin finds that it’s certainly not easy to be the one dark-skinned peasant southerner among the beautiful, pale, rich AF nobles who all attend Sinegard.

As Rin gains her military education, she finds out that she has a link to the gods through shamanic powers. These powers, as it happens, can be brought on and enhanced by psychedelic drugs, so she’s got that going for her. Her Master at the academy is slowly teaching her how to meditate to reach the gods. At the same time, Nikara and Mugen (more-or-less Japan) are getting closer and closer to another Poppy War, of which they have had two previously. It can probably be said that this book is based around our own world, most especially around the second Sino-Japanese War. And this war does come, and Rin finds herself directly in the middle of it and thrown head first into not only the military, but a very special branch of it known as the Cike, who are shamans, each with a different power from a different god.

There are plenty of influences from Asian mythologies. The twelve provinces of the Nikara Empire are named after the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac. The Kirin/Qilin was mentioned a couple times, which is a sort of antlered dragon type creature (though, they’re also considered to be unicorns depending on where you are) said to arrive with either the arrival or death of a great ruler. There are mentions of the Four Holy Beasts, or the Four Symbols in the Chinese constellations. the Black Turtle in the North, the White Tiger in the West, the Vermilion Bird in the South, and the Azure Dragon in the East. I know them as Genbu, Byakko, Suzaku and Seiryu respectively, which is what they are known as in Japan, but they have different names in Korea, Vietnam, and in China. Is my mythology nerd showing again? >.>

The characters in this story were fantastically developed, and I found myself rooting for some and hating others, and then making entirely instantaneous switches here and there. Other than Rin, who is a pretty complex and awesome character herself, I really liked Nezha, who is Rin’s rival at school, and Altan, who is Rin’s commander in the Cike. Rin changes really profoundly as this book went on, but so too does one of the other major characters.

This book starts out light. That’s the only way I can put it. Part one is a rather… maybe not typical but… certainly not super-dark romp through a military academy. Rin goes to school. There are fights. There are rivalries with other students. There is tension with certain teachers. There was nothing inherently new about the idea, but I didn’t not enjoy it. I thought it was slow at times and at one point I said to myself ‘everyone told me this was the best debut of the year… and it’s good, but I’m not so sure about best…’ It’s not that I thought it was bad. Not at all, it’s well written from beginning to end. And it wasn’t boring, but it was fairly standard military school fantasy fare.

Then we get to part two. Part two definitely ramps up the action, as this is when the war more or less begins. There are some actual military maneuvers here, and Rin, along with her new compatriots in the Cike, go out and actively fight people from the Federation of Mugen, and fight actual monsters. And it gets a bit darker here for sure. Characters definitely start showing some truer colors here and characters I hated I ended up liking, new characters are introduced and I really liked a few (especially Ramza). But, I mean I was told this book was pretty bruuuutal, and while part two was moderately brutal… it wasn’t super duper dark….

And then came part three.

..........part three.

This book gets bruuuuutal in part three. Just… wow. Hold on to your butts. If you’re opposed to reading books with themes and events that are very savage, things like crazy violence against everyone, including children, with rape, torture, and genocide on top, um, maybe skip this one. Because yeah. You’re not going to have a good time.

All told, I started out being not so sure I was going to love it. I originally wasn’t planning on writing a full review when I was done, but maybe throwing up a few sentences and a rating at audible, amazon, and goodreads and calling it day. But, I ended up just having to sit here in solitude for a while afterwards just thinking about what I thought about it, which led me to my keyboard, and so here we have it. Any book that I started out rather indifferent about, but in the end had me sitting here like ‘gods above and below what in all the worlds even was that?’ is probably looking at being pretty good. Any book that has me being like ‘WHAT?!?!’ more than once during the last four hours has to be good. Admittedly, the subject matter in the end made it hard to listen to at times, but all the feelings and responses it evoked despite or because of those things made it very easy to know that this is a damn good book. Damn. Good. This book surprised me. I had warnings about it, and it still surprised me. This book -ruined- me. And books that do that can’t possibly be bad.

Bad books don’t make me ugly cry. I’m just saying.

The narrator, Emily Woo Zeller did a really great job. I was on the fence about that too because while I listened to the sample before I bought this in audio, and thought it fine, I have previously not really liked a book she narrated, and I wasn’t sure, thinking back, if it was the book or the narration or both put together that I didn’t really like. Well, no worries here, because she was awesome. Characters’ voices on point, areas where feeling needed full of feels. Well done!

If this book had went along with the same tone as part one had, it would have been a 3 or a 3.5. But no, this one got more and more stars as it went, ripping stars out of my poor feels. So, it ended pretty strongly with 5/5 stars. I’ve heard it called the best debut of 2018 by more than one person. It doesn’t quite make it there for me, but man, it’s close. I’m definitely, definitely looking forward to more from R.F. Kuang.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Amazing, must read book

This is the best book I have read since the broken earth series. Amazingly written, compelling story, smart, and complicated! Just phenomenal

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

An amazing rollercoaster

From the first chapter to the last, I was fully enthralled by this book. Outstanding.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Amazing!!!

This book is dark, gripping, and intense. It's like no other book I have read/listened to and I was very impressed with the narrator. Can't wait for the next book!!!

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Amazing

Loved everything about this book. Characters, story line, the slight yet none romance. I heard that this is to be a trilogy and I’m ready for the next one

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Good but parts are rushed

The first part before a lot of things go down is kind of a hard listen/read. Parts are rushed and places/characters feel under developed. The best way to put it is that its 2 dimensional, but later we get to see a more expressive text from the writer, there's side yet to be seen by the characters and the conflicts they face. it was a total 180 from the first part. The writer was only 21 (same age I am) when she wrote this, so it's impressive none the lease that she was able to tell these characters stories in the way she did especially in part 2 of the book.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

A tour de force of a high Fantasy Novel

This was an excellent performance and the book was terrific. The book can be downbeat, but overall very enlightening. It is Game of thrones set in an alternative historical China. The character of Rin has the potential to be a classic

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    1 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

The Poppy War's Crisis of Identity

The prospect of a grimdark fantasy novel inspired by a post-opium-epidemic China is hard for me to pass up. As a lover of oriental style narratives and grimdark alike, I was sure this book would be right up my alley. I was mistaken.

Don't get me wrong, the book is not bad. It is far from bad. It is, however, lacking in many elements that I feel should have been included.

Rin, the main protagonist, struggles to not only understand who and what she is as a magic-wielding god-channeler but who she is as a character. Likewise, the book struggles to understand what it is as a book. Characters have little to no depth, save for the main character who has too much depth. The theme bounces from 'an outsider who doesn't fit it because of her culture' to 'an outsider who doesn't fit in because of her special powers' then lastly to 'an outsider who doesn't fit in because of her race (Not to be confused with her culture, which she is already an outsider for.)'. Many characters are only relevant for a few chapters before suddenly losing all of the features that make them interesting, which makes me pretty sad. Many characters are quite enjoyable but are magically drained of life and joy after only a few chapters of their existence.

Lastly, the book has several awkward time skips, that I feel like should have been expanded more on. Harry Potter wouldn't be interesting if books 2 and 3 were suddenly condensed into a single chapter.

As a final note, Emily Woo Zeller's performance is excellent. Her acting makes the book truely enjoyable. I do hope she continues to perform at such an amazing level in future reads.

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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  • MASTER
  • 07-15-18

Disappointing

I was immediately drawn to try this book but unfortunately it failed to wow. At points it felt rushed and as if I’d missed large chunks of the story but alas I hadn’t. I really persevered with the story not aided by a rather annoying performance. I felt incomplete upon finishing and missed the point of the story. I wanted so much more then was found.

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
  • peastri
  • 05-11-18

Almost perfect

This will be a very popular book. It should be a very popular book and up there with the best YA has to offer. I would have given it a 4.5 if audible allowed it.


A couple of loves: Rin is a great, driven character that puts it upon herself to get where she wants to be. Perhaps my favourite part of her character is that she takes the time to educate herself rather than just run into things blindly particularly early on. Her curiosity draws you in and rather than being info dumped on you're learning with her.


The story does a great job of immersing you into the Chinese inspired mythology, fantasy and history. I'll admit to being quite dense on the subjects but I enjoyed them immensely and am keen to learn more.


The magic is awesome, just awesome. I don't generally enjoy magic as a main theme but this is just too cool.


A couple of gripes: There were a few parts at the beginning that had me thinking ‘hey that's a cool and different direction’ but they weren’t really pursued which I found a little disappointing and made the direction of the story a bit predictable.


I would have liked to have endured a bit more of Rin’s oppression early on rather than being told things like because her skin’s a little darker people don't like her as much. The potential marriage wasn't enough I would have liked to have seen that followed through to see how she handled it, escaped it. It all seemed a bit easy for her.


Finally the few YA standards that crept into the tale early on that made me cringe because they are used all the time and add little to nothing to the overall story such as kids swearing I can only assume to sound cool, the female lead that thinks she's not up to scratch in the looks department… a war training academy.


Those are really pretty minor gripes in the greater scheme of things as once I got to part two I found those things fell by the wayside.


Cover: Not a huge fan, feels a bit underwhelming when there's so much magic to work with in this story. I would have loved to see what someone like Jason Chan could have done with it (drooling at the thought). Although a Chan cover might be wasted as I suspect it will have a cheesy movie tie-in cover in the near future.


For the audio fans: I was worried with the direction they would go here but they got it right with Emily Woo Zeller. The only problem I ran into was that some of the younger male characters started sounding the same the deeper into the book I got but otherwise overall a good experience.


In short: I liked it but in spite of its late attempts to grab me I didn't love it. My advice would be to read it, I think you'll enjoy it, it's a very entertaining read and a great debut.