Opium runs through the heart of the Nikara Empire, a constant reminder of the war with the Federation of Mugen that brought it to the Empire’s shores. A war that ended only thanks to three heroes – the Vipress, the Dragon Emperor and the Gatekeeper – known as the Trifecta. Thy were legendary figures, each bestowed with godlike powers, who united the warlords of the Empire against the Federation.
Decades have passed. The Trifecta is shattered; the Dragon Emperor is dead, the Gatekeeper is missing and the Vipress alone sits on the throne at Sinegard. Peace reigns, yet the poppy remains.
War orphan Fang Runin grew up with it. Her adopted family smuggles it throughout the Rooster province, making a living on the misfortune of those addicted to its smoke. But when Rin’s parents force her into ana arranged marriage, Rin refuses to accept her fate and fights her way to the prestigious military academy at Sinegard.
There she will learn of drug-fuelled shamanic powers thought to be myth, powers which might defeat the Federation during its third invasion. But the cost of some power is too great to pay, even if it means winning a war that threatens to destroy an entire nation.
Length: 18hours 57 minutes
Trigger warnings: descriptions of death, rape, drug use
I went into The Poppy War with high hopes. I will admit, partly because I love the design of the cover. But also partly because it made me think of Mulan, and I really love Mulan.
However, I found myself feeling more disappointed the further into the story I got. And perhaps this is partly my own fault for going into it not really knowing much about the story.
We start out following Rin’s journey to Sinegard, which is a military academy. Which I didn’t know until she actually arrived at the place and started her training. This is the first part of the book, following Rin as she struggles to fit in at this elite Academy. She’s from a poor part of the country, and she’s surrounded by those whose families are some of the most elite in the country. That part of the story, I loved.
But part way through the book the setting and story changes quite dramatically. I found the change jarring, but as it’s jarring for Rin, this makes sense.
However, I did struggle with connecting to Rin as a character. This got worse as the story went on. It felt like she was making decisions, and we were finding out the motivation afterwards. It felt increasingly like we were outside of her thought processes, though we were still in her perspective. I found this frustrating and ultimately it did impact on my enjoyment of the story.
The Poppy War is a dark book. As mentioned in the trigger warnings above, it does deal graphically with death, and does include discussion of rape. I found I had to divert my attention during certain chapters because it is so graphic. Chapter 21 is the worst, as I had heard before I read the book.
The worldbuilding is the strongest element of The Poppy War for me. I’m aware that it is modelled on China, and on an actual event in history, though I don’t know any more than that. Finding out more is definitely on my to-do list.
Regardless, I could tell that Kuang had put a lot of effort into building out this world, and the magic system. Magic in The Poppy War is very connected to drugs, in particular opium. This connection makes the magic system quite different, giving characters the ability to access a world beyond our own through the use of drugs isn’t something I’ve seen before (though I’m sure it’s been done somewhere).
Overall, I think Kuang has created a really expansive world, with an interesting magic system, both of which were let down by characterisation. The lack of connection to Rin, and the lack of really following her thought process as she makes her choices took away from my enjoyment of the book. I also struggled with the graphic nature of some of the descriptions, which isn’t a fault of the book, simply a personal preference.
I will read the sequel, and I’m hoping that it gets better as the series progresses?