I’ve said it before, and I will say it again. I am tired of white-bread, European/Medieval fantasy. So, any time a fantasy novel comes out that is a little different, I have to try it. And fantasy novel based on Chinese history and mythology? Yes, please!
The Poppy War, as the author puts it in her review, “is not a romance story. This is not a YA fantasy school story. […] This is, as I’ve always conceived it, a war story. It draws heavily on the Second Sino-Japanese war.” Rin is a war orphan with unloving foster parents who blazed her own trail to Nikara’s most prestigious military school, Sinegard. Making her way into the school is far from the end of her journey though. At the elite school, Rin faces discrimination for her looks and her social status. When another war sparks up between Nikara and the neighboring island of the Mugen Federation, Rin and her classmates are tossed into a battle they may be unable to win without the help of gods…
As the author herself stated, this is a bloody novel based on a bloody part of history. If you have a problem reading about drug use, torture, rape, and a whole host of other bloody, terrible things, you may want to avoid this series. There are a lot of historical references, from the books the students study to the major events in the novel. However, there are original ideas in the novel as well; it isn’t just a retelling of history with some fantasy splashed in. What could be just another coming-of-age/chosen one story arch is turned into something quite unique with the mixture of Chinese history, mythology, and fantasy.
Even as someone who isn’t wild about the magical school theme, I really enjoyed the first part of the novel as Rin gets into and adjusts to Sinegard. Rin is an underdog from the start, but her plucky attitude and fighting spirit are hard to dislike. It is fun to root for Rin, and even when she faces near-impossible resistance, she presses forward. I enjoyed getting to know her friends and enemies at the school as well as the classes she was required to take. Only a handful of her classmates are focused on, and it seems that very few are important to the broader plot. I wish there would have been a little more time spent on the development of the school and the instructors, but the school portion of the series is overall relatively minor. As the author stated, this is not a YA school story; it is a war story, which brings me to the one thing I slightly disliked about the novel: the pacing.
The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 deals with Rin getting to Sinegard and her studies there. Parts 2 and 3 deal with the impending war. The pace in Part 1 was fine, but the war began quite quickly, leaving me a little confused about how some events linked together. This happens throughout Parts 2 and 3. Rin has some “fade to black” moments that I thought would benefit from a little more exposition. Rin also mouths off quite a bit, and at times it was surprising that she avoided trouble. The novel doesn’t test the limits of disbelief any more than most other fantasy, but I can see how some readers might find Rin dislikable, too plot-armored, or just plain annoying. Personally, I liked Rin more in Part 1, but she changes for understandable reasons. I look forward to seeing where she will end up in the subsequent novels.
I gave The Poppy War four out of five stars. It is a very solid fantasy novel, especially if you are looking for something a bit different with real-life history and myth thrown into the mix. It’s sequel, The Dragon Republic will be released in the U.S. August 6th, 2019.