The Poppy War (The Poppy War, #1)
by R.F. Kuang

When you’ve read alot of fantasy, then a young person going to a military/magic school where she rises to the top despite being being bullied is a hard sell. It’s been done before. Alot. With many interesting variations.

As I started reading about Rin studying for the Keju test to get into the most prestigious (and free) military academy of the land at Sinegard I thought to myself “oh no, here we go again.” Another YA fantasy about the underdog student coming into their own powers.

Yeah, I was wrong. Do not mistake this for YA. Rin knows exactly what is in store for her if she doesn’t make this test, and she is so desperate to avoid forced marriage to a much older man that she self-harms with hot wax to stay awake. And that’s just the start.

Sinegard is more about harnessing hate and politics then it is about rising to the top. Rin has a lot of prejudice to work against, and then when she finally meets a teacher, Jiang, who seems to be giving her the tools to present the worst bullies with a resounding defeat– she makes the wrong choices. And we are left confused about whether there were any right choices to begin with as the world Kuang has created includes Pantheon gods who can be channeled through shamans to devastating results, brutal military regimes who dehumanize their enemies, and some pretty graphic, awful results of invasion.

Rin’s journey is heavily influenced by her adoration for the magical Empress, but its two boys, her enemy and tormentor at Sinegard and legendary upperclassman fighter who really are the catalysts for her own moral conflicts about her power. I was a little uneasy with the majority of men who surrounded her, but it did make sense in terms of the reality of men being in the military.

The amazing thing about this book, is once it creates this military academy scenario with Rin meeting her greatest challenge at the end-of-year tournament, it then goes above and beyond the simplistic morality of the school as Rin’s country is invaded by the longbow island Federation of Mugen.

Yes, this whole book has its roots in Korea/China being invaded by Japan, the influence of opium trade, and the callous “help” of the West. But this is definitely an alternate version of this history. When Mugen invades, Rin and her classmates face some of the most brutal realities of war I’ve seen portrayed in fantasy like this. While there are spots of tactical brilliance, there is also an ongoing downward trend in Rin’s situation.

There is no doubt I will have to read the next book in the series. Rin makes devastating choices at the end of the book, and I want to find out how Kuang portrays the results of those choices as well as the fate of the elusive Empress.