The Poppy War is the first in a historical–fantasy trilogy, based on the second Sino-Japanese war but with a fictional setting and characters. In the kingdom of Nikara, in the southern Rooster province lives a young orphan Rin in a small village Tikany. Her parents, dead, she is being brought up by foster parents, the Fangs, who run a shop (a cover for opium trade) and use her pretty much like a servant even if there isn’t direct mistreatment. Their little son though loves Rin and treats her like an elder sister. When Rin turns 14, the Fangs try to arrange a match for her, one that will benefit their business. But Rin can’t bear the thought of being married to a merchant thrice her age (her foster mother genuinely thinks this would benefit Rin in the long run), and decides to use her interest in studying to take the Keju, the challenging exam for the civil services which few can crack. And with every strain, pushing herself to the limit (including letting hot wax drop on her hand to keep her awake to study), she not only does so, but tops, thus winning herself a place at the elite military school Sinegard.
But this it seems was the easy part. Once she gets to the capital city, a place like nothing she’s seen or experienced before, she finds that despite her achievements, the environment at Sinegard is not welcoming to a peasant from the South. In fact, anything but. From sneers from elite fellow students to obstacles and bullying from others, particularly Nezha, a star pupil from one of the elite warlord families, Rin seems at the losing end of a battle to stay on at Sinegard for one must qualify both academically and in combat. But then, Master Jiang Zia, teacher of the mysterious art of ‘lore’ takes her under his wing, training her physically and mentally for the challenges ahead. Under his tutelage, she explores many questions from religion to metaphysics, and struggles with controlling herself through meditation, but slowly works her way through the course.
The atmosphere in Nikara in the meantime is tense. While it has been long since the last war, the neighbouring Federation of Mugen continues to pose a threat, and there are undercurrents of possible conflict. Eventually war does break out, and Rin and her fellow students’ whole world changes. ‘Preparing’ for war and battle simulations at Sinegard were nothing like the real thing which tests them much beyond they have ever been before and causes them to confront questions and take decisions with impacts that even they can’t foresee…
The Poppy War is an engrossing read, but one that is rather dark and also very intense. In a structure that rather reminded me of She Who Became the Sun (also historical fantasy based on the rise of the Ming Empire), The Poppy War goes into a range of themes. From the place and its history to social dynamics (the ever-prevalent issues of class and background), but also matters of religion, war, and metaphysical questions; it manages to bring up all with depth and intensity but at the same time, without feeling too dense for the reader.
Rin’s classes (and indeed interactions) with Master Jiang are interesting where Jiang makes her do much physically and otherwise (meditation as well as finding answers to his questions), but where he never directly supplies answers or ever tells her why she is being given a certain task; the reader of course sees this, especially how he is challenging Rin to look at things from a different perspective or reach answers on her own.
The fantasy elements are in the form of Shamans and the Speerlies, the latter a people who populated a small island, and had extraordinary powers (the ability to summon the gods, and to manipulate the elements to their advantage) but have been all destroyed in previous wars. Rin, as she trains with Jiang, finds that she has some extraordinary powers too (including the ability to access the world of the gods), but do these really help, even when they seemingly do so? Alongside Rin must come to terms with the impacts of these powers for while the older and wiser Jiang understands that some things come at too high a cost even if they aren’t impossible to do, the young and passionate Rin perhaps doesn’t give as much thought beyond immediate benefits.
While I really enjoyed reading the initial segments of the novel, I did feel the war segments while well done, were perhaps far too realistic in terms of their descriptions of the brutality, damage, destruction (as well as limited resources, constant pressures, ever looming dangers)—the ruthless violence unleashed at times simply because it can or as an assertion of power. Very much a reflection of what unfolds in real life, these segments were difficult and emotional reading (in this reminiscent of The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali).
This is certainly a powerful read, which looks into broader issues of nations (internal petty politics, fights and lack of unity which prevented a strong front or defence) and society, but also of individuals needing to understand or think about the true consequences of their decisions before they act, for once the thing is done, there really is no going back!
This was my final read for the 10booksofsummer challenge which had spilled over into September, but which I hadn’t been able to write a review of, so far, for various reasons.