Full disclosure, I bought this book almost solely based on the cover. It didn’t hurt that the book has decent Goodreads reviews. But damn, that white cover in a sea of fantasy dark shades really stood out. Unfortunately, it’s about all that stands out in this fine, but not great, debut novel.
In a fictionalized China (Nikara), Rin is a war orphan. And war orphans are lucky to be alive at all. But Rin wants more for herself, more for her life. The only way to do that is to pass a super rigorous test, one that will propel her into the famed Sinegard military academy. From there, her status will basically be guaranteed. In a country so often decimated by war, and so extremely close to the war hungry island nation of Mugen, being a top ranked military cadet is a very good place to be.
But Rin will discover more about the gods that have shaped her nation’s past, present, and future. She will have to come to grips with powers beyond her imagination, or they will become beyond her control.
You’d be hard pressed to conclusively state that there is magic in this fantasy book until about 3/5ths of the way in. I was honestly surprised it showed up at all. It’s appearance, instead of being a welcome reality, was more of a jarring pivot. The Poppy War is really three books worth of material smashed into one. And the tonal jump is both hard to follow and irritating.
As a debut novel, The Poppy War is pretty impressive. And it starts strong. I love the feudal China vibe. And the notion of using gods as power sources isn’t new, but it does feel unique here. But the way they are introduced is like getting hit by a freight train. For three hundred pages you can only guess that magic exists. Then suddenly, not only do magical powers exist, but there are many people who have them. And almost everyone else knows about them. Maybe if the gods had been set up earlier in the book I would have been less surprised. But they weren’t.
It’s also hard to decide what the moral and punishment is for the main character. Is she arguing genocide is good? Is it bad? If she uses her powers will the gods consume her? It doesn’t appear that she suffers the same consequences others do. Whereas this novel’s clear influence The Name of the Wind defines power and magic very minutely – You know exactly what is at stake at any one time – The Poppy War does not.
The best way to read this book is as a fabled look at World War II Asia. The Mugen Federation are clearly the Imperial Japanese and the Nikara are clearly the Chinese. Trigger warning: the author graphically describes a massacre very much like the Rape of Nanjing. When viewed through this lens, the novel becomes much more interesting. Can old wrongs be righted? Should they be? It just gets more interesting when Rin has at her hands the power of an atomic bomb.
The tonal shift would have been easier to stomach in a book more spread out. More set up, more exploration of character and space. And less YA like tropes in a book containing a fictionalized version of the rape of Nanjing would have made The Poppy War a more solid offering.
2 out of 4 stars