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The Poppy War

Author: R.F. Kaung

Publisher: Harper Voyager


When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.


“Morally grey characters clash with power-hungry gods in this epic debut.” J.M. Buckler, award-winning author of the Seeker of Time series.

Kaung doesn’t just deliver her readers a handful of morally grey characters, she delivers them a story of epic proportions. Ren, an orphan raised by opium dealers, goes from an externally meek young woman to a badass warrior. No, she didn’t always make the best decisions, and honestly, I’m concerned she’ll go down a destructive path in the next book, but damn, Kaung made me feel her struggles. And let’s not forget about Altan. His internal demons made my stomach churn.

The pacing was fantastic, and the dialogue flowed beautifully. Author Kaung’s writing kept the pages turning. I cared deeply for the characters. I wanted them to succeed and my heart broke when they failed. I loved the balance between action and quiet conversations. On a personal level, one scene rubbed me the wrong way. Eastern culture has taught spiritual students that once they reach a level of enlightenment, negative emotions and desires such as vengeance and attachment dissolved. This was not the case for Ren. It was the opposite. Her 180-degree turn in the book felt out of character. The theme of self-discovery quickly switched to brutal vengeance.

This is NOT a book for the faint-hearted. Kaung pulled graphic, disturbing historical references from The Rape of Nanking. One chapter, in particular, revisits that horrible time period in vivid detail.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and look forward to reading the second book in the series.

Readers: Excellent for those who love a healthy mixture of character/plot-driven books, fast-paced action, morally grey characters, and military strategy.

Writers: Excellent for those who need guidance with pacing, battle scenes, military strategy, dialogue, morbid descriptions, and world-building.

Warnings/Triggers: adult language, self-harm, self-sterilization, graphic imagery, drug abuse, sexual assault/rape. Veterans suffering from PTSD may find certain scenes disturbing.

Grading Scale:

Plot: 4/5

Pacing: 4/5

Escapism Factor: 3/5

Emotional Connection: 3/5

Character Development: 3/5

Star Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Completed Read: 10/11/2020

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