Audiobook Review: The Poppy War (The Poppy War #1)

Published February 10th 2015

Author: R.F. Kuang

Narrator: Emily Woo Zeller

Audiobook Length: 18 hours 58 minutes

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 the 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. 

First and foremost, this series seems to be well worth the hype so far. It is long, but it was still enjoyable. The story is a unique blend of being both plot and character driven, as it is not exclusively one or the other. The characters drive the plot and the plot itself drives the story forward. The novel is extremely captivating and leaves you anxious to start the next in the series. As the Nanjing Massacre (the Second Sino-Japanese War) inspires the story, there are many trigger warnings associated with this story. It includes the many details that other stories might gloss over, so there is a lot of violence, prejudices, drugs, alcohol, among many other elements that readers should take into account before reading.

The main character in this story is Fang Runin (“Rin”), who the author used Mao Zedong as inspiration and did a gender-bend on this historical figure. She is an orphan who lives with her foster family and assists in their drug business. Although her family are interesting in marrying her off, she has other ideas. Rin ends up attending Sinegard, an elite military school in the nation of Nikan, where she stands out as the dark-skinned peasant girl from the south. She discovers that she possesses the power of the Phoenix, an unearthly power of shamanism.

Rin’s time at the academy introduced her cleverness, determination, and skill. During her training, the history and backstory is all slowly revealed, so it never felt like an info dump on the reader. The banter between Jiang and Rin was excellent as it added a nice dose of humor to balance out the more seriousness featured in other parts of the story. As the story transitions to the war, Rin experiences the realities of war where morality might not exist.

This is essentially two parts to the same story. The first is the schooling portion at Sinegard and the second is the outside worked with invasion of Nikan by the Mugen Federation. The world building is incredible as it blends real life history and mythology with a fictional story. All the characters were amazing and it is difficult to highlight them all as there are tons of them. At first, it is difficult to keep them all straight. Many appear multiple times, so you can start placing them in each role. They, including the background characters, are incredibly written and complex.

It does not matter if you love or hate this story, as I have to give so many credit to the author as you walk away at least having an opinion on the story. It is not forgettable, at least to me. I highly recommend the audiobook as Emily Woo Zeller does a superb job about voicing the story, giving the characters unique voices with matching personalities, and seamlessly flowing between everything. The review for this story is difficult as it is possible to go on forever for all parts of the novel, including characters and plot. The realism in this story is incredible that it reads as if it could be based on a true story. I absolutely cannot wait to get started on the next novel in the series!

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