For having just come out a couple months ago, this book made its appearance swiftly and surely. Which, to be honest, fits perfectly with the story itself. In any case, after seeing these great reviews, I read the synopsis and it was all over for me. An epic, sweeping fantasy with a “started from the bottom now we here” type female lead who manages to singlehandedly end a war, set against a backdrop of a fantasy world based in Chinese history and mythology. I mean seriously, the reviews could have been lukewarm and I would have been all over this. Plus, #ownvoices. Literally everything was pointing to me reading this immediately. Which I did. And OMG the hype is real!
“Warfare was about absolutes. Us or them. Victory or defeat. There was no middle way. There was no mercy. No surrender.”
Rin is a war orphan, from the last Poppy War, set to marry an older merchant so her “aunt and uncle” can continue their illegal opium dealings unhindered, when she aces the Keju (a national test to find the best candidates to study at the Academies) and wins a free ride to the most elite school in the Empire, Sinegard. During her studies there, Rin is targeted by her classmates for her poverty/color/sex (you name it, the discrimination is there) and pushes herself harder than she thought possible in order to keep up with all her well-off classmates who spent their whole lives preparing for this (whereas she spent her whole life manning the shop that fronted her aunt and uncle’s opium trade). Along the way, she finds that she has a dangerous, buried, talent; one that everyone long considered extinct, nothing but rumor and mythology. Studying under a long-ridiculed teacher who supposedly can help her control this gift (though his methods are border-line insane and involve the use of psychoactive substances), Rin has not yet mastered it, or even come close, when the Empire falls into war…again. The treaties from the last Poppy War have dissolved and Rin, along with her fellow students, must fight to defend their nation against invasion. But Rin is learning that her powers, while they have the power to end the war, may come at a price that is too high. But as atrocities pile up, from both sides, and she learns more about her own history, she learns that she may not have a choice but to use them.
That was a long synopsis, sorry, but this is a long book…so there. Anyways, my goodness was this AMAZING. This is some of the most complex and immersive world-building that I have ever experienced. I feel like from page one I had fallen into the world of the Nikan Empire and, as I read, the details that built up just created an ever-stronger presence. To be honest, I think the fact that this is, at least in part, based in China and Chinese history definitely helps. There is a place in the “real world” that I can base my imaginings on. And though the mystical and shamanistic parts of the story are, of course (sadly), fantastical, the world they are based in is very recognizable (if not familiar). Honestly, it’s a very cool combination and it plays together seamlessly. Relatedly, the detail in the political interactions, strategic plans (for both sides), and the general unfolding of the war are so thorough. It seriously reads as if it’s telling real historical events (which, in some cases, actually is – I do not have a lot of knowledge of modern Chinese history, which I definitely regret now, so I cannot say how often this is true or not, but it as least sometimes the case).
I also noted while reading that the progression of the book, from studying war/strategy to the practice of it, is one of the most haunting and affecting parts of this novel. As the characters move from the classroom to the real world, we, as readers, do so alongside them in such a tangible way. It was intense to experience that shock with them. To note here, as we get into the war part of the book, some of the scenes are incredibly graphic. I read other reviews that said this, but was lulled into complacency by the first half of the book, so I’ll repeat the warning here. Some of the scenes were beyond difficult to read, which, honestly, just added to the “reality” of the world (sadly) and made the immersion that much more total. (Also, this section is based on the 1937 Rape of Nanjing, an event that – and I didn’t know this until I read the author’s blog about it – some scholars still say this event is fabricated, just like some people say the Holocaust is a hoax. Horrifying and unbelievable, the author’s own words on why she wrote so graphically are definitely worth reading – here’s the link.)
As far as the characters go, I LOVED Rin. She is, possibly, one of the most dynamic and real protagonists that I have ever read. She is such a phenomenally multifaceted heroine and her struggle within herself, the need for acceptance/to become someone greater and the simultaneous fear of losing herself in the process (in the power) is written to perfection. She is incredible and I love her and I want SO MUCH MORE of her! She is possibly one of my favorite characters ever. Also, as a small side note, I cannot say enough how much I admire the author for addressing and dealing with the issues of menstruation/childbearing during this story. First, for it to be brought up at all is huge. Second, the way Rin handles it (no spoilers) is matter-of-fact and completely realistic to her situation. I truly loved and appreciated it and deeply identify with her decision and the…confusion/awe/condescension…it draws from other characters. Rock on sister. And a huge thank you to the author for it. Anyways, back on track. As for our other characters, there are a few, like Kitay, Jiang, and Altan, whose characters and backgrounds are well-developed and compare (though do not match) Rin for depth. However, moving past them, there are many other side characters who I’d love to get more from. Some, I know, were less developed because we lose them (it’s a war, of course). But others are clearly here for a longer haul and I wish we had gotten more of their stories.
One other thing that I loved was the history and mythology of the book. The detail on the pantheon of gods, the accounts of the beginning of the Empire, the tales of heroism from the first Poppy Wars, etc. are all extensive and fascinating. In addition, some of the theory behind war, that Rin learns partially from school and partially from experience, as well and Jiang’s teachings about the history of gods/shamanism and how they disappeared, are astoundingly relatable and understandable. As I said, I love Rin (so much), but, overall, this is a book where the development of the plot and the world itself truly shine through above everything else.
This book blew my mind. It was complex and real and so full of…life. It went where many books won’t – and that reality was both harsh and worthwhile. And, not to overdo it, but the protagonist was everything. I loved this gorgeously terrible book and my fingers are crossed (hard) that the author writes more from this world! (Update: she is! Woohoo!)
Such beautiful passages/philosophy:
“Success required sacrifice. Sacrifice meant pain. Pain meant success. […] She made herself miserable. […] But the misery she felt now was a good misery. This misery she reveled in, because she had chosen it for herself.”
“Because if she could just erase her past, then she could write herself into whoever she wanted to be in the present. Student. Scholar. Soldier. Anything except who she used to be.”
“The age of gods is over…The Nikara may speak of shamans in their legends, but they cannot abide the prospect of the supernatural. To them, we are madmen. […] We are not madmen. But how can we convince anyone of this, when the rest of the world believes it so? Once an empire has become convinced of its worldview, anything that evidences the contrary must be erased.”
“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”
“You’re so young. That was even more frustrating. She wasn’t so young that she didn’t know her country was at war. Not so young that she hadn’t been tasked to defend it. Children ceased to be children when you put a sword in their hands. When you taught them to fight a war, then you armed them and put them on the front lines, they were not children anymore.”
“Fear was impossible to eradicate. But so was the will to survive.”
“It was utter carnage. It was beautiful.”
“If you were the victim, what could you say to make your tormentor recognize you as human? How did you get your enemy to recognize you at all? Any why should an oppressor care?”
“It was a song of vengeance. It was a horrible song. It was a wonderful song.”
“Destiny is a myth. Destiny is the only myth. The gods choose nothing. You chose.”
“In an instant, the script had written their stories to the end. […] And now the unrealized futures of millions were scorched out of existence, like a sky full of stars suddenly darkened.”
“She was no victim of destiny. She was…a shaman who called the gods to do her bidding. And she would call the gods to do such terrible things.” (WHAT A LAST LINE! In fact, the whole last page is literally amazing, but I can’t rewrite the whole page because it’s too long and also, spoilers, so just go read the book so you can read the last page for yourself!!)