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Literature / The Poppy War

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Everything was good until the Fire Nation attacked. Wait. we are the Fire Nation. Where is drug man?
Rebecca F. Kuang describing The Poppy War in less than 140 characters

https://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/the_poppy_war_rin.jpg
"They trained her for a war. She intends to end it."
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Rin is a war orphan raised by a foster family of opium dealers and treated as a lowly servant. To escape an arranged marriage, she enters a competitive exam in the hope of being accepted to Sinegard Academy, the most prestigious military school in the empire. She will learn that an officially meritocratic exam cannot stop injustice and suffering.

The Poppy War is the first novel by Rebecca F. Kuang, and is announced as the first volume of a trilogy. It was followed by The Dragon Republic, released in August 2019.


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This novel has examples of the following tropes:

  • Abusive Parents: Rin's foster parents. They were legally forced to take her in by the Empress's decree that all war-orphans from the Second Poppy War be raised by families with less than three children, and treat her no better than a servant and decide to marry her when it is convenient for them.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: When Rin destroys the entire Longbow Island by channeling the Phoenix to awaken the volcano beneath it, she finds herself psychologically incapable of feeling the horror of it, because she can't map the tragedy that is one person's death to that scale.
  • Anti-Hero: Rin is fighting to protect her people. One of the ways she protects them is by murdering millions of noncombatants who have the misfortune to belong to the other side.
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  • Blood Knight: Rin comes to enjoy fighting, killing, and burning, due partly to the Phoenix's influence and partly to wartime trauma.
  • Blow You Away: Feylen, as the Wind God's permanent conduit, can control wind with terrifying power. He often uses this ability to wipe out whole fleets of ships.
  • Break the Haughty: Venka. The sheer brutality of what the Mugen soldiers do, however, make this entirely tragic without a drop of satisfaction.
  • Charm Person: The Empress Su Daji has this ability. Everyone who looks at her immediately adores her and would do anything for her. Legend says this is a literally god-given gift to her as the legendary Vipress, but most people consider this a story for children. (Considering that shamans do, in fact, exist, however...)
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Jiang, the Lore master. He can walk into courses to do gardening singing bawdy songs and is considered a joke by the other masters. He also has a garden full of forbidden plants.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: The Hesperians' worship of the Maker is a very clear counterpart to Christianity. The second book reveals the actual tenets of this faith: the Maker is the sole creator god, but he is not omnipotent, and must struggle continuously against the forces of Chaos. For its part, Chaos is described more as an entropic force than as a Satanic figure.
  • Dead Guy on Display: Taken to extremes by the Mugenese at Golyn Niis. They gruesomely torture and kill nearly every one of Golyn Niis' 500,000 residents, then leave the mangled remains strung up on walls and piled up in the streets for the arriving Militia to see.
  • Deadly Gas: The Mugenese use a chemical weapon implied to be mustard gas or something like it.
  • Demolitions Expert: Ramsa.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Opium traffic has been used as a tool to undermine the empire's stability. On the individual level, Aunt Fang explains to Rin how to get her husband addicted to control him. Even when shamans use drugs to let their mind commune with gods, too much can leave them addled for combat or addicted.
  • Evil vs. Evil: The Nikara-Mugen wars. Both sides see the others as not human because of the atrocities they have committed and use it to justify their own atrocities. By the end of the book Rin herself has committed genocide against the Mugen Federation and the rest of the Cike have condemned the Nikara civil population to famine and pestilence to get rid of enemies, something that Rin proposed in a strategy homework earlier.
  • Fantastic Racism: Played with. The Hesperians' racist beliefs are essentially identical to the real world's 19th-century scientific racism, right down to the belief that the "white race" is superior to all others. However, the Hesperian racial ideology has one notable difference from its real-world counterpart that pulls it into fantastic terrritory: The Hesperians believe that as "lesser" races are "educated" into the superior Hesperian culture, they will physically evolve into white people.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: The Nikara Empire is obviously inspired by imperial China. The Federation of Mugen is Japan and Hesperia is probably the United States. Heightened by what the Mugeni and Nikarans do to each other during the war: the Federation invasion maps onto the Rape of Nanjing, while Rin's awakening of the volcano under the Longbow Island is basically the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • Functional Addict: Altan; he was addicted on purpose to control him.
  • Foreshadowing: As early as the first chapter, Rin uses pain to help her focus and get what she wants. By the end of the book, pain causes the hatred which is the focus of her powers.
  • Fostering for Profit: The Fangs, treating Rin like servant, then trying to marry her off to an official to gain leverage for their business. (It says something that she expected the matchmaker to be a brothel madame who intended to buy her.)
  • Genocide Backfire: Mugen's treatment of the Speer Island caused Hesperia to take side in the Second Poppy War. And they left Altan and Rin alive.
  • Groin Attack: “This is the only kick you'll ever need, really. A kick to bring down the most powerful warriors.” Some martial art teachers disagree.
  • Humanoid Abomination: Shamans who succumb to madness turn into permanent conduits for the gods. The resulting entities look human enough, but they're utterly mad, prone to chaos and destruction, and they can never, ever die. The only solution is to seal them in the Chuluu Korikh for all time.
  • Hypnotic Eyes: The Vipress’s.
  • Last of His Kind: Altan is the last Speerly. Until it turns out Rin is also one...and then Altan dies, making her the last one.
  • Magic Knight: Shamans are commonly, though not universally, warriors of this sort. Rin is no exception, and wields fire and sword alike with deadly proficiency.
  • Military School: a significant part of the book happens at Sinegard Academy.
  • Playing with Fire: Channeling the Phoenix grants Rin the ability to produce huge amounts of fire from her body. While she initially lacks fine control, she manages to gain much more precise control over her abilities during the second book.
  • The Power of Hate: Ultimately the way to channel the Phoenix. Altan is very, very good at hating because he was experimented on as a child. Rin, after seeing the horrors the Federation wreaks upon her country and people, becomes even better at it.
  • Powers via Possession: Shamans can perform magic in the physical world by calling on gods to possess them.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The Cike, the empire's assassins and shamans division.
  • Rape as Backstory: In her youth, Su Daji was raped by a Hesperian soldier and rescued by a Mugenese one. She sees the setting's geopolitics as essentially a macrocosm of this single event, motivating her actions throughout the series.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: The name of the game for Mugenese troops, who massacre Nikani civilians with abandon wherever they go.
  • Self-Harm: Rin burns herself with candle wax to stay awake while studying.
  • Shout-Out: Kitay spreads a rumor that he is "the heir to the long-forgotten Fist of the North Wind, an art that allowed the user to incapacitate opponents by touching a few choice pressure points."
  • Spoiled Brat: Nezha and a few other students at Sinegard. Nezha gets better, though.
  • Supernatural Martial Arts: the teachers at Sinegard Academy are adamant that ki manipulation is not supernatural. Then you have shamans.
  • The Ace: Altan Trengsin is famous among the students of Sinegard Academy for being the best at everything he does.
    Can you piss over the wall into town?
    Altan can.
  • The Empire: The expansionistic and warlike Federation of Mugen, a clear counterpart of Imperial Japan, is a straight example. Ironically, the Nikan Empire is not.
  • The Mengele: Dr. Shiro. He conducted experiences on the Speerlies to find out the origin of their powers.
  • Training from Hell: To build muscle mass, Rin must carry a baby pig up a mountain every day. The thing about baby pigs: they do not stay babies. And that's a pretty mild task. The Sinegard deliberately overloads its students with work and expects a twenty percent dropoff in the first year, and then the Combat master bars her from his class for a minor infraction essentially because she's a village girl and not a noble's daughter.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: By the end of the book, Kitay and Rin are no longer friends because he can't conscience her destroying the entire Federation homeland.
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