This book was recommended to me by about ten people, and I couldn’t help myself. I patiently waited for my next audible credit and dropped it all over this book.
Hooray for audiobooks!
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.
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. They were soldiers.
Wow. Where to start?
This one started out with Rin taking her exam, and I thought to myself ‘this isn’t so bad’ because, of course all ten of the people that recommended this book to me said that it ends a lot differently than it starts. Not… uh… not a lie, that. Now, word of warning, I am probably going to spell names hilariously wrong here, because I listened to the audiobook. I tried to look them up where I could, but I might have missed some. 🙂
This is the story of Rin, who is a a war-orphan in a small village in the south of the Nikara Empire, which is more-or-less China. She works in her foster-parents’ shop, which is a cover for their opium smuggling operation. She’s regularly beaten and starved by them, and all she dreams about is a way to get out. She dreams of taking the Keju exam, which, if she does well on it, could get her into a school far-far away from her village where she could thrive. She aces the exam, which nobody expected, and gets to go to Sinegard, which is a prestigious military academy in the north. When she gets there, Rin finds that it’s certainly not easy to be the one dark-skinned peasant southerner among the beautiful, pale, rich AF nobles who all attend Sinegard.
As Rin gains her military education, she finds out that she has a link to the gods through shamanic powers. These powers, as it happens, can be brought on and enhanced by psychedelic drugs, so she’s got that going for her. Her Master at the academy is slowly teaching her how to meditate to reach the gods. At the same time, Nikara and Mugen (more-or-less Japan) are getting closer and closer to another Poppy War, of which they have had two previously. It can probably be said that this book is based around our own world, most especially around the second Sino-Japanese War. And this war does come, and Rin finds herself directly in the middle of it and thrown head first into not only the military, but a very special branch of it known as the Cike, who are shamans, each with a different power from a different god.
There are plenty of influences from Asian mythologies. The twelve provinces of the Nikara Empire are named after the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac. The Kirin/Qilin was mentioned a couple times, which is a sort of antlered dragon type creature (though, they’re also considered to be unicorns depending on where you are) said to arrive with either the arrival or death of a great ruler. There are mentions of the Four Holy Beasts, or the Four Symbols in the Chinese constellations. the Black Turtle in the North, the White Tiger in the West, the Vermilion Bird in the South, and the Azure Dragon in the East. I know them as Genbu, Byakko, Suzaku and Seiryu respectively, which is what they are known as in Japan, but they have different names in Korea, Vietnam, and in China. Is my mythology nerd showing again? >.>
The characters in this story were fantastically developed, and I found myself rooting for some and hating others, and then making entirely instantaneous switches here and there. Other than Rin, who is a pretty complex and awesome character herself, I really liked Nezha, who is Rin’s rival at school, and Altan, who is Rin’s commander in the Cike. Rin changes really profoundly as this book went on, but so too does one of the other major characters.
This book starts out light. That’s the only way I can put it. Part one is a rather… maybe not typical but… certainly not super-dark romp through a military academy. Rin goes to school. There are fights. There are rivalries with other students. There is tension with certain teachers. There was nothing inherently new about the idea, but I didn’t not enjoy it. I thought it was slow at times and at one point I said to myself ‘everyone told me this was the best debut of the year… and it’s good, but I’m not so sure about best…’ It’s not that I thought it was bad. Not at all, it’s well written from beginning to end. And it wasn’t boring, but it was fairly standard military school fantasy fare.
Then we get to part two. Part two definitely ramps up the action, as this is when the war more or less begins. There are some actual military maneuvers here, and Rin, along with her new compatriots in the Cike, go out and actively fight people from the Federation of Mugen, and fight actual monsters. And it gets a bit darker here for sure. Characters definitely start showing some truer colors here and characters I hated I ended up liking, new characters are introduced and I really liked a few (especially Ramza). But, I mean I was told this book was pretty fucking bruuuutal, and while part two was moderately brutal… it wasn’t super duper dark….
And then came part three:
So yeah. This book gets fucking bruuuuutal in part three. Just… fuuuck. Hold on to your butts. If you’re opposed to reading books with themes and events that are very savage, things like crazy ass violence against everyone, including children, with rape, torture, and genocide on top, um, maybe skip this one. Because yeah. You’re not going to have a good time.
All told, I started out being not so sure I was going to love it. I originally wasn’t planning on writing a full review when I was done, but maybe throwing up a few sentences and a rating at audible, amazon, and goodreads and calling it day. But, I ended up just having to sit here in solitude for a while afterwards just thinking about what I thought about it, which led me to my keyboard, and so here we have it. Any book that I started out rather indifferent about, but in the end had me sitting here like ‘gods above and below what in all the worlds even was that?’ is probably looking at being pretty good. Any book that has me being like ‘WHAT THE SHIT?!?!’ more than once during the last four hours has to be good. Admittedly, the subject matter in the end made it hard to listen to at times, but all the feelings and responses it evoked despite or because of those things made it very easy to know that this is a damn good book. Damn. Good. This book surprised me. I had warnings about it, and it still surprised me. This book fucking ruined me. And books that do that can’t possibly be bad.
Bad books don’t make me fucking ugly cry. I’m just saying.
The narrator, Emily Woo Zeller did a really great job. I was on the fence about that too because while I listened to the sample before I bought this in audio, and thought it fine, I have previously not really liked a book she narrated, and I wasn’t sure, thinking back, if it was the book or the narration or both put together that I didn’t really like. Well, no worries here, because she was awesome. Characters’ voices on point, areas where feeling needed full of feels. Well done!
If this book had gone along with the same tone as part one had, it would have been a 3 or a 3.5. But no, this one got more and more stars as it went, ripping stars out of my poor feels. So, it ended pretty strongly with 5/5 stars. I’ve heard it called the best debut of 2018 by more than one person. It doesn’t quite make it there for me, but holy fuck it’s close. I’m definitely, definitely looking forward to more from R.F. Kuang.