Summary: 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.
From the moment I saw this book in a bookstore, I knew I had to read it. From the gorgeous watercolor cover to the fantasy China-based setting to the promise of dark themes and brutal action, it was everything I could wish for in a book. I was amazed by how quickly I was drawn into the world. I ended up finishing this around 1AM, less than 24 hours after I’d started it. Yes it’s over 500 pages, but those pages go by fast.
My favorite part of this book is how brutal the writing is. That may be an odd thing to say, but really I love how Kuang doesn’t shy away from the bloodiness of melee combat. This is, after all, a story about war. She manages to successfully toe the line between visceral descriptions and being overly gratuitous. For the majority of the book, the brutality is at a reasonably normal level. However, there is one chapter (chapter 21) that just blows the others out of the water. My horror and disgust at the events in that one chapter just grew and grew as I kept reading.
The worst part is, this chapter was based on an event that happened in real life. The Rape of Nanking. This was a horrible massacre in Chinese history, committed by the Japanese. Had I not known that chapter was based on real events, I could have dismissed it as excessive and gratuitous fictional violence. But this did happen, less than a century ago. And that made it all the more poignant. Naturally, major trigger warnings for physical and sexual violence (not to the MC) for the entire book, but mainly for this chapter. The author has a more in-depth post which can be read here.
Another strong point in this book was the main character, Rin. She starts out as a young, naive, but ambitious teenager, attempting to slip out of a loveless arranged marriage, and manages to grow oh-so-much throughout the course of this book. However, her growth is not always in a positive manner. Instead, I see this story as her corruption; it’s constantly asking, how much more will she sacrifice for herself and her country. First, she’s dripping hot candle wax on herself to stay awake, next she’s destroying her womb because her period is in the way of her training. What next? The book is written from her PoV, and I think you can really see her shifts in perspective over time. As a bonus, there is no romance!
The only minor issues I had were in the worldbuilding and the writing. The Nikara Empire, Rin’s home, is heavily based on China and the Mugen Federation, the main antagonists, is heavily based on Japan. While I don’t usually mind worldbuilding based on real countries and cultures, I felt like at times, the similarities were so close that they may as well have been China and Japan under different names. On the other hand, the supernatural elements, with the Chinese gods and the shamanisms, were fantastic. My other complaint was that the dialog just occasionally felt too modern. I can’t point to anything in particular, but there were times where I felt like the words being used could have been pulled from a conversation in 2018, and not a conversation taking place in fantasy China before guns were a common weapon.
Overall, I rate this book a 5/5. While this book is bloody and brutal, the storytelling and development of Rin’s character make this book such an amazing read. Once again, hard trigger warnings for physical and sexual violence, with a full detailed list on the author’s website.
/r/Fantasy Bingo 2018 Squares:
- Novel reviewed on /r/Fantasy
- novel Featuring a Non-Western Setting
- /r/Fantasy Goodreads group of the Month book
- Novel Published in 2018
- Novel Featuring a Mountain Setting (albeit briefly)
- Novel Featuring a God as a Character (kinda?)