As soon as I saw the blurb for The Poppy War, I was sure I was going to want to read it - it's a great time to be a fantasy reader, as there's so much out there now which is not just farmboy-is-secretly-a-prince set in a faux-medieval European setting. Read plenty of those in my time!
Anyway, The Poppy War starts off feeling quite familiar as we're introduced to the character of Rin and the situation she finds herself in at the start of the book - a war orphan taken in by opium traders, Rin is about to be sold off into marriage unless she can find a way out. In this case, her way out is to pass the country-wide examination and get herself a coveted place in one of the empire's military schools. If she manages this (which, of course, she does otherwise it'd be a very different book!) then Rin can decide her own fate in the longer term.
So far, so good. The next third or so of the book follows a pretty well-worn track, especially where moving into a fantasy academic setting is concerned: the outsider maybe makes one or two friends, but also at least one enemy whose vindictiveness will come back to bite her later on. Where The Poppy War diverges from this pattern is with the introduction of a strong theme of shamanism alongside the military training, even if it's heavily frowned upon by the majority of the people Rin comes across. This ability allows someone to channel the power of a deity, at the risk of their own sanity, and if there's one thing Rin wants, it's power.
The whole setting of The Poppy War is more faux-China than faux-medieval Europe and this is made clear when the neighbouring islands (Mugen) mount an invasion. Rin finds herself shipped off to join the other misfits and hone her abilities in defence of a port city, only to discover that their involvement there has not prevented a terrible slaughter taking place in the capital. It's around this time that my willingness to give The Poppy War 5 stars and my accompanying desire to re-read it in the future took a bit of a knock. Things get a bit grisly and, to my mind at least, unnecessarily so - it's too easy to go for graphic rather than thinking about how to use your writing to imply things that are even more horrific, since your reader's minds will make all sorts of connections.
Since this is the first book of a trilogy, it will come as no surprise that Rin finishes the book by making a choice and taking a terrible revenge on the people of Mugen, who are responsible not just for the recent slaughter but apparently also for the genocide of Rin's people. She may be starting to realise just what she's let herself in for, but maybe not, so I guess the next volume will tell us which way she's going to go? The Dragon Republic is due out next year.