Uff da, that ended with some bleakness. I was half expecting ur usual boarding school matriculation maybe with a little national epic thrown in (and that isn't a bad description of events if you're being literal) but boy, howdy does The Poppy War fuck that shit up. It's like a trick where you're expecting one kind of narrative, but you get another one entirely. But slow burn style.
Rin is a war orphan from a nothing province who nonetheless ends up aceing a national test in a country not dissimilar to early 19th C China, which brings her to a prestigious military academy in the capital. She thinks she's made it, but she hasn't even by half; the teachers are all arrayed against her as a podunk nothing. She falls in with Jian, the professor who teaches Lore, a subject which is basically a joke. Jian is high as fuck most of the time, but in his haphazard way, teaches Rin the ways of shamanism. Shamans are thought of as nutjobs for the most part; these are rational people after all.
But the country falls into conflict with the Federation, which they've been cold warring with for about a generation, since the last of the poppy wars. Rin graduates from her structured school to the chaos of war, while groping through the ugly history of her country, and the arcana of the gods that people largely don't believe in. The war is horrific; the gods more so. Nothing in school prepared Rin for the depravity of war.
Readers are trained, I think, to view a first person narrator as a hero or heroine. It's basic psychology: the "I" of the text is conflated with the personal self. One can't help but interpolate oneself into the action. And Rin is a scrappy, hardscrabble kind of person, one who deserves the sense of hard elation and respect when she overcomes some serious shit through some serious loss. Every choice she makes, makes sense. But hoo boy, are her choices ugly, in serial. She renders the inhuman, the inexcusable, into something legible and understandable. It's the absolute worst, and so much more horrible for its comprehensiveness.
I feel like I'm giving the impression that I didn't like this novel, but that is not it at all. I'm thoroughly impressed at the portraiture of someone who, through no inherent evil or malice, ends up doing unforgivable shit. Rin may not be likable, exactly, but she's admirable ... except for when her actions are not. Seriously impressive writing, all told.
For sure there's going to be a sequel. I'm not even sure I want to see where Rin goes, even while I respect the path she's taken. Sheesh.
*I listened to the audiobook, so I'm not sure I'm spelling names correctly. Sorry.