Human free will is the root of all evil. Our propensity to make incredibly bad choices have wrought war and destruction on our world. And we are very fond of blaming the gods we pray to for the result of these choices. I have never read a book that explores this theme so extensively as The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang.
Free Will to Change Destiny
Rin was a war orphan adopted by opium dealers who used her as free labor at their shop. When her foster parents decide to marry her off to the import inspector who was three times her age, she decides to take the Keju and change her destiny. The Keju was an exam that granted you access to the top military school in Sinegard. Most kids who wanted to get into the school studied all their lives for the test and were trained for combat the minute they could walk. Rin crammed all the knowledge she needed to pass the test in two years and she scored the highest in her province securing her a place in Sinegard. She chose to leave everything and everyone she knew for the chance to be a respected commander – to become somebody important.
Free Will to Stand Her Ground
At Sinegard, the sons of warlords and important politicians discriminated against her. She decided not to take the abuse and stood her ground. Beating up the dragon warlord’s son, made her a formidable enemy. But she persisted to stand against him and in the course of their battle found a power she didn’t know she had.
Free Will to Seek Power
During her first year at Sinegard, she had seen the last Speerly warrior amaze the whole school with his fighting skill and power. In her battle with her class’ champion, she discovered that she could access the power of the Speerly’s god. She decided to abandon her plan to study strategy and study lore instead. She decided to seek power instead of a stable career path.
Her mentor taught her how to control her power so she would not be overwhelmed by it. He taught her how to seek her god, but now how to access her power for her own purpose. At the back of her mind, she was already seeing all the military applications of what she was learning.
Free Will to Fight
When the third Poppy War began in earnest, Rin decided to disobey her master and access the power of the Phoenix, the god of fire. She was noticed by the empress who assigned her to fight in the thirteenth division where all the shamans were. The last Speerly warrior she had been so in love with became her commander.
Each time she tried to access the power of her god, Rin was warned by the spirit of a woman not to do so. The woman warned that the Pheonix never gave anything – it took and destroyed. The price of asking for its help was too high.
Rin chose not to listen. She chose to commit the same genocide on her enemies as they had done to her people.
Free Will to Lie to Herself
And after Rin made all her bad choices, she has to decide to believe the lie she tells herself to justify her actions. It wasn’t revenge, it was to save her country. The enemy wasn’t human because they did terrible things to her people. It wasn’t murder, not genocide, it was patriotism.
No Free Will in War
War doesn’t take away our free will – that is the biggest lie this book’s soldiers tell themselves. Sure, soldiers have to kill the enemy combatants who are charging toward them with guns determined to kill them. But they can choose not to shoot children who are unarmed. They can choose not to rape the women whose village they invade. They can choose to be humane.
Free Will to Give up on the Broken
The concept I most disagreed with in this book was the choice to give up on the broken. The Speerly warrior’s power came from rage against the massacre of his people and the years of abuse. He uses opium to escape the rage, to not feel anything. No matter how gifted he was, he couldn’t do what Rin eventually had to do. So he chose the easy way out, to die a martyr and give up on living.
His soldiers respected him. They loved him. But the book argued that he was too broken. Could love not have fixed him? This was the part of the book that broke me.
The Bad Choices Made the Book
It was the female lead’s bad choices that drove the story. Trying to put band aid after band aid on the consequences of her bad decisions just dug her into a deeper and deeper hole. And though there were so many times when I disagreed with Rin’s choices, I couldn’t stop reading until the very end.
And I can’t wait to read the Dragon Republic. I wish Altan and Nezha were still alive. Didn’t Altan say that people who were possessed by their gods do not die? And the author hinted that Nezha could be a shaman who healed quickly. I know, I’m a hopeless optimist – but I do love those two characters.
I prefer writing books where characters did not commit genocide and fix the world with love. But I see the impact abused and broken characters can make. The consequences of bad choices have a way of keeping the plot interesting.
The Poppy War was a really great book. I would’ve given it a five-star rating if not for the point I did not agree with about giving up on the broken and my heartbreak at losing Altan and Nezha.