Verdict: Super dark, fast-paced, well-plotted (if maybe a bit predictable), wonderfully written.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Date read: April 28th 2018
Published by Harper Voyager, May 3rd 2018
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.
That was seriously impressive; I knew I needed to read this as soon as I saw the brilliant cover. The book has also garnered a serious amount of buzz and as such I was beyond thrilled to have the chance to read this early. I was then a bit apprehensive when the first reviews came in and they all emphasized the dark nature of this book – I usually like my fantasy to be not super violent. And don’t get me wrong, this book (especially its second half) is beyond brutal – but it is so well-written that it was worth it. The language used worked wonderfully for me – R. F. Kuang manages to create a world so immersive that I came up breathless in-between the tensest scenes.
The book follows in close third person narration Rin, a war orphan who manages through sheer willpower to ace the test that ensures her place at Sinegard, an elite military school. There she is an outsider, too dark-skinned and poor to be taken seriously, when she realizes she has an affinity for shamanism. This book moves at a serious breakneck speed and packs as much story into one book as other authors might pack into three – and I was glad for that. The author handles her story so adeptly that I was never bored or confused, while also filling the book to the brim with characters that feel real. They are sparingly, but well characterised and I could always remember who was who and what there motivations were: I found this highly impressive (I often struggle with remembering names in books with casts this huge).
There are some slight problems I have with this book; for one the first and the second half have vastly different tones and as such do not quite feel like a coherent whole. There were also some sentences that conveyed stereotypes in a way that felt unquestioned – and this is a problem in a book that so clearly mirrors real-world history. I do hope that this will be a major theme in the next two books in the series though (the ending seems to indicate this) – which I just cannot wait to read.
Overall, a damn impressive debut from an author I will have to keep an eye out for. Also, I need the next two books as soon as possible. Do read this if you like fantasy at all (but beware of the dark content).
I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Harper Voyager in exchange for an honest review.