Spoiler-filled Poppy War Re-read Discussion

Sorry for not posting very regularly lately, my mental health has taken a severe turn for the worse and I’ve barely had the energy to keep myself fed so writing blog posts has been largely off the table. I’ve been feeling a lot better for the past week and I’m really excited about this post so I’m gonna power through and hopefully start posting more regularly soon!

I just finished re-reading RF Kuang’s The Poppy War, and now I’m in the middle of The Dragon Republic as I prepare to read The Burning God. I loved The Poppy War when I read it initially a few years ago, but re-reading it has been a really great experience. I think I enjoyed the book even more this time, now that I already knew most of the characters and their motivations, and I could focus a lot more on how Rin grows (or doesn’t…) throughout the book. Here are a few things that struck me as a re-read the book, spoilers abound so please don’t read the rest of this post if you haven’t read The Poppy War! I won’t be spoiling anything from The Dragon Republic.

Getting into Sinegaard

  • When Rin begins studying for the Keju, we are introduced to her willingness to sacrifice her health and well-being to achieve her goals, a trend that continues with her hysterectomy once she is at Sinegaard. I thought it was interesting that Rin dances on the line of self-harm/self-destruction so early in the book, it sort of foreshadows how the Phoenix is going to overpower her later on
  • Using pain as a motivator: dripping wax on her arms to stay awake, using her physical pain during the tournament to motivate her to destroy Nezha. Rin is no stranger to pain, and it’s almost as if she doesn’t have the same rational response most people to do avoid it? Pain and anger seem to be her main motivators, which made me wonder how that affects her empathy and guilt for the pain she inflicts on others

Rin’s relationship with her family

  • Rin clearly has a poor relationship with her adoptive family and is desperate to escape. Her family has made it more than clear that she’s only welcome as long as she’s useful, since she was a war orphan and not “one of their own”
  • YET the creature at the end of the book wears Kesegi’s face and Rin has trouble killing him. Even in Dragon Republic (not a spoiler, I promise), Rin seems to remember Kesegi fondly. I kind of wish we had gotten more time to see Rin and Kesegi’s relationship, it seems to be the only relationship Rin has with another human that isn’t toxic!

Teachers: Jiang vs Altan

The passage in the Chuluu Khorik where Altan and Rin discover Jiang was really interesting. Jiang’s purpose has been one of “don’t invite the gods into the world since you can’t control them” while Altan’s has been “learn to control the gods, they are meant to serve us”. I loved this quote from Jiang as he tells off Altan for wanting to unleash the spirits of the Chuluu Khorik onto the world and equating saving Nikan with razing Mugen:

There is a world of a difference between the two of them, and the fact that you don’t see that is why you can’t do this. Your patriotism is a farce…you would let millions die if it means you get your so-called justice…Chaos does not discriminate

The Poppy War, Chapter 23, page 459
  • Rin choosing Altan’s abusive leadership over Jiang’s wisdom was heartbreaking, but very in character. As I mentioned earlier, we have already seen Rin’s tendencies to lean towards self-destruction and destruction in general.

The Atomic Bomb on Mugen

  • After seeing the extent of how the Mugenese ravaged Nikara and Speer, Rin basically sets off the equivalent of the atomic bomb on Mugen, this world’s Japan analog, when she unleashes the Phoenix. Not only does she kill thousands of innocent people, she also unleashes lasting consequences for the entire island. This is genocide, but Rin stands by her tactical decision as a necessary evil that she would repeat. I thought it was interesting to see the contrast between Rin’s performance in her Strategy class, making decisions to kill innocent people when it’s theoretically the most efficient solution to a problem, versus actually having to live with the deep guilt and trauma of actually following through on those actions. It’s one thing to talk about sacrificing innocent people for the greater good as an exercise and another thing to be faced with that choice in real life.
  • Chaghan and Qara also kill thousands of innocents with long-term impact (flooding, famine, and disease of their own country just to kill the rest of the Federation agents). Which do you think is worse? Do you think either course of action was strictly necessary? All three of them bond over the shared trauma of committing genocide, but I think all of them would have made the same decisions again despite how it eats away at them. And if you think about how these characters are basically just teenagers…heartbreaking.

I also want to talk about Kitay’s growth in the book, Venka and the treatment of “strong” women, Rin’s relationship with Nezha, and “The West”/Hesperia and colonialism in this world, but I think those are better saved for a post about Dragon Republic. I’d love to hear your thoughts about these things too though!

What were your favorite parts of the Poppy War? Did any of these scenes that I found interesting strike you while reading too?

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