I read The Poppy War a few months ago and was so impressed by it that I knew I had to read the sequel. But I kept putting it off because I just wasn’t sure I could handle the darkness of it all so soon after the events of the first book. And I was completely right. This book is more intense, more grim and raises the stakes to even more heights and I enjoyed every second of it.
I really thought we had seen a lot of the world in the first book but the author managed to expand it even more and I was very impressed. We are introduced to the various warlords of the Nikara empire and their often antagonistic positions towards each other, how they are unwilling to compromise for the sake of the common people. There is a lot of talk about democracy and letting people vote, while also opposing opinions that uneducated/uncivilized people who have always been fighting can’t possibly vote and decide what kind of a ruler they want. While we live in a world where democracy is considered the best form of governance, it was fascinating to read how it must have been during the olden days when it was still an idea and many didn’t understand or didn’t want the choice of voting.
I’m not great at geography nor do I know much about Chinese history, so I can’t be sure what it’s based on but the way the Dragon province, it’s various interconnected river systems and it’s naval capabilities are described is absolutely stunning and I loved this new setting.
We also finally get to know about the Hesperians in detail and they are obviously based on a western culture but I couldn’t exactly pinpoint which one. Their profound arrogance and sense of superiority over the native population of Nikara is very much the language of the colonizers we’ve heard in the past and it really infuriated me. They are also a monotheistic people and their mission to rid the continent of its belief in the pantheon is very much reminiscent of the spread of Christianity through crusades and inquisitions across the world. Having recently read a history book about US using its immense power and leverage to colonize and overpower and make other countries accept its terms and standards, I couldn’t help but see the same parallels in how the Hesperians dangle the promise of aid in front of the Republic to get the trade tariffs they want along with complete permission to proselytize. I suppose it was the author’s intent, because I felt absolute disdain and loathing for the Hesperians and keep hoping that they’ll be soundly defeated.
Even though the book is still divided into parts, I thought the plot and pacing was much more consistent this time because it’s just preparation and war right from the get go, and it never lets up. The author is extremely talented at writing about military strategies, political intrigue, shifting loyalties and brilliantly executed naval battles. She is also unfazed in showing us the brutal realities of war and after having read some of it in The Poppy War, I wasn’t surprised that she took it up a notch. How war changes everyone, how even fighting for a just cause doesn’t stop its soldiers from being unjust, the corruption of power and how brutally the common populace suffers – it’s all captured very realistically and it was sometimes quite uncomfortable to read.
I was on the edge of my seat while reading because I couldn’t guess who was gonna betray whom, and what twists and turns would come next and it’s amazing that the while I was happy when something I predicted occurred, I was even more delighted when the author took the story in much more unexpected directions. The last 10-15% of the book which has a magnificent battle sequence was extremely tense and some of the scenes really gave me goosebumps.
Rin is such a compelling character to follow. She is angry at all the power she has and what it compels her to do, she is angry at being used as a weapon and pawn and she is furious about what happened at the end of the Poppy War – but it is all a mask so that she doesn’t feel the crushing guilt of it all. She becomes more and more impulsive and makes rash decisions and lets her anger get better of her ; and there were many moments where I just wanted to shake her and make her see reason. But there was never a single moment where I stopped rooting for her and I think that’s the mark of a remarkable author. And the way her character arc is written – from hitting rock bottom to gaining control to understanding what she wants to do next – it’s brilliant and I can’t ask for a more interesting and well written main character.
While the rest of the Cike is also present alongwith Rin, the two other characters we get to know a bit better are Kitay and Nezha. Kitay really is the master strategist and the way his mind works is a wonder to read about. I thought his frustration at being the best in the room but still being dismissed because the older generals couldn’t accept his reasoning is captured very well. He is also such a good friend to Rin and I loved the development of their relationship, from somewhat antagonistic to an immense love based on respect and trust.
I really liked Nezha too for the most part but he is also an idealist who is privileged to hold the positions he does, and he never really understands that. But seeing Rin be a little tender and vulnerable with him and how he tried to protect whenever he could was very lovely to read. The Cike are the reason there is atleast some banter and levity in the book and it was interesting to see Rin go from not wanting to be their commander to genuinely bonding with them. Venka is another strong character who doesn’t let adversity define her and while we got to see her only a little, I have a feeling she’ll be more prominent in the next book.
To conclude, I don’t think I really have much to say which hasn’t already been said. This is a brilliantly written grimdark military fantasy, with compelling characters and some amazing battle sequences. If you have already loved the Poppy War, I know you’re gonna love this too. But if you like this genre and haven’t tried this series yet, don’t wait more. Just pick it up and be ready for your mind to be blown. Definitely one of my favorite reads of this year and deserves all the accolades it’s been getting.