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.
*this review contains no information beyond what is described in the synopsis!
I started reading this book in late May, after hearing its praises be sung endlessly on book twitter. In fact, I still have never heard a single bad review for this book; however, pretty much anyone who had read it was extremely clear about one thing: before reading, read the trigger warnings (I will include these below.) I foolishly DID NOT read them, and honestly it made me curious to read what could be so “dark” and “scandalous” to make trigger warnings such a unanimous message yet still be recommended by all. So, I went in knowing that this book would be dark, it would touch on sensitive topics, and it was obviously going to involve…a war?
All of this is to say that, I did not like this book. And it’s very likely that it’s entirely my fault, as this book is just not to my taste at all, and I would have known this if I wasn’t a dumb ass who doesn’t listen to the very clear warnings others give her!
Anyways, the book is broken into three parts, the third of which, after several nights of forcing myself to literally read JUST. ONE. CHAPTER…..I never got to. Friends who had read the book and loved it assured me that if I was miserable reading it more than halfway through, I wasn’t going to change my mind or opinion. Also, after doing some research while writing this, I read that things get exponentially darker in Part 3…so, I’m kind of glad I DNF’d.
So, the first part of this book I really loved. I instantly liked the main heroine, Rin, who sacrifices blood, sweat, tears, and likely part of her sanity to achieve a spot at Sinegard, the most prestigious military academy in her nation. The journey she goes on once she gets there was interesting and enthralling, and I read a large chunk of the whole book in like two days. I was really into her working her way through her classes, her struggles with other classmates, and learning/growing in her intellect and crafts. However, when Rin begins to train as a shaman, I was reminded a bit of the film, DOCTOR STRANGE, in that it got very philosophical and felt a bit over my head in understanding some of her conversations with her master, Jin. I stuck through it, but following this, and going into part 2 of the book, several Bad Things start to occur, and slowly by surely, I began to feel myself pulling away from the narrative. I won’t go further into detail, because I feel that would be going too much into spoilers, but…to put it simply, I felt like this book was 95% about war and 5% about the characters.
Bottom line, I really, really wanted to like this book. I gave myself a solid month of committing to JUST THIS BOOK to try and get through it. But this book actually taught me more about myself and what I want out of my books than most of my recent reads have by a long shot.
And here goes me trying to explain that. I love the genre of fantasy (my go to genre), and I love the enemies to lovers troupe (which this book does not have explicitly, but it has enemies that may or may not become…something down the line). And I especially love when magical beings/people are on the opposite side of a war, but are connected in inexplicable ways. The relationship dynamics that play out just hit different. The way war “changes” people. The “sacrifices” it demands. The strength of love that comes out of it. But I don’t LITERALLY like reading about WAR. Like battles, and fights, and literal war strategy and the politics behind it. Or lonely warriors, making sacrifices, but not making strong, meaningful, fulfilling human connections at the same time. This book simply does not sugarcoat war and politics, and it does not glorify warriors (as compared to other YA series, which seem to all involve a Big War…). This is ultimately a good thing, something that literature probably needs to stop doing. But it made me seriously depressed.
I know that a lot of what I felt like this book was missing…it was probably eventually building up to. I’m sure the pay off is incredible, once Rin does build real relationships, because the writing style and prose of this book are next level. I really can’t believe this was written when the author was NINETEEN.
It’s just not for me right now.
If you love this book, please don’t hate me– just see me for the weakling I am.
Would I recommend this book, and to who?
I probably would not recommend this book to lovers of strictly YA fantasy/romance. There isn’t any romance, this isn’t really YA, and also…I found it very depressing. If you enjoy war, strategy, historical fiction, with a touch of dark academia(?), you might like this book!
Self-harm, Suicide, Violent rape, Sexual assault, Murder, Massacres, Brutalization, Mutilation, Torture, Substance abuse, Abuse, Emotional abuse , Physical abuse, Relationship abuse, Human experimentation, Chemical warfare, Genocide (from the author’s blog)