The Poppy War

What happened in The Poppy War

By R.F. Kuang

The Poppy War follows the journey of Rin, a war orphan from a rural village who gains admission to the prestigious military academy Sinegard. Through intense determination and secret training with the unorthodox lore master Jiang, Rin develops shamanic powers connected to the Phoenix god. When war breaks out between Nikan and the Federation, Rin joins a squad of shamans called the Cike under commander Altan Trengsin. She struggles to control her volatile Phoenix abilities while defending the city of Khurdalain under siege.

After the Federation's devastating attack on the Nikara capital, Altan becomes obsessed with raising an army of imprisoned shamans for vengeance. Though warned of the dangers, Rin pledges herself to Altan's cause. Their plan fails when they are captured by the Federation. Altan sacrifices himself so Rin can continue their mission. Guided by Altan's spirit, Rin journeys to the island of Speer and makes a dark bargain with the Phoenix god, gaining immense power but losing her humanity. She becomes an avatar of destruction and annihilates the Federation's capital and millions of its people. Now seen as a living god, Rin takes command of the Cike shamans to continue reshaping the world through vengeance.

The Poppy War Chapter Summary

Chapter 1

The chapter follows Rin, an orphan girl living in the rural village of Tikany who is determined to take the Keju exam to enter the prestigious Sinegard academy and avoid an arranged marriage set up by her foster parents. She makes a deal with her tutor Feyrik to intensely study and memorize the required texts in the two years leading up to the exam, in exchange for stolen opium. Rin works tirelessly day and night, depriving herself of sleep and using pain to stay focused. On exam day, her arms are covered in burn scars from candle wax. After an agonizing weeklong wait for results, Rin scores highest in her province and is admitted to Sinegard.

Chapter 2

Rin arrives in Sinegard and finds it overwhelming and hostile to outsiders. She punches a rude student named Nezha during registration. An apprentice stops their fight and reveals Nezha is from an important family. Rin feels very alone but resolves to endure, remembering how hard she worked to get here.

Chapter 3

Rin and Nezha arrive late to orientation, led by the stern Grand Master Jima and the eccentric Lore Master. Jima warns the first years that only the elite students will survive past their first year. In classes, Rin feels overwhelmed by her talented classmates like Venka, who amazes them in martial arts. In history, Master Yim lectures on Nikan's military failures and questions how they survived the Poppy Wars. At lunch, Rin meets the witty Kitay, who explains Nezha's arrogance. The Lore Master never shows up to class, leaving the students awkwardly waiting in a garden filled with poppy plants. Nezha thinks it's a prank, but Rin suspects the garden is used by the Lore Master. She and Kitay remain behind, wondering if the Lore Master teaches shamans' magic.

Chapter 4

Rin struggles to keep up with the intense training regimen at Sinegard. Classes are grueling, especially Combat with Master Jun. One night the first years witness apprentice fights in the basement, including a match with the legendary Altan Trengsin. Altan defeats three challengers effortlessly despite taking hits, showcasing preternatural fighting skills. The next day, the obsessed first years ask Master Yim about Altan's Speerly heritage. Yim dismisses tales of Speerly magic as myths, insisting the Speerlies were simply primitive and brutal. In Combat class, Nezha viciously beats Rin with his staff when they spar. Jun punishes them both, calling Rin an undeserving peasant and banning her from the training facilities.

Chapter 5

Rin is devastated after being kicked out of combat class by Master Jun. She vows to find a way to learn martial arts on her own. She gets a procedure to stop her menstrual cycle so it doesn't interfere with her training. Though sick for days, Rin throws herself into her studies to prove she deserves to stay at the Academy. She rises to the top of her classes, impressing Master Irjah. Rin discovers martial arts manuals in the library and secretly teaches herself techniques. She attends apprentice fights to watch Altan, analyzing his flawless fighting style. Rin is determined to endure anything to stay at Sinegard.

Chapter 6

In this chapter, Rin continues her secret training with the eccentric Lore Master Jiang. He makes her carry a piglet named Sunzi up a mountain every day to build her strength and stamina. Jiang teaches Rin unconventional martial arts based on channeling the body's energy, or ki. Though difficult to understand at first, Rin improves rapidly under Jiang's intense tutelage. She is able to channel her ki to crack the stone floor when sparring with Jiang, impressing him greatly.

Jiang urges Rin to pledge Lore as her apprenticeship, insisting he can teach her to be a powerful shaman. But Rin still plans to pledge Strategy under Master Irjah, believing it will better position her for a military career. She appreciates Jiang's teachings but doesn't fully believe in the mystical aspects of Lore. The chapter ends with Jiang disappointed that Rin won't continue studying with him.

Chapter 7

In this chapter, Rin competes in the Trials at Sinegard to determine which master will take her on as an apprentice. She first undergoes oral exams with the masters, impressing them with clever answers.

The next part of the Trials is a martial arts tournament. Rin steadily defeats her classmates, advancing to the finals against Nezha. Their grudge match turns brutal as Nezha loses control, but Rin manages to overpower him with rage-fueled strength.

Afterward, Rin experiences frightening sensations and seeks out Jiang for help. He realizes she has a dangerous affinity for shamanic power. Though reluctant, Jiang agrees to make Rin his apprentice in the Lore track to train her to control her abilities. Rin chooses to pledge to Jiang rather than Irjah in the Strategy track, wanting to develop her newfound powers.

Chapter 8

Rin spends the Summer Festival break from Sinegard Academy at the estate of her friend Kitay. Kitay's family, part of the wealthy House of Chen, lives luxuriously compared to Rin's impoverished upbringing. Rin marvels at the opulence but feels like an outsider. She and Kitay explore the Summer Festival, seeing shadow puppetry that tells the legend of the Trifecta shamans. Kitay dismisses the idea of shamans as fanciful myths, frustrating Rin's fascination with the lore.

On the final day, Rin watches the Summer Parade from a fruit stand while Kitay rides with his noble family. Extravagant costumes and floats depicting mythical creatures pass by. Then the Empress appears, borne on a golden palanquin. Rin is stunned by her otherworldly beauty and feels an intense desire to serve this living legend. The parade leaves Rin awestruck and more determined than ever to secure her place at Sinegard.

Chapter 9

In this chapter, Rin begins her second year of apprenticeship under Master Jiang in the Lore track at Sinegard Academy. Jiang continues to teach Rin in unconventional ways meant to expand her mind and understanding of the nature of reality. He assigns her research on shamans and religion from around the world, and has her meditate extensively to try to commune with the spirit realm.

Rin struggles with the slow pace of her training, wanting to learn faster so she can access the mystical powers she glimpsed during the Trials. Jiang warns her not to be reckless, relating how previous Lore students went mad trying to rush their training. He forbids Rin from fighting in the apprentice ring matches.

After two years of preparation, Jiang finally allows Rin to journey on a psychedelic-fueled meditation in a mountain cave. She achieves an enlightened state and visits the Pantheon, where she encounters a mysterious Speerly woman. The woman warns Rin that seeking power from the gods comes with a great cost.

When Rin tells Jiang about her vision, he seems satisfied she is now "cured" and understands her connection to the gods. But Rin still seeks to channel her power offensively, not just control it. She resolves to continue her training and learn to wield her abilities on her own, sensing Jiang will not teach her martial uses.

Chapter 10

The Federation declares war on Nikan after skirmishes on the border. Sinegard prepares for invasion as the Federation army marches inland. The students join the outnumbered defense forces, though the soldiers doubt their ability. Escape plans are made in case the city falls. Jiang refuses Rin's suggestion to summon the gods to help fight. He insists the gods are not weapons and using their power will only lead to disaster.

With battle imminent, Rin struggles to sleep and hears the Phoenix calling to her. Frustrated by Jiang's restrictions, she takes poppy seeds from his garden, tempted to invoke the Phoenix's power herself.

Chapter 11

In this chapter, the Federation army marches on Sinegard to invade. Rin and her comrades prepare to defend the city, but feel hopelessly outmatched. When the attack begins, Rin struggles with paralyzing fear during the brutal fighting. She considers invoking the Phoenix god with poppy seeds to gain power, but decides helping her squad defend the East Gate takes priority.

There, Rin and Nezha make a surprisingly effective fighting pair against the endless enemy soldiers. But they are no match for the Federation general, who easily defeats them. Just as he is about to kill Rin and Nezha, Jiang appears and blocks the general's attack with supernatural power. Jiang warns Rin and Nezha to flee before he summons dangerous spirits from another realm. In the chaos, the general re-emerges and mortally wounds Nezha. Desperate, Rin takes poppy seeds to call the Phoenix and is granted immense power, burning the general alive. But she loses control of the fiery power, nearly killing herself until the Phoenix recedes. Rin falls unconscious, feverish and near death. When she awakens, she sees the Empress, who recognizes Rin's connection to the gods and heals her before disappearing.

Chapter 12

Rin awakens in the basement of Sinegard, confused about why she is being detained. Master Jun visits and explains she is being contained for safety after displaying fiery abilities. She demands to see Jiang, but no one will bring him. Kitay visits and updates her on the aftermath of the battle. The Federation retreated but will likely attack again. Sinegard is being evacuated and the students drafted into the army. Jiang is still missing.

General Irjah visits and informs Rin she will join the Cike, the Empress's assassins, rather than a main division. This is for her safety, as her Speerly abilities would cause conflict. Altan Trengsin, the only other living Speerly, arrives and will be her commander in the Cike. Rin is awestruck to meet her childhood hero.

Altan explains the Cike's role and assures Rin the other members are like her - shamans. Rin prepares to march with Altan's squad to Khurdalain, where the Empress has established a front. Altan explains the strategic importance of defending Khurdalain. Rin feels excitement about the mission despite the danger.

Chapter 13

The chapter begins with Altan training Rin in combat, trying to teach her to channel the Phoenix's power during battle. He explains she needs to focus past her opponent's weapon and impose her will on the god.

The Cike arrive in Khurdalain, under siege by the Federation. They meet the other Cike members - Qara, Ramsa, Baji, Unegen, Aratsha, and Suni. Each has unique abilities from the god they channel. Altan tries to coordinate battle plans with the Tiger Warlord Jun, who treats the Cike with disdain.

Rin settles into the Cike headquarters and barracks. She receives her dose of poppy seeds from Enki, who carefully rations the psychedelics. During a meal, Suni returns from a mission deranged. He attacks Unegen until Altan calms him down. Altan is able to bring Suni back to his senses through an intimate ritual.

Chapter 14

The Cike ambush a Federation fleet sailing to reinforce troops in Khurdalain. Altan devises a plan to trap the boats in a marsh and burn them. During the battle, Rin struggles to summon the Phoenix god's power while under the influence of opium. She becomes disoriented and is nearly killed before Altan intervenes. Altan fully transforms into a fiery apparition and destroys the fleet. After their victory, the Cike celebrate around a bonfire. Altan advises Rin to cultivate her anger to better control her abilities, contradicting Master Jiang's teachings about caution and control.

Chapter 15

In this chapter, the Federation delegates come to Khurdalain under the pretense of surrendering, but it is revealed to be a ruse. They bring chests of salt and sugar as a peace offering, but it is actually explosive saltpeter. When Ramsa realizes this, it is too late, and the delegates detonate the explosives, devastating Khurdalain.

In the aftermath, Rin struggles to comprehend the horrific destruction and death around her. She tries to help the injured civilians but feels useless in the face of such devastation. The city reels but pulls together to treat the wounded and mourn the dead.

Rin expects a Federation attack to follow, but it does not come. She wonders if the Federation is trying to weaken Khurdalain mentally and emotionally. The Cike feel responsible, realizing that despite their powers, they cannot undo the damage done. A tense silence settles over Khurdalain as they brace for the Federation's next move.

Chapter 16

In chapter 16, the Cike struggle to respond after the Federation's devastating bombing of Khurdalain. Altan becomes obsessed with devising counterattacks, pushing his soldiers to their limits on reckless missions. The people of Khurdalain grow suspicious and violent as the occupation continues.

Rin has trouble summoning the Phoenix's powers during training with Altan. She is haunted by visions of the Speerly Woman warning her against using the dangerous god's abilities. Altan appears exhausted and vulnerable at times, showing the strain of command.

Just when the situation seems hopeless, reinforcements arrive at the gates - the Seventh Division led by the Dragon Warlord. Rin spots her friend Nezha, miraculously healed, among the soldiers. Their arrival renews her spirit and resolve to fight back.

Chapter 17

In this chapter, Rin and Nezha are sent to investigate reports of a dangerous creature called a chimei that is attacking people in the city. They find mutilated bodies and encounter the beast, which can shapeshift and manipulate their emotions by taking on the appearance of loved ones.

Rin struggles when it looks like her adopted brother Kesegi, while Nezha freezes when it appears as a little girl. After breaking free of its influence, Rin realizes they must burn its face to defeat it. She manages to kill the chimei while it looks like Altan, despite its pleas for mercy.

Afterward, Rin and Nezha discuss how the chimei exploited their past losses. Rin wonders if she can now channel the rage needed to fully summon the Phoenix. Nezha apologizes for his past behavior and the two seem to reconcile. When Rin returns, she struggles to face Altan after violently killing his likeness.

Chapter 18

In this chapter, Altan and Rin discuss the dire situation in Khurdalain as the siege continues. The Nikara forces are stretched thin trying to hold the city. When Qara has a seizure, Altan rushes out to help her brother Chaghan, who has returned injured from a mission. Chaghan is revealed to be Altan's lieutenant and has a spiritual bond with Qara.

Later, Chaghan confronts Rin about her struggles to summon the Phoenix. Their argument angers Rin, who complains about Altan's leadership. Chaghan defends Altan, saying command is difficult for him, but warns that Altan is cracking under the pressure and will break when Khurdalain falls. Chaghan criticizes Rin for being insubordinate and failing to support Altan. He orders her to learn to call the Phoenix to help Altan. The chapter highlights the fraying leadership and morale as the Cike tries to hold the besieged city.

Chapter 19

In chapter 19, Rin and Nezha are part of a joint assault between the Cike and the Seventh Division against Federation forces defending the wharf in Khurdalain. During the battle, a poisonous fog is unleashed by the Federation, killing many Nikara soldiers. Nezha is trapped in the fog, but Altan prevents Rin from trying to rescue him, prioritizing capturing an enemy soldier. Rin is furious with Altan for letting Nezha die.

The gas attack causes panic in Khurdalain. While evacuating, Altan confronts Rin about her insubordination. Their argument escalates until Rin summons the Phoenix against Altan. Though initially surprised, Altan overpowers Rin with his own flames, reestablishing his authority over her. But he seems pleased that Rin is finally able to channel the Phoenix's powers in battle.

Chapter 20

In chapter 20, Chaghan takes Rin to a divination room to ask the Talwu, a mystical creature, about the mysterious Speerly woman who has been haunting Rin's visions. The Talwu has Rin cast coins to generate a hexagram, which contains ominous warnings about destruction, betrayal, and suffering to come. Chaghan is deeply troubled by the reading and tells Rin they must warn Altan to leave Khurdalain immediately.

Altan is initially skeptical but agrees to interrogate a Federation prisoner for more information. He viciously tortures the man until he reveals the attack on Khurdalain was just a distraction - the main Federation army has found a mountain pass to invade the Nikara capital at Golyn Niis. Altan callously kills the prisoner after getting the information. Rin is disturbed by Altan's cruelty. Chaghan's divination is confirmed, so Altan agrees they must hurry to defend Golyn Niis from imminent attack.

Chapter 21

In Chapter 21, the Cike arrive in Golyn Niis to find the city destroyed and its people massacred by the Federation army. They travel through the city in horror, witnessing elaborate scenes of brutal torture and mutilation of civilians. Altan struggles to maintain composure in the face of the genocide. The Cike search for survivors, eventually finding Rin's friend Kitay, who recounts how the city fell. The Empress fled rather than stand with her people.

Rin finds her classmate Venka traumatized among the survivors. Venka describes the horrific sexual violence she endured and begs Rin to avenge the women by killing the Federation soldiers. Later, Rin seeks out Altan for comfort but finds him smoking opium in the library, revealing his own trauma. The Cike are devastated by the destruction of Golyn Niis and unsure how to respond.

Chapter 22

In Chapter 22, Altan and Chaghan have an intense argument about Altan's plan to raise an army of powerful shamans. Chaghan accuses Altan of wanting to unleash dangerous beings imprisoned under the Chuluu Korikh mountain. Altan insists this army is necessary to protect Nikan from the Federation. Chaghan refuses to help, warning Altan he will only bring ruin.

Rin overhears their argument and confronts Chaghan, demanding to know more about Altan's plan. Chaghan explains the source of Altan's immense power - the torture and experiments he endured for years as a captive of the Federation. This suffering fuels Altan's rage and connection to the Phoenix. Chaghan says Altan is obsessed with vengeance and cannot be reasoned with.

Seeing the devastation in Golyn Niis, Rin comes to agree with Altan's methods. She finds him smoking opium in the library and joins him, sharing in his hatred of the Federation. Altan tells Rin he is going to the prison under the mountain and asks if she will help him unleash the army of shamans. Despite knowing they will be unleashing dangerous beings, Rin pledges her allegiance to Altan. She takes his hand, committing to stay with him and help raise his supernatural army.

Chapter 23

In this chapter, Altan and Rin travel to the Chuluu Korikh mountain to free the imprisoned shamans inside. They find the mountain acts as a mystical prison cut off from the power of the Pantheon. Inside, carved records reveal thousands of shamans have been immured over centuries.

Rin locates Master Jiang, who was imprisoned after the battle at Sinegard. Jiang refuses to help, warning that freeing the mountain's unstable gods into the mortal realm will have disastrous consequences. But Altan remains obsessed with raising an army, insisting he can control them.

They free the mad shaman Feylen, but he attacks Altan, seeking to escape the mountain. Though Altan calms him briefly, Feylen tricks Altan and escapes outside. When Rin and Altan pursue him, they are ambushed by Federation soldiers who force them back into the mountain, cutting them off from their powers. Rin and Altan are captured, their plan to unleash the mountain's gods thwarted.

Chapter 24

Rin wakes up bound in a wagon being transported by Federation soldiers. She sees they are passing through a village that has been abandoned and looted by fleeing Nikara. At a Federation research facility, Rin and Altan are tortured by Dr. Shiro, who is trying to learn the secret of their shamanic powers. After being drugged, Rin and Altan escape to the spirit realm. Guided by the ghosts of their Speerly ancestors, they return with enhanced abilities. They break free, kill Dr. Shiro, and flee the facility. But they are cornered at a dock by the Federation army. Altan sacrifices himself by immolating the fleet of ships. He tells Rin to swim to Speer and avenge their people. Rin jumps into the sea as Altan erupts in a massive fiery explosion.

Chapter 25

In this chapter, Rin survives the explosion that killed Altan and swims for days to reach the island of Speer. Exhausted and hallucinating, she finds herself on a beach covered in bones and skulls. Following instructions from Altan's spirit, Rin makes her way inland and discovers the ruins of the Speerly temple, buried underground.

Inside the temple, Rin confronts the spirit of the Speerly queen who betrayed her people to the Red Emperor. Rin rejects the queen's warnings and summons the Phoenix god. The Phoenix forces Rin to acknowledge that her choices led her here, seeking revenge. Rin agrees to become the Phoenix's avatar, sacrificing her humanity.

The Phoenix imbues Rin with its destructive power, transforming her into a conduit for its divine flames. Through Rin, the Phoenix unleashes its fury on the Federation's capital island, Mugen. Millions of lives are extinguished in an instant. Overwhelmed by the power and deaths she caused, Rin struggles to hold onto her sanity and sense of purpose. She has succeeded in her mission, but at a terrible cost.

Chapter 26

Rin wakes up on a ship with the Cike, having been rescued after destroying the Mugenese island. She learns the extent of the devastation she caused and is disturbed when Kitay condemns her actions. Rin insists the Mugenese deserved punishment and declares she now wants vengeance against the Empress for betraying them.

The Cike hold a funeral for Altan and appoint Rin as their new commander per Altan's wishes. Rin and Chaghan make a pact to get revenge on their enemies. Rin comes to believe she chose her actions freely in service of the gods and feels fully responsible for the destruction she has wrought. She resolves to continue using her powers to reshape the world as she sees fit.