It’s that time of the week again! Today we take a deep dive into Chapter 4 of The Poppy War, where the infamous Altan Trengsin makes his first appearance.
Reminder that these posts will contain spoilers for the ENTIRE book. If you haven’t finished reading The Poppy War yet, feel free to check back when you are done.
We quickly learn that Sinegard Academy is pretty much a glorified bootcamp, where students are literally left to either sink or swim.
So when the Weapons Master, Sonnen, taught them the correct proportions of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal necessary to mix the incendiary fire powder that powered war rockets, he also had them create their impromptu missile.
Sonnen is an underrated teacher.
I love the little Easter eggs, like the references to Sunzi’s Principles of War or Mengzi.
“Altan Trengsin learned it in a night,” said Irjah
The class exchanged exasperated looks. The masters had been singing the praises of Altan Trengsin since the start of the term.
I am just imagining the Masters of Sinegard trading Chuck Norris-styled memes about Altan Trengsin throughout campus.
“Okay, but we’re not Altan”
“Then try to be,” said Irjah.
This is The Worst advice! And you call yourself a Master of Strategy.
Autumn had just started to bite at Sinegard. A cold gust of wind accompanied them as they raced up the steps one morning. It rustled through the trees in thunderous crescendo.
This passage is just gorgeous!
Jiang comes along during a Combat lesson singing “The Gatekeeper’s Touches”, an erotic folk song. Tell me this isn’t the best foreshadowing ever.
“You’re not doing any gardening. You are here purely to annoy me.”
“I think you’re flattering yourself.”
This is the one true ship of The Poppy War. Rebecca said it’s canon ok.
Sunzi’s a drama queen and an arse, who even execute concubines to made an inane point about military order?
The drill periods are ran by Jeeha and Kureel, and the combat advice they dish out seem legit, also:
“We aren’t here to be sophisticated. We’re here to fuck people up.”
Ain’t that The Poppy War in one sentence.
Nezha is showing off, apparently this is a regular occurrence. We learn about the Yin’s family inherited martial arts: a specific form of kicks. Rin points out it looks more like a performative than practical, and Kitay agrees. Growing up on wuxia drama, I immediately recognise these references to Kungfu and various martial arts form, some have basis in reality (such as the well-known Shaolin Kungfu), and others dreamed up by writers like Jin Yong (what kid didn’t grow up wanting to learn Jiuyin Zhenjing). Speaking Jin Yong, the first of his Condor Hero trilogy was recently translated into English, go check it out!
“Just as you said, I only now one kick.”
At this point, Nezha and Rin gets into another fight. He underestimates her and she takes him down with a well-placed kick to the groin. It’s weird looking back on this now because I used to delight watching Nezha get his comeuppance, but now I. MUST. PROTECT. HIM. (He totally deserved this one though)
When Nezha decides to ostracise Rin, Kitay remains her only loyal friend – this is why he’s the best. Also because he gets lines like this one:
“Power dictates acceptability. If the capital had been built in Tikany, I’m sure we’d be running around dark as wood bark.”
Venka tells Rin she does not deserve to be in Sinegard Academy, not the same way that Nezha does – because Rin is ‘just here to fill up quota… the Keju has to seem fair.’ This is incredibly infuriating, as it mirrors the real life challenges marginalised individual faces – even when they have to work twice as hard to overcome societal barriers, their success is attributed to affirmative action.
The first years are woken up by Raban in the middle of the night to witness the fighting pit, featuring the legendary Altan Trengsin. We find out Sonnen is forced to referee these matches because he’s the youngest master, aww!
Fifth year Altan Trengsin was associated with every school record, was every master’s favourite student, the exception to every rule. He had become a running joke within their class.
‘Can you piss over the wall into town? Altan can.’
I just KNEW they had their own version of Chuck Norris memes for Altan.
We learn that Altan is the last of the Speerly, darker skin with scarlet red eyes. We also learn that the Speerly put clan names (or surname) last, to the surprise of even Kitay. I love little cultural details like this.
Altan easily beats two apprentices, Kobin and Kureel. He’s not only an extraordinarily skilled fighter, he also possesses a mean streak – visible when he toyed with Kureel during their match. Altan’s match with Tobi, the mean apprentice who showed Rin around on the first day of school, is more drawn out. Jiang will reveal in a later chapter that these two have a long-term rivalry (what’s this, Chaghan has some competition?).
Rin’s class is promptly enamoured with Altan after seeing his fighting prowess, although it’s noted that Kitay is particularly besotted. It will be interesting to see how Kitay’s opinion of Altan changes when he potentially learns more about him in future books.
“They are primitive. Scarcely more intelligent than children. I heard they are more closely related to monkeys than human beings… They’re good at fighting, but not much else.”
There is also a strong undercurrent of racism towards the Speerly, doubtless the work of the Red Emperor and the long line of rulers after him. Apparently, the Red Emperor’s legendary love for Tearza did not prevent him from subjugating her people or spreading racist ideologies which made the Speerly’s military slavery more palatable. Rin immediately empathises with Altan, as she’s learned first hand that Sinegardians have difficulties seeing pass her skin colour.
“I heard he’s doped up.”
Rin assumed that Nezha’s accusations of Altan’s drug abuse stemmed from jealousy – and while that is probably the case because Nezha is consistently petty, we now know that there is a lot of truth his words. I wonder how much intel the Dragon warlord shares with his son. Perhaps it’s common knowledge amongst the Warlords that the Empire’s used opium to subjugate the Speerlies. Although Nezha does mention later on that Altan’s addiction is an open secret with the older apprentices.
Altan, like all Speerly who can channel The Phoenix, has red irises. As an optometrist, I find this amusing because the only reason why anyone would have red irises in real life is ocular albinism, which would leave them with extremely poor vision and light-sensitivity. However, I can overlook it for the aesthetics.
Opium smokers were yellowed, useless sacks of flesh. They did not fight like Altan did. The did not move like Altan did. They were not perfect, lethal animals of graceful beauty.
Rin’s hero worship here makes the ending of Chapter 21, where she discovers that Altan’s addiction, all the more heartbreaking.
“Six months after the Non-Aggression Pact was signed, Empress Su Daji formally banned the possession and use of all psychoactive substances within Nikan’s borders…”
The events prior to The Poppy War continues to mirror that of the first Opium wars. It just makes sense for Hesperia to be involved in this somehow, and I have fingers crossed that Nikara’s relationship with the West will be examined in the sequel.
The class is too distracted by thoughts of Altan to pay attention to Yim. Kitay gives the people what they want and asks Yim to talk about Speer instead. We learn that Speer’s annexation occurred during the reign of Mai’rinnen Tearza, Speer’s last warrior queen. Legend has it that love drove her to desperation and suicide, upon which the Speerly Council accepted Nikara’s rule. The class is quick to dismiss Tearza and we get a dose of casual misogyny from Nezha. Looking back now, Tearza’s resolute will and refusal to give in to The Phoenix is likely the cause of her death.
“They still believe in shamans down in Tikany?”
The majority of the nobility appears to reject the idea of shamanism as folktale and superstition, although the Empire employ The Cike and presumably have some ideas about their abilities. I wonder if anything occurred between the end of The Second Poppy War and current day to eradicate belief in shamanism.
“The Speerlies were a barbaric, war-obsessed race,”
The Nikaran is incredibly racist towards the Speerly, everyone from Nezha to Master Yim dismissing the entire race of people as barbarian who are only good at fighting. I suppose we have The Red Emperor to thank for that, in his haste to use Speer as a mighty combat force, he subjugated the entire race of people and reduced their identity to their fighting prowess. Whenever I think about how much the Speerly as a race has been through, and how Altan is the remaining living embodiment of Speer, I really sympathise with his rage.
“Historians believe they had bizarre rituals in which they pledged themselves to their god—the Vermilion Phoenix of the South.”
We learn later on that many of the Speerly were susceptible to opium addiction as it gave them relief from the call of the Phoenix. From what we’ve seen from Rin and Tearza, it’s a cruel and blood-thirsty deity – but I wonder if all other deities demand sacrifices like it does.
The Vermillion bird is one of the Four Symbols of the Chinese Constellation. We learned earlier on in the book that Nikara also has these four spirits as their cardinal gods. Aside from the Phoenix, there’s the Black Tortoise, Azure Dragon, and White Tiger.
“Altan is the last scion of a dead race. If the Speerlies prayed to their god, it clearly didn’t save them.”
I really want to punch Master Yim sometimes, this is one of those time.
“That’s the difference between you and me,” muttered Nezha. “I’ve trained for this my entire life. You don’t get to just stroll in here and embarrass me. You understand? You’re nothing.”
Nezha uses their next Combat training class as an outlet to bully Rin. I forgot he was such an elitist snob when I came to love him in the later chapters. He deserved all those punches and beating Rin gave him and more.
Jun stops their fight, but Nezha gets off with a week of suspension while Rin is banned from all future Combat classes. The Academy is rigged in the favour of the aristocrats, and this is when Rin begins to realise that there’s some fundamental flaws with the Keju system. Undoubtedly, we will see this divide between the Warlords and the peasants addressed again in the future novels.
Wow, there was a lot of exposition and information within chapter 4. It’s also the first time we meet the infamous Altan Trengsin. What did you first think of him? I remember the days when I assumed he was Rin’s One True Love Interest, how wrong and naïve I was. The boy doesn’t need love, he needs a lifetime of therapy (and Chaghan by his side).