Review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
I finished R.F. Kuang’s debut novel, The Poppy War, yesterday and I’m still reeling.
This is a brilliant and devastating book, set in a secondary fantasy world inspired by the events of early twentieth century China and the aesthetics of a much earlier time period. It’s gotten significant buzz for its unflinching portrayal of war’s brutality--“A masterpiece by grimdark’s newest and perhaps darkest daughter” Fantasy BookReview raved —and indeed, it is dark. Drawing heavily from real-world events of the Sino-Japanese wars, how could it not be? Yet though there are grim elements from the beginning, there are also snappy one-liners that had me laughing out loud, a winningly snarky voice, wild magic (with a dash of whimsy) and captivating characters that breathe and grow. It’s an unflinching look at the worst of violence, trauma, and vengeance. And it’s also a coming-of-age story, a story about friendship, and a thrilling, propulsive ride which tore my heart to pieces.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Rin, a war orphan in a poor province of the Nikara Empire. Rin is raised by unloving, opium-trafficking foster parents who want to marry her off to a much older man. Her only hope of escaping this life is to test well on the Keju, an imperial exam which most students spend years studying for. Because her foster parents will not pay tuition for her, Rin must test well enough to gain entrance to the tuition-free Sinegard Academy, a military training school which is the most prestigious academy in the entire Empire.
Rin, of course, rises to the occasion; she defies all odds to enter Sinegard Academy. It’s just the beginning of her trials, as Rin claws her way up from poor war orphan to the heights of power. Sinegard Academy is brutal, and this first part of the book unfolds much like a classic coming-of-age-brutal-boarding-school story (think Ender’s Game). Rin endures bullying from both peers and faculty. She finds friends and mentors. The narrative is taut and compelling; Rin suffers, but her snarky viewpoint also makes for some wonderful humor. Bright spots include her friendship with classmate Kitay and an apprenticeship with a decidedly eccentric master. At this stage, a reader might be forgiven for thinking this book a well-done YA (young adult fiction).
And then the story takes a sharp turn.
From the beginning, clouds of war have loomed over the narrative. In the second part of the novel, those clouds finally break: war comes to the Nikara Empire in the form of an invasion by the neighboring Federation of Mugen, and Rin and her classmates join the Militia to defend their homeland. To survive, Rin must master a terrifying power which she discovered during her student days at Sinegard, and which her master has cautioned her not to use. She has to struggle for her place again within a new hierarchy. Rin’s ferocious ambition is driven by deep wells of resentment and rage, but she meets someone whose rage and suffering dwarfs her own in ways she cannot even guess.
The story gets only darker from there.
The Poppy War is inspired by events from the Second Sino-Japanese War (the conflict between China and Japan during World War II). This is a book that looks at generational trauma, genocide, vengeance, and the worst of humanity’s inhumanity. It does this through a lens of fantasy: a world where powerful shamans can literally call down the power of gods. Where a seer can traverse the spirit-world, literal demons can pour through a gate, and genocide can be carried out on a supernatural scale. Yet the most horrific and graphic details of this fictional war are grounded in actual history. Chapter 21 of this book is based partly on the Nanking Massacre; those who have read a little bit on that atrocity may recognize details from historical accounts of the real mutilations, torture, rapes, and murder that occurred. There are also allusions to the horrific medical experiments of Japan’s Unit 731. Rin does not herself witness the massacre and rapes of Chapter 21, only the aftermath of it. She does not experience the worst of what the real Unit 731 had to offer. Still, what is shown on the page is horrific enough, and to understand that these horrors are based on actual events is to give the book an additional moral weight. To remember that those real-life atrocities are not in the ancient past, but part of actual living memory is. . . to feel that weight almost unbearably.
What can you do when an enemy refuses to recognize you as human? Rin’s friend Kitay asks this at one point. What happens when you yourself stop recognizing another person as human? An entire group of people as human? These are the questions at the base of this book. In the tradition of fantasy epics, destruction occurs in The Poppy War on an epic scale. . . but the author knows full well that it’s only on an individual level that tragedy can really be felt. As Rin muses near the end:
“The death of one soldier was a tragedy, because she could imagine the pain he felt at the very end: the hopes he had, the finest details like the way he put on his uniform, whether he had a family, whether he had kids whom he told he would see right after he came back from the war. His life was an entire world constructed around him, and the passing of that was a tragedy.
But she could not possibly multiply that by a thousand. That kind of thinking did not compute. The scale was unimaginable. . .
Those weren’t lives.
They were numbers.”
The Poppy War creates and focuses on individual lives to follow a trajectory of upheaval and tragedy. In a way, Rin’s story is both coming-of-age and (possibly?) villain origin story. She is fierce, driven, angry, indomitable, flawed. She and her comrades are both larger-than-life and intensely human. The side characters grow alongside her; her one-time school tormentor Nezha in particular undergoes some wonderful character development, and her commander Altan is one of the most tragically complicated, infuriating, heart-breaking, and memorable characters I’ve ever met. Author K.F. Kuang carefully lays out her starting pieces for this propulsive journey. In retrospect, not a sentence seems wasted; every detail advances plot and character and an understanding of this world. At over 500 pages, The Poppy War feels like a remarkably lean read, even as it also evokes a convincing depth-of-world. It’s the first novel of a planned trilogy, and I’m very excited to follow Rin’s continuing story and see where she and her comrades end up.
*I’ve not yet described in detail the wild magic system (ingestion of hallucinogenic drugs to channel the power of gods), or other elements of fantasy. Trust me: it’s wonderful. During the war, Rin finds herself in a special military unit of misfit magic-users, and the merry band is like something from the X-men, but drawing on Chinese legends/myths (one of the soldiers channels the Monkey God; another resembles a fox spirit)
**For all the darkness there is, as I mentioned before, some wonderful humor and snark. The dialogue snaps. Rin’s best friend Kitay had me with his perfect description of their rich, haughty, classmate Nezha: “You’d be a prick too if your family was both rich and attractive.”
***Oh, Altan. (Sob).