Fantasy has been dominated by Western inspirations and European locales for years. Even when books transported characters to decidedly non-Western environments, the heroes were still white. But non-European inspired stories have always been there. Everyone wants to see their selves reflected in the stories they read, and consumers of fantasy understand representation more than most. In the last decade or so, the literary world has seen more high-profile fantasy books coming from non-western authors in non-western settings. The Poppy War is one such book, bringing readers to a world inspired by China. However, this fantasy is not for the faint of heart. Like the real-world country’s history, this book is blood and war.
Rebecca Kuang, writing under the pen name R. F. Kuang, wrote this novel at the age of nineteen in college. Many college students write novels, but few every write with such mastery and fewer still manage to publish their stories to a wide audience. The Poppy War is the first of a trilogy whose second book, The Dragon Republic, comes out later this year. Kuang herself was born in China but grew up in Dallas. Her father’s family experienced first-hand the Japanese conquest of Hunan during the second Sino-Japanese War, concurrent with World War II. On her mother’s side, Kuang’s grandfather fought under the controversial Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang led the Chinese forces against the Communist Revolution and later ruled The Republic of China, or Taiwan, until his death. Despite being in opposition to Mao Zedong, Chiang can be regarded as a dictator himself. Kuang herself is young. She did not live through any of this. But that kind of family history never leaves you and is apparent in her writing.
The setting of The Poppy War is a fictional country called the Nikara Empire. Aesthetically, it is based on the Song dynasty, a reign that lasted over three-hundred years. The plot, however, is very much inspired by the Sino-Japanese wars. The story makes reference to two previous Poppy Wars, with fears of a third looming on the Horizon. This is supposed to be Nikara at its height, but political infighting has weakened the country as the Empress struggles to maintain control over rival province leaders. When the third Poppy War begins, Nikara is vulnerable and separated. The main antagonist country is the Mugen Federation, based on the Empire of Japan. It is an island nation completely unified under its belief in its emperor. Reference is also made to a country called Hesperia, but not much is known about them other than they intervened on Nikara’s behalf in the previous Poppy War and negotiated the treaty that ended the war. Hesperia is vaguely European but mostly absent from the story.
The plot of The Poppy War follows a teenage girl name Fang Runin, or Rin for short. She is a war orphan, adopted by opium smugglers after the previous Poppy War. The opening of the book finds her gaining entrance into the prestigious military academy at Sinegard, the nation’s capital. For the first half the book, the story actually follows many Young Adult fiction conventions. Immediately, Rin makes friends, rivals, and enemies. She constantly struggles against students of higher stations and educations. Rin must always prove herself to be worth more than her background. Very typical teen fantasy storytelling but engrossing all the same. Rin is not a normal heroine and embraces her anger to survive. Shortly, we also see that Rin has magic. A god, the Phoenix, has chosen her for some purpose and the story threatens to turn into a Chosen One tale. But everything changes when the Mugen Federation attacks. Rin is pressed into service on the front-lines and sees the war first-hand. The book takes a turn here and enters into grimdark territory.
The Poppy War is a dark story. I came into this based off a recommendation from a friend, a recommendation which did not spoil anything about the plot or characters or twist in tone. Based on the cover and the general plot outline on the back cover, I foolishly assumed this would be typical Young Adult dumb fantasy, a genre I adore. And, for the first-half as we read about Rin’s training in Sinegard, The Poppy War is YA. Then little things begin to build up. The cruelty of Rin’s rival in the school is stronger than in other books. Once Rin realizes a god is calling to her, she uses drugs and hallucinogenics to reach out and travel to the pantheon of the gods. Rin begins to embrace the rage that engulfs her in response to the mostly uncaring cruelty. Then, the book reaches its halfway point. I believed, mistakenly, as this was the first in a trilogy, the entire first book would take place in the school. The Mugen invasion completely changes the game. Rin witnesses drug addition at its worst as people cope with the invasion. The soldiers of Mugen enact unspeakable cruelty on the Nikara whom they see as less than human. There is also implied violence against women when Rin’s squadron rescues women from a “relaxation house.” Rin sees this and becomes cruel herself. How could one not?
Like with any book, there are criticisms. This is Kuang’s first novel, so some criticisms are respected. A first novel is a trial run. A second novel is a implementation of mastery. The Poppy War suffers from a slight pacing issue. The war comes into the plot immediately and without much lead up. We know it is coming since the it’s the title of the book, but this book has a lot of ground to cover and can sometimes feel like it is rushing to the next plot point. Rin’s motivations are also slightly inconsistent. At the start, she just wants to escape her home and raise her station in life. She is not thinking ahead, but only looking at tomorrow. At a certain point, she becomes a true patriot. This is development we do not see but are told at a certain point. The change never quite makes senses in context but informs her actions for the rest of the novel. Then there is the matter of the Mugen Federation. Mugen is very transparently based off of the Japanese Empire and is portrayed from the viewpoint of someone who is descended from their victims. To that end, Mugen is portrayed as wholly evil in the book and Rin repays their cruelty with a war crime in the end. But Japan is no longer the empire and has tried its hardest to leave that history behind. Without the proper context, the portrayal of Mugen in The Poppy War could be construed as racist towards the Japanese. The fact that the story is first-person and told exclusively from Rin’s point-of-view helps, but one cannot help but confuse Rin’s opinions with Kuang’s opinions. There is also an unhealthy, ill-advised move towards romance which, thankfully, does not last long.
The Poppy War is a book that stays with you long after you finish. It sits with you. It talks to you, reminds you of the darkness and rage you have just witnessed. It challenges you to confront the violence and pointlessness of war without rose-tinted glasses. Even days after finishing the book, I am not quite certain I liked or enjoyed reading it. But I have been thinking about it. It was not a comfortable book to read, but war is not comfortable and that may be just the point. In the end, I am glad I read The Poppy War and I will be gladder still to see what R. F. Kuang does next.
The Poppy War can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 8 days
Next on the List: Deepest Blue, by Mindy Tarquini