The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
2018, Harper Voyager
Content Warnings for abuse, rape, body horror, self-harm, drug use, graphic violence and depictions of death, and genocide.
I received an e-arc of the Poppy War from HarperFiction UK in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to them, and to the author, for providing me with this beautiful tale of relentless misery.
The Poppy War follows Fang Runin, or Rin, a war orphan from a remote southern province of the Nikara empire. Growing up in an abusive foster environment, with no prospects except a forced marriage to a man much older than her, Rin instead pins her hopes on the Keju, an examination which, if she passes, could propel her into an elite school and into the empire’s ruling classes. In fact, Rin has her eye on the best of these schools, the military Sinegard Academy. Throwing everything she has at the examination – including self-harm as a study aid – Rin aces the test, but in doing so launches herself into a world where being a dark-skinned, impoverished peasant girl makes it nearly impossible to survive. While working herself to the bone to overcome the prejudices and barriers set against her, she draws the notice of Jiang, the enigmatic tutor whose “Lore” classes are a running joke among students for the fact he never actually turns up to teach them anything. It turns out that Lore covers the rare art of Shamanism, for which Rin has an aptitude, and that the powers she wields are tied to the whims of extraordinarily dangerous gods, requiring a great deal of training and self-control to even survive.
If this is all sounding like a dark but classic iteration of the “kid at fighting magic school” trope so far, it doesn’t stay that way. Throughout this first part of the novel, Kuang is carefully weaving in strands of recent history and current events about the Nikara, and their eastern neighbours, the Mugen Federation. Recent wars between the two nations have left Nikara precariously in control of its own territory for now, but at an immensely high cost – to win the second Poppy War, Nikara’s generals allowed Mugen to take control of the island of Speer, a Nikaran colony whose population was racially and culturally distinct from the rest of the empire. Mugen murdered every single person on this island, an action which drew the attentions of Hesperia (this setting’s equivalent of “The West”) and led to their assisting Nikara against Mugen, on the condition that the sale of opium be allowed in Nikara’s territory. Nikara also, apparently, drew on the assistance of three divinely-blessed humans, but of these three, only the Empress remains, and any supernatural element to her power has since been greatly downplayed. In narrative terms, all of these historical elements come crashing to the fore just before the book’s halfway mark, and the scale of the story suddenly becomes much larger.
I should note that I didn’t love this book immediately. The first couple of chapters felt rushed, and the style in which information was being conveyed seemed oddly disjointed. I think a large part of this was getting used to Kuang’s style, which is very matter-of-fact and makes use of plenty of time skips when the narrative requires, particularly in the first section. This means we are thrown immediately into an almost montage-style sequence of Rin preparing for the Keju, as well as interacting with characters who we immediately suspect are not actually going to be important once she inevitably gets into school. However, once the book reaches Sinegard the style stopped being an issue for me, and I wouldn’t have wanted the narrative to spend any more time on Rin’s preparation than it did. I’m just glad I didn’t judge this book too early and dismiss it accordingly, because it gets much better!
The Poppy War also gets extremely dark, with a consistent escalation of violence and war which mirror and complicate Rin’s personal journey and her relationship with the immensely destructive divine forces to which she potentially has access. Once the Mugen Federation attacks, Rin and her classmates have their education come to an early, brutal end and are thrown immediately into the war (this leaves a fair bit of unfinished business behind, which is realistic but disappointing to those of us who would have liked to see some serious payoff of the feud between Rin and weapons master Jun). Kuang doesn’t pull her punches in describing the effects of the violence, particularly when it comes to the results of more technologically advanced weaponry used by the Mugen. However, the brutality in this section is nothing compared to the last 20% of the book, where atrocities strongly reminiscent of events in the Second Sino-Japanese war and World War 2 come into play. This is, of course, hard to read, but it didn’t feel gratuitous, and there were certainly plot relevant reasons for why Rin had to see the utter brutality of the Mugen invasion in order to shape her final actions and the story’s grim but fitting conclusion.
In terms of setting, the Nikara Empire and the Mugen Federation draw extremely heavily on China and Japan respectively, and particularly on events around the late 19th and early 20th century. Again, early on I was sceptical about the extent to which elements were going to be wholesale lifted from the real world: in chapter two, for example, Rin’s introduction to the big city of Sinegard is conducted through anecdotes and instances of selfishness and deception which were identical to incidents from 21st century China. It’s rather jarring to have a fantasy city defined through a character recounting folk wisdom which is transparently based on legal precedents from 2006 Nanjing! This also got less frustrating as the book went on, and there was plenty of blending of different historical points and introduction of new elements (or, perhaps, just a lot of things I didn’t recognise – my knowledge of pre-1950 Chinese history is patchy) which stopped things from feeling stale, but a couple of the big set pieces – particularly, as noted, in the last part of the book – drew a great deal from recognisable historical events.
I left The Poppy War with unanswered questions about the effects of these parallels. On the one hand, I think it makes the use of brutal scenes less questionable: whatever else you may feel about the book’s most difficult moments, you can’t argue that they are unrealistic because events like the Rape of Nanjing really did happen, in our world. On the other hand, however, I never shook off the discomfort of characters discussing other races in the book as “not human” or “primitive”, especially when it came to the Speerlies, who have very little voice in the book beyond two troubled, brutalised characters. What does it mean to have a Han Chinese-coded character casually discuss the primitiveness and expendability of a race who are recognisably (though less directly coded as) Aboriginal Taiwanese? And for those Aboriginal Taiwanese characters to apparently have crimson eyes as a racial trait? To be clear, obviously the author does not come down on the side of tactical genocide and racism just because some of her characters normalise it, but having racial dynamics which are almost-but-not-quite real world felt like it pushed some of this material into an odd grey area where characters’ use of unexamined stereotypes became acceptable without being challenged to the extent I’d have liked to see. Then again, none of the characters in The Poppy War are good people, so expecting them to react to fantasy-world dehumanisation in a way which punches back against real-world racism is a rather tall order, and probably an unfair criticism.
This certainly isn’t going to be a book for everyone, and although I found it a compelling read after a few chapters, I still have some reservations about what I’ve just read. However, if you have the stomach for it, the Poppy War is an extremely rewarding, if grim tale, whose parallels with real-world events makes its brutality difficult to dismiss.
Rating: Seven imprisoned revenge gods out of ten