The Poppy War is the debut novel of R.F. Kuang and draws inspiration from Chinese history, myth, and wuxia martial stories. It starts off quite lightly with a heroine that is easy to root for in the beginning. But it turns itself into a grim and dark tale when she must make some devastating choices in the course of a terrifying war. There are some spoilers in this review and I consider it necessary because it may be unsettling to some.
Rin was raised as a war orphan from the previous poppy war against the Mugen Federation. She lives with a family who treat her as nothing more than a servant. They can’t wait to be rid of their imperial obligation, and even plan to marry her off for money. She has other plans. Rin has a knack for learning and decides to train herself for the national entrance exams, which theoretically are not only open to all classes, but give an egalitarian opportunity for upward social and economic mobility by entering a university.
Unfortunately for a girl like Rin, even if she were to pass the exams, she has no money to pay for a university education. Her only chance is to score in the top one percent of the test takers to enter the Imperial War college in the capital city of Sinegard. It doesn’t come easy for her, but she studies and struggles hard enough to make it.
While there however, she finds that the egalitarian idea of the university is not as it seems. She finds herself shunned for her poor background as well as her darker skin. Her only real friend is Kitay, a fellow student, who is from the noble class and has an eidetic memory. Though his memory is photographic, he isn’t necessarily the best student. He is uninterested in martial studies and prefers the comfort of books.
Academy life is not easy for Rin, but she works hard at overcoming the many obstacles that stand in her way, including a Draco Malfoy like figure named Nezha. For her second year it is time for her to become apprenticed to a master to pursue her discipline. Rather than follow the course discipline of strategy, which she excels at, she chooses the arcane and ridiculed discipline of lore, that is of course taught by the school’s most eccentric instructor. And she is the only student.
School life abruptly takes a dark turn as the Mugen Federation begins a war with her country of Nikan by invading its shores. The relative innocent school life is soon replaced by having to fight for real and not in the practice field.
As I’ve mentioned before, much of The Poppy War is based on real Chinese history and it is quite clear that the Empire of Nikan is analogous to China, and that the Mugen Federation is modeled after Japan. The setting is a cross between the Song Dynasty of the first millennium and the 20th Century’s Second Sino-Japanese War. In the strained history of China and Japan, one of the worst stains in history is the Rape of Nanking. China’s official death toll was 350,000 men, women, and children over a six week period. That atrocity is not often taught outside of China. And it is this bit of genocide that influenced R.F. Kuang to write the book initially.
With that warning out of the way, the chapters that do address the equivalent of the Rape of Nanking are graphic, but they are also related after the fact. It is gory, but compared to the real world equivalent, it is pretty tame.
Rin, the protagonist is no Mary Sue, for sure. All her achievements, as great and hard earned as they are in the academy, are illustrated by the author in an almost montage fashion. Some may find time too compressed at some points as there are passages mentioning that it took her a certain amount of months to get something right. But to me that saves the book, an already 500 plus page novel, becoming even longer with unnecessary exposition. Epic fantasy veterans may have a perception that the novel actually reads like a three books in one. This may come from the fact that there are three major parts to it, with the final third being a definite turn towards a dark resolution that does a better job of showing a person’s turn to the dark side of their nature than the Star Wars prequels.
Rin starts off likable and comes across as an almost stereotypical young adult protagonist. But what she initially shows as spunk and determination, we soon realize is impulsiveness and a hot temper. It will be that anger that eventually drives her forward in the final third of the book, to what may initially seem on the surface as the typical heroic finale, but ends up being a disaster of epic proportions. That temper and tendency to lash out also alienates her from the rest of her fellow students.
Nezha, who is initially Rin’s main antagonist, is himself not villainous and is more of a rival. Their antagonism is a clash of egos and class. Yet there is a reason that Nezha is favored among the teachers, he really is bright and accomplished, despite his arrogance and social status. But he and Rin’s fates will become intertwined as the novel goes on, and not particularly for the better.
Kitay remains the most relatable character, as he has no pretensions about his class or upbringing. He ends up being not only Rin’s best friend, but her only friend. He actually grew up with Nezha and shrugs off his insults, whereas they grate on Rin. His goal in life is just to be an imperial scholar serving the empire.
Kuang greatly impresses with her debut novel, and if you are like me, you will have some fun times trying to look for the references to real life Chinese history and legends. Of course the references to the real Rape of Nanking are no joy, but it really could have been a lot worse in it’s depiction of slaughter. Her characters stand out as multi-dimensional. And in the case of Rin, perhaps that multi-dimensional characterization is to a fault. I found myself rooting for her for much of the early portions of the book, and also found her frustrating later on. All this time, I had to remind myself that she and the rest of her fellow classmates are still students in their late teens forced to confront the horrors of war. She has a particular habit of leaping before looking and not caring about the end results of her actions.
The fact that these characters are in their late teens comes across as genuine. Yes, they are afraid, and they are appalled by the true horrors of war. They often make bad decisions when they are thrust into situations of command. The protagonists are far from perfect tropes and have definite flaws. Alton, former darling and superstar of the Academy in particular will make bad decisions that will have dire repercussions for the entire country.
Rebecca Kuang wrote this novel when she was 19 and coaching debate in China during a gap year. She graduated with a degree in Chinese History from Georgetown University a few days after The Poppy War was released. She is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Chinese Studies at Cambridge.
The Poppy War was nominated for Best Novel of 2018 for the Nebula Award, Best Novel for the World Fantasy Award, and best new author for the Hugo Awards. It won the Compton Crook Award for best novel from the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. She is off to a very impressive start to her career. Her follow-up novel The Dragon Republic was released in August.
Kuang joins a growing list of Asian authors winning accolades and recognition within the science fiction and fantasy genre that bring a fresh perspective with their world creation. The Poppy War certainly is a different fantasy take from standard fantasy tropes cluttering the shelves. Its serious views of war and the aftermath of battle will haunt you. There is no glory or greatness in war, only pain, and death. I am glad to have read this book and look forward to reading more from Ms. Kuang.
Final Score: 8/10