About a year ago I started to hear buzz about a new fantasy book in a world modeled on east Asia. I adore Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty books and other diverse settings for my fantasy novels, so The Poppy War quickly rose on the list of books I wanted to read. The fact that the author, R.F. Kuang, was a young Chinese-American woman studying modern Chinese history both added to the intrigue, even if it also threw up a caution flag.
The Poppy War opens with the official examination that will determine the future for the test-takers––that is, which academy they can attend. For Rin, a poor war orphan abused by her drug-smuggling adopted parents in the poor, rural, isolated South of the Nikara Empire, it provides one chance: earn the top score and earn admission to Sinegard, the academy for the children of warlords, or resign herself to an unwanted marriage.
Of course, getting into the academy creates new problems. Rin finds her new classmates, and particularly Nezha, insufferably arrogant, while they find her unprepared and uncouth. Most of her teachers don’t have the same concerns, as she shows potential and an flair for rash and risky solutions to impossible situations. Their problems arise in that Rin doesn’t always consider the consequences of her strategies. Nevertheless Strategy master Irjah and the eccentric Lore master Jiang take a particular interest in this impetuous student who, in addition to scoring well relative to her peers, is drawn to reexamining the official story of the destruction of Speer, a tributary of the Nikara, at the end of the last war with Mugen.
Rin thrives, despite the obstacles, but her life is again thrown into disarray when the neighboring nation, the Mugen federation, invades Nikara, determined to finish what they started in the previous war––a war only ended after brutal destruction of Speer and the intervention from distant powers. The trainees are thrown into war before they are ready; Rin is assigned to the shadowy Cike, a secretive force of assassins and shamans, and faces a choice: tap into her latent shamanic powers and destroy the Mugen by striking a deal with the Phoenix god or remain human and allow their crimes to go unpunished, losing all of Nikara, and quite possibly her life, in the process.
The Poppy War is a propulsive grimdark fantasy based on events in Chinese history where bad things happen and there are few good options. For all of the brutality and self-harm that Rin commits, though, its basic plot points, particularly through the first half of the book, follow a traditional wish-fulfillment path. Orphan works hard and turns out to be brilliant, goes to a school where she makes an enemy of one student and one teacher, but is adopted by the school’s eccentric master, who teaches her that she has powers she didn’t know about. Its Chinese setting and female lead are just trappings on this basic structure.
And this is fine. The novel is eminently readable and there are plenty of these stories built around white men, so there is virtue in putting this sort of story in Asian and female clothes. But neither did it make The Poppy War stand out.
What had initially piqued my interest in this story was the promise of Chinese history written. And is it. Chinese history oozes from the pages, starting with the map that posits Nikara (very)roughly the shape of China and Mugen Japan, the attention to bias within the Nikara empire, the primary geopolitical conflict modeled on the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) right down to the playing out of the Rape of Nanking, and a sage-strategist whose maxims are literally those of Sun Tzu. After the fact, I saw Kuang say she modeled Rin’s trajectory on that of Mao.
And here’s the thing: I didn’t love it.
The fact that stories were ripped straight from the headlines of history consequences. Kuang fictionalized the names and places, but kept the maxims, plots, and even broad geography, which, in some ways, diminished the world-building because it came across like her contribution was to add a spot of magic and then strip away the complexity and depth of the real world. There were a couple of points where this wasn’t true in ways that hinted her promise, but these were the exception. Either dropping this story as a fictionalized history (think: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) or keeping the plots while doing more to fictionalize and develop the setting would have, in my opinion, mitigated all of these problems.
This is what I meant when I said that Kuang’s youth raised a red flag. Both of these features strike me as common to young authors. The fact that she wrote a propulsive, engaging, and fun novel while tackling an ambitious set of humanistic and moral questions, including radical inequality, is an enormous achievement. I enjoyed The Poppy War, even if I was simultaneously disappointed. While I am not going to hail it as the next great fantasy novel, my main takeaway is that I hope Kuang has a long career and am excited to see what she puts out next.
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I have been on a fantasy kick of late, in large part because I’m too tired to do the heavy lifting of some of the Literature I have on my shelf. I recently finished S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and just began George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Blood.