A fantasy book I actually liked?
I’m about two years late to the hype train, yeah, but at least I finished the book.
About the Book
Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Genre: fantasy, historical fantasy
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
“When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.
But surprises aren’t always good.
Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.
For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .
Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late. “
“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”
I was nervous to read this book for a long time because I’d heard how brutal it was (as a blanket content warning I do think I should mention that the book has very extreme and graphic violence in Part III), but eventually I took the plunge.
Overall, I thought that it was pretty good.
(This review contains spoilers, so proceed with caution)
The Poppy War is probably best classified as historical-fantasy, as it is set in a fantasy world that draws heavily from 20th century Chinese history. The First and Second Poppy Wars are the Opium Wars, the Nikara Empire is China, Speer is Taiwan, The Federation of Mugen is imperial Japan, the Hesperians are Europeans, and the Third Poppy War is the Sino-Japanese War/WW2 when Japan invaded China.
This much I could tell just from prior knowledge but I would highly recommend Read by Tiffany’s very well-researched and explained post on all of the historical context of the entire series because it really helped me understand the events in the book more from a historical lens. What is extremely disturbing is that the most sickeningly horrifying scenes in this book were based on real events.
Let’s talk about Rin.
She was a great protagonist because of her definitive anti-hero-ness. To get all literary with the terms, an anti-hero is a main character who does not have the usual heroic qualities. You’re supposed to root for this character, but they’re also not necessarily the “good guy.”
Rin starts the book as an orphan living in a poor village; her step family plans to marry her off so she decides she needs to escape, and the only way to do so is to get a stellar score on the empire-wide exam and get into a military academy she can afford to attend. So she manipulates and blackmails a teacher into personally tutoring her, and studies, all day, literally burning herself with wax to stay focused.
That’s just a *little* intense.
But I guess it worked, because through brute force rote memorization she qualifies for the most prestigious military academy, Sinegard, and escapes her family (yay!). Once there her character arc continues to grow– she’s headstrong, and disturbingly willing to sacrifice lives in the name of strategy.
According to the author, Rin is meant to represent Mao Zedong (the dictator who killed the most people in all of history) which I would imagine becomes more relevant in the rest of the series which is based on the Chinese Civil War.
She craves power and will do anything for it.
“She felt about praise the way that addicts felt about opium. Each time she received a fresh infusion of flattery, she could think only about how to get more of it. Achievement was a high. Failure was worse than withdrawal.”
War themes in The Poppy War
Like many other books with lots of violence the overall message of this book is actually, yes, war is futile.
Honestly this is a conclusion I think anyone can come to. Who actually thinks war is logical? I once read somewhere, I cannot remember which book, but a character said something like instead of wars, leaders should just play a game of chess. I’m down with that.
Kuang never explicitly states the book’s message, but instead shows it to the reader with the perversion of the book’s events. Nikan and Mugen are both extremely militaristic, we have children training to kill each other
There’s also the entire character arc with Rin at the end of the book, which really brought home the message of the novel.
After witnessing the aftermath of a massacre of civilians by Federation troops (this is based on the Rape of Nanking and is the part I was talking about when I said this book gets really graphic), Rin vows to get revenge. She decides to settle for nothing less than the absolute destruction of the Federation of Mugen. And at the end of the novel, she carries it out, calling upon the gods to raze the entire country in vengeance.
The part of the book that really stuck in my mind was this exchange between Rin and her friend Kitay:
“You don’t know what [The Federation] did,” she said in a low whisper. “What they were planning. They were going to kill us all. They don’t care about human lives. They—”
“They’re monsters! I know! I was at Golyn Niis! I lay amid the corpses for days! But you—” Kitay swallowed, choking on his words. “You turned around and did the exact same thing. Civilians. Innocents. Children, Rin. You just buried an entire country and you don’t feel a thing.”
“They were monsters!” Rin shrieked. “They were not human!”
Kitay opened his mouth. No sound came out. He closed it. When he finally spoke again, it sounded as if he was close to tears. “Have you ever considered,” he said slowly, “that that was exactly what they thought of us?”
Colonialism, Classism & Colorism in The Poppy War
The Poppy War also touches on colonialism and colorism. The Hesperians are obviously supposed to be European colonists and missionaries in China, and of course Mugan is imperial Japan.
Rin comes from a poor, rural town in the south of Nikan, so when she arrives at Sinegard which is full of affluent Northerners, she’s ridiculed for her accent and looked down upon for her darker skin tone. It’s mentioned that pale skin is the ideal in the capital city, and then there’s this really interesting quote:
“Power dictates acceptability,” Kitay mused. “If the capital had been built in Tikany, I’m sure we’d be running around dark as wood bark.”
Food for thought.
Inequity is also touched upon, as it’s explained that wealthier kids with access to tutors and current textbooks are some of the only ones who do well on the exam. An interesting way to explore the standardized testing equity debate without cramming an opinion down the readers’ throats.
There was one particular thing that was jarring about this book and that was the writing style whiplash.
I saw someone else point this out, but the writing would switch quite suddenly from super elegant prose and descriptions to random f-bombs and modern-day phrasing.
You stupid shapes, she thought over and over again like a mantra. You stupid f*cking shapes. On the thirteenth day she had a horrible sensation of being trapped, as if buried within stone…
Do you see how suddenly it switched?
There’s also the huge tonal shift between the first part of the book and the third part of the book.
The first part is very YA-esque, with a plot and tone quite reminiscent of Harry Potter or Ender’s Game, with Rin going to a military academy, having mean teachers, rivalries with other students, being Extra Special and Talented. Then the war starts, Part 2 begins the shift and then by Part 3 the book has gone so dark you can’t see your hand in front of you.
Overall, I thought this book was very good albeit very very dark and heavy. It’s kind of hard to believe this was a debut novel, and I’ll definitely be reading whatever else R.F. Kuang puts out in the future.
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