Author: R.F. Kuang
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy
Pub date: May 2018 (read Nov. 2018)
Disclaimer: Spoiler Review
I’ve been postponing writing this review because I’m not quite sure how to rate or review this book. I read a lot of YA Fantasy and this was so different than everything else I’ve read, it was really refreshing.
The Poppy War falls into the historical fantasy genre. It is set in the fictional Nikan Empire, who has survived two Poppy Wars and is on the brink of a third war with the Federation of Mugen. This world is very much based off of China and Japan and the Second Sino-Japanese War. I think one of the reasons I’ve been postponing this review is because this is based on a conflict I’m not very familiar with and because I think that it’s important to recognize that the author did not write this book for me. I’ve heard that this book is super important and meaningful to many Chinese people and I think the author is really trying to be a voice for that pain in this book.
Because this is such a historically significant book, and there are a lot of plot elements I want to discuss, I can’t write a spoiler-free review for this book. So please don’t read any further if you’re trying to avoid spoilers for this book. In addition, I wanted to acknowledge S. Qiouyi Lu’s review that was posted on Barnes and Nobles website. Because I wasn’t at all familiar with the history behind this book, I had to do some research for this review, and her article was a great starting point for me and influenced my own review. Her review is also a great example of how this book may be more meaningful for Chinese readers and that I likely missed a lot of the cultural and historical context and nuances.
First off, I have to applaud Kuang for this book because it is extremely impressive in scope. It’s a 500+ page novel and I believe it covers about 5 or 6 years of plot. The story starts with our main character Rin at 12 years old. She is a war orphan who wants to prove herself by passing the Keju (national exam) and being accepted into Sinegard, the elite military school. The first half of the book follows the traditional fantasy format, with Rin acing her exam, but then struggling to be accepted among the wealthier students at school. Nikan is on the brink of war and it looms over the students as they study and prepare for eventual positions in the military.
The story followed a pretty predictable arc until the end of Rin’s first year of school. It’s not until Rin pledges Lore that the plot starts to take a turn and you realize that you’ve stumbled upon something totally new. There’s a lot of elements going on in this book and there is really a lot of depth to the plot. In addition to the historical retelling of the Sino-Japanese war, Kuang also weaves a huge element of religion and shamanism into the story, as well as China’s history with opium and drug use. After Rin pledges lore, we learn that, despite what the empire claims about Shamanism being a myth, Rin is indeed a shaman and has the ability to commune with the Gods.
This book has 3 parts, but it kind of felt like 2 separate books to me. The first half of the book is all about Rin getting into school and surviving her studies, but around the 50% mark of the book Nikan is finally catapulted into a war with Mugen. The school term ends abruptly and the students are called upon to defend Sinegard and are assigned to various divisions of the military, This is where I felt like I was starting a new book because the plot changed so drastically in the second half.
The rest of this story is about war and it is gruesome and bloody. Rin’s mentor, Jiang, has always advised Rin against actually calling on the Gods, but in her desperation at the battle of Sinegard, she calls on the fire power of the Phoenix to help the empire win and is subsequently assigned to the special assassination unit of the Nikan Empire. This division is essentially a troop of about 12 shamans, all of who are able to call upon various Gods, with the help of psychedelic drugs, which are illegal in the rest of Nikan, but permitted for the Shamans. I wish I understood enough about Chinese culture to understand the parallels and historical context of religion and drug abuse in China, but unfortunately it was a little over my head, but interesting nonetheless.
It’s a very multi-layered book and the more I reflect on it, the more impressed I am with the author’s ability to weave so many subplots into one novel. I’ve read she actually studied military strategy herself, and it definitely shows. In addition to recounting a piece of history, she also explores many dark themes about power. Rin is conflicted for most of the second half of the book because she spent her entire time at school being taught how to enter the Pantheon (where the Gods live), but is resolutely forbidden from actually calling on the Gods for power. Her and Jiang spend years debating the meaning of life and power. Jiang is reverent about power – there is always a consequence for taking from the Gods and he warns Rin against it.
This contrasts with her commander Altan in the second half of the book, who routinely gets mad at Rin for failing to call on the Phoenix. Rin relates to Altan – she doesn’t understand the point of accessing the Pantheon if not to take a little piece of that power for herself. It is very much a book about war and power. The atrocities of war, the loss of humanity, and how grief and loss can consume a person, transforming them into their very worst nightmare. It explores why genocides are possible and why wars continue to happen over and over again. We never learn from our mistakes. Grief can be blinding and the allure of power can cause people to lose all sense of humanity and commit the same atrocities that caused them the grief in the first place. Rin knows deep down that the power of the Phoenix is too all consuming, that the price will be too high. But there’s only so much pain a person can take before they need to reach out, if they can, and take a piece of that power for themselves. Throw it back at their oppressors.
This is definitely not a book for the faint of heart. It is gruesome. Kuang is not afraid to paint the realities of war and the impact it has on the human psyche. In the plot, she explores several real historical events, including the Nanjing Massacre (Golyn Niis) and Unit 731 (human experimentation). Knowing that these events are based in reality is horrifying and it does make for a very sobering read. I had to do some research about these real life events afterwards, and again, I’ll refer you to Lu’s review for more information.
There were some other smaller plot points that I found really interesting and just wanted to quickly draw attention to. First off, I really liked that this book didn’t have a love story. I kept waiting to see who was going to emerge as the love interest, and no one ever did! In line with this, The Poppy War included the most ballsy discussion of reproductive rights that I think I’ve ever seen in a book! Rin gets her first period at Sinegard at 14. She has no idea what’s happening and is horrified to discover she will have to put up with it once a month. She makes an impulsive decision to have her womb removed to avoid menstruation in the future. It was an interesting portrayal because I think generally a 14 year girl requesting to forfeit her potential to bear children would never be handled like this. Women are pretty much prized in society above all for their ability to bear children, and there’s almost no way any doctor would encourage sterilization on a 14 year old… except if they were poor or a minority, which Rin was (she was darker than many of the other students at Sinegard). Canada and America both have a sad history of forcing or tricking poor and minority women to get sterilized, so I found it believable that the government would be encouraging a peasant girl like Rin from Rooster province to part ways with her fertility. I also appreciated Rin for knowing what she wanted and not regretting the decision later.
But alas, I must admit that I did struggle with the story at times, which prevented me from fully loving it. There was a lot going on in this book, but I found the writing a bit detached at times and sometimes I struggled with picking it up again after putting it down. I think this was mostly related to structure. I said earlier that this felt more like 2 books to me than 1, and for that reason, I think it dragged. It was a little on the long side and I struggled with it after a while. However, I can’t deny the importance of this book and overall, I was incredibly impressed with it. Like I said, this book was not written for me, and I appreciate the author for her unflinching look at this piece of Chinese-Japanese history.