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Review of The Poppy War by

The Poppy War

by R.F. Kuang

4 out of 5 stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Reviewed .

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The Poppy War might be the first novel by R.F. Kuang that I added to my to-read list, yet it has taken me this long to get to it. Oops. Shout-out to the colleague who lent me her copy. I’m excited that I was finally able to read this and see that, once again, the hype around a Kuang novel is justified. This is a war novel dressed up in fantasy clothes—and I’m not mad about it.

Rin Fang is a war orphan, adopted reluctantly by drug dealers in the south of the empire. Desperate to escape her life, she sets her mind at acing the nation-wide standardized tests that will land her a spot at Nikan’s elite military academy. When she succeeds, she finds herself in a totally alien society on the eve of an invasion by Nikan’s oldest enemy. More than that, Rin discovers she is connected to an ancient and vengeful power—some might call it a god—that is eager for her to use her pent-up rage to lash out against her and Nikan’s enemies.

The fantasy aspect of The Poppy War is a slow burn indeed. When the book starts off, Rin herself is very skeptical of magic. She wants to distance herself from what she considers to be pastoral ideas and superstitions from her origins in a remote province. So the first part of the book is much more a fish-out-of-water, underdog story, wherein Kuang has us sympathize with Rin as she perseveres against discrimination and alienation. Sometimes Rin’s actions feel shocking, deliberately so I would imagine, and at points her decisions verge on making her unlikeable. I loved following Rin’s descent towards being a villain rather than a hero.

However, the secondary characters in this story are truly what makes it. They are important foils to Rin, whether it’s the innocent and well-meaning Kitay, the venomous and self-assured Nezha, or the deprecating and damaged Jiang—each of them offers her a shattered-glass reflection of a shard of herself. One of the tragedies of this story is that Rin never has a chance to ask herself who she wants to be for her. In her childhood, she was the Fangs’ servant and shopgirl. In her young adulthood, she is forging herself into a weapon for the empire—and as her magical abilities become apparent, she loses agency, at least at first, because she demonstrates her potential usefulness to the Empress.

Speaking of which—I wish we had learned more about her. Nearly the entire book is told from Rin’s limited third-person perspective except for a narrow chapter where we follow the ill-fated commander of the Cike and briefly meet the Empress in person. She’s an intriguing character both because of the legends repeated about her rise to power and her role during the previous Poppy War and also because of her personal connection to Altan and the Speerlies. It’s implied the Empress is every bit as cunning as the viper totem she has adopted, willing to do whatever it takes to hold on to power. In a way, she might be a prototypical Rin, but I wish Kuang had made that comparison more explicit.

As it is, the plot settles into a kind of predictable cycle in which Rin says, “I’m going to do a thing,” and someone else says, “Don’t do the thing, Rin. Don’t do it” and then Rin goes and does the thing. And the consequences of the thing turn out to be varying combinations of awesome/terrifying/unforeseen. At one point, Rin and Altan travel to a remote prison and kind-of-but-not-quite intentionally unleash an ancient evil upon the land—you know, pretty standard fantasy fare. I appreciate how Kuang basically hands Rin a ton of raw power but then says, “She’s not a Mary Sue: she is going to fuck up and it’s going to be real bad.” While this makes aspects of the plot predictable, it also adds a layer of entertaining characterization to a story that is otherwise quite heavy.

Indeed, although The Poppy War has many themes, its meditation on the limits of individual power is probably my favourite. Kuang quite handily subverts the trope that a single, incredibly powerful hero can turn the tide of a war. It’s not only arguable but probably certain that everything Rin does in this story makes the situation worse. She lashes out with her power, acts without thinking of anything except wanting to harm and revenge. The decision-makers in this book who don’t have access to magic repeatedly admonish Rin and hesitate to use her and others like her in battle, and it turns out they are right to do so. This is a fun departure from how most other fantasy novels portray the protagonist as an overpowered and superior alternative to, you know, the entire country’s army.

Others far more qualified than me have written about The Poppy War’s parallels to Chinese history, particularly the Nanjing Massacre. All I can say is that I found this aspect of the novel intriguing, and it certainly made me more curious about a part of history that simply isn’t taught in Canadian schools. Unlike Babel, which is recognizably counterfactual history with a layer of fantasy, The Poppy War is closer to something like the Kushiel novels in terms of how it’s a secondary world closely modelled after our own. I hope we get to see more of this in the second and third books of the trilogy.

The copy I borrowed from a friend has a stamp on the front cover proclaiming The Poppy War as one of the “Time magazine 100 greatest fantasy books.” I don’t know if I would go that far. It’s captivating, to be sure—although it took me a while to get around to reviewing, I read this book basically over a weekend. It’s a great fantasy novel. But I don’t know if I would call it one of the 100 greatest. For all her storytelling prowess, Kuang hasn’t actually built something original or daring when it comes to the fantastical elements of this book. Rin’s magical abilities, how she accesses them, her struggle to control them—it’s all done well, but it’s also very standard. No, The Poppy War’s greatness lies not in its fantasy but in its ability to mirror reality. To get us to question the heroics and glorifying of war that we see all too often in our own history and historical fiction. To remind us that a single person can seldom set things right, but given enough power and trauma, a single person can often make things go very wrong.


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