The Poppy War: deconstructing expectations

Book cover: The Poppy War - R F Kuang (gloriously beautiful black and white illustration of an archer)Supernatural heroes won the Second Poppy War. Now war orphan Rin is determined to escape a future of marriage and drug running for her foster parents. She will fight herself to win a place at the Empire’s prestigious military academy – and fight everyone else to keep it. Can she learn enough to keep her country safe from the resurgent Mugen Federation?

I’d heard two things about The Poppy War: that it was very, very good, and that sections would be hard to read. Loosely based on early twentieth century Chinese history, it is set in a fantasy empire recovering from a brutal foreign occupation. The Dragon Emperor, the Vipress and the Gatekeeper freed Nikan from oppression with inexplicable, unstoppable magic; while two of these heroes are long-since vanished, the Vipress still rules the Empire.

The Empire provided for the many orphans of the Second Poppy War with a mandate forcing households with fewer than three children to adopt; but there was no requirement that the orphans be cherished. Rin can’t wait to escape her drug-dealing foster parents, and confronted with their plan to marry her off to a local trade official she sets her sights on winning a place at Sinegard instead.

It’s an impossible goal: only a handful pass the famous Keju exam at all, and only the very best in the country are sent to Sinegard. Anything less than a perfect score will see her married off to a man she is expected to murder to further the Fang’s business. But Rin is nothing if not determined. Her response to every hurdle is to push herself harder. Sleep, food, and well-being are all resources to be burned up in pursuit of her goal.

Her single-minded lack of self-regard stands her in good stead at Sinegard – only to realise that her struggles have barely begun. Rin’s egalitarian ideas about the Keju are punctured fast. She’s one of only three girls in her year (…an unusually high number, natch) and her low birth is as obvious as her dark skin and southern accent. Sinegard is an elite school – and for everybody else, that means it’s for the elite. Only the best families can afford for their kids to study for years, rather than putting them to work. Only the richest have the money for the tutors that ensure their kids come top of the Keju.

Rin is an instant target in a ruthless education system that expects to lose 20% of its students in the first year, and which is only intermittently interested in ensuring student safety. The first year exams include a pit fighting tournament: Sinegard wants its students smart, strong and privileged.

The first half of The Poppy War channels lots of familiar tropes and does so well. The narrative is structured around school classes, school bullies, outsider allies and a mysterious teacher whose subject is a school joke. The charm is in its short-tempered, stubborn protagonist and the gorgeous construction of the Chinese fantasy world. It’s far too easy to lose sight of the tales of the Trifecta and be lulled into thinking this is a mundane setting (although the world-building at times inspired gloomy thoughts about the non-existent line between grimdark and historically accurate). Even when you do, it’s fascinating. While the genre sees more non-European fantasy settings each year, it’s still rare enough to stand out.

But as Rin’s studies progress, the hints increase that Nikan is not the world as we know it (…or perhaps it is. The Nikara don’t believe in the supernatural either). Rin wants to believe there’s a supernatural dimension to her brutal world; but it’s only gradually shown that this is indeed a complex multiverse of gods and shamans, where channelling the divine offers unlimited power and uncertain sanity.

…assuming Rin can survive her training – and the return of the Mugenese. The second half of The Poppy War sees the old enemy invade again; and I cannot overstate how brutal this is (pausing to read up on the Japanese invasion of China in WWII didn’t help: yes, it was just as bad, although Kuang has applied her unflinching imagination to the horrors). It makes for bloody hard reading; we bear witness alongside a horrified Rin. Ultimately, we bear witness as Rin’s rage and determination to save her country lead her to choices that are – even in the face of all that has happened – morally questionable at best, unforgivable at worst.

If you aren’t equipped to deal with a narrative that does not flinch from every form of abuse, rape as a weapon, human experimentation, and how people justify genocide – don’t read this book. I thought I was, but the second half of the book still left me reeling, emotionally bruised and intellectually flinching. To be clear: this never feels sensationalised. Kuang has said she studies and writes about these things to bear witness; that she doesn’t believe we can heal until we confront the past. But that process is every bit as hard as it sounds.

There’s no escaping just how good Kuang is as a writer. Her storytelling is engaging; her choices in terms of character development are bold. The arcs are provocative, even as her protagonists remain painfully human. I recognised Rin’s need for praise; I cherished her idealism; I couldn’t argue with her fierce fury and desire for revenge. Certainly, there are moments that made me frown (the narrative repeatedly validates Rin’s habit of self-harm to motivate herself; her best friend makes ableist comments that go unchallenged), but regardless of whether I agreed with their choices – or liked them as people – I was invested in all the characters’ journeys. I was even heart-broken by the fates of characters I was encouraged to hate.

The Poppy War is one of those books (like Godblind) that leaves me wondering about my definition of grimdark. With their focus on relentless women and the thread of resistance and hope woven through their narratives, I feel they skim grimdark to become… well, pitch black fantasy. And I say that in spite of Rin’s choices and how she justifies them. I am still left believing in better – although I suppose I may feel like a chump once I read the sequel.

I expect to see The Poppy War on the Best of 2018 list of everyone who reads it; it will certainly be on mine. It’s not just an absurdly good debut, it’s a stunning novel – no further qualification required. I shall be waiting eagerly for The Dragon Republic.

*****

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

Full list of content warnings, courtesy of R F Kuang