The Poppy War
by R.F. Kuang
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.
I received an eARC of The Poppy War from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Hoo boy. This novel is very well-loved, and I did not like it very much for the most part. I’m not the kind of reader who gets nervous about writing negative reviews – this is my book blog, after all, so it’ll have my opinions on it, both good and bad – but I feel like I do need to say sorry to all my fellow fantasy fans who adore this book. Trust me: I wanted to love this, too.
I’m a history nerd who wants to read more Asian-inspired fantasy, so an Asian-inspired fantasy heavily inspired by 20th century Chinese history sounded right up my street, but for some reason this book and I didn’t click.
Now The Poppy War and I didn’t always have this relationship. When I started it I was sure I was going to thoroughly enjoy it. After reading The Sword of Kaigen earlier this year I’ve realised I actually quite enjoy Asian-inspired military fantasy tales, and I was also excited because I’m sure I read somewhere that this novel is a villain origin story inspired by Mao Zedong’s rise to power.
A story about a woman in the military who’s allowed to be angry? Yes please!
And yet… that wasn’t quite the story I got. At least it wasn’t what I expected, and I think part of the problem I had with this novel is that it’s so hyped I was expecting too much from it to begin with.
Rin is a war orphan who’s grown up with her foster family in the south of the Nikara Empire, which is based on China, but when she aces the military tests to avoid an arranged marriage, she’s sent north to Sinegard and the best military school in the empire. For years Nikara has been at war with the Federation of Mugen, based on Japan, and soon enough Rin finds herself caught up in another war.
The first third of this novel I liked! We know from the blurb Rin lands a place in Sinegard, so I’m glad the book didn’t spend too long before she arrived at Sinegard. Part of me wonders if I should complain about the ‘cliché’ of Rin being a poor southerner who’s bullied by her northern classmates, all of whom are the children of wealthy families, but I don’t think we can rightly complain about an abundance of clichés until all people have been able to see themselves in these stories.
Essentially yes, we have seen this set-up plenty of times before, but not necessarily in an Asian-inspired fantasy, so I don’t mind it.
I think the chapters in which Rin was a student at Sinegard were my favourite, but I felt held at a distance and this is something I continued to feel throughout the majority of the novel. It was sometimes hard to know how much time had passed or how old Rin was; I imagined her as a young teenager throughout the entire novel, to be honest, because as soon as she leaves Sinegard she seems to regress into more of a child than she was when she was at school. Imagine my shock when Kuang mentioned, quite near the end of the novel, that she’s 19. She does not read like a 19-year-old, and she certainly doesn’t read like a 19-year-old who’s seen the things she’s seen.
I didn’t realise until fairly recently that I tend to enjoy boarding school settings; I love watching children develop their own friendships and found families in a space where they’re allowed to be away from their parents’ watchful eye, and I love being kicked in the feelings when I can follow these characters from childhood to adulthood. And yet we know very few of Rin’s fellow students by name, and many of the ones we do know we don’t get to learn that much about. Rin herself doesn’t feel that different by the end of the novel than she does at the beginning, in all honesty.
Plus, for a military fantasy with a woman at its centre, this book is still such a sausagefest. Rin didn’t develop a single strong friendship with any other woman in this book and it felt like a real missed opportunity to me. Not only that, but her obsession with Altan infuriated me.
When she’s still a young girl at Sinegard, and Altan is an older, very talented student, I can completely understand why she’s so in awe of him. I can even understand her still being awestruck when she meets him again in the big, bad world, before she learns to treat him as a human being rather than an idol, but this is supposed to be a villain origin story and yet Rin spends the majority of the book trying to receive praise from Altan while he treats her like shit.
Also, while I do deeply sympathise with what we learn Altan has been through and he’s clearly never received the help he needs and I don’t like the way he treats Rin, it bothers me that she’s gone to literally the best military school in the country but she doesn’t know how to follow basic orders? It doesn’t make her a ‘strong female character’ because she answers back, it makes her a brat whom I can’t imagine leading a military campaign.
I don’t want to be so harsh on Rin because she is young and she deserves to make mistakes, like any person, but she’s warned against doing something, does the thing, and then immediately thinks, ‘Oh, turns out that was a bad idea’ and that happens more than once! Duh, Rin! Yes that was a bad idea! I was ready to watch someone fall into villainy because they’d been given no other choice, and there were hints of that, but I never quite believed it. I honestly don’t know how Rin isn’t dead, especially considering the amount of times she was saved by some other dude because she froze during battle.
Again, I know that sounds harsh and I wouldn’t fare any better (I’d be so dead), but Rin seems to have so much potential when she’s at Sinegard, and yet when she’s put into a real battle it’s only then that she realises that war sucks? Really?
I’m wondering if it was some kind of point that Kuang was trying to make, that no school can teach the horrors of war, and I would agree with that. However, plenty of people in real life are trained for the military and do what they are trained for when they’re put in the field. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but it is a fact. I think I had a similar problem with this novel that I had with Veronica Roth’s Chosen Ones in that it’s sold as adult, and I don’t want to say it isn’t when women who write SFF are constantly having their work labelled as YA, but this did feel quite YA to me for the most part. It honestly felt like 500+ pages of Rin trying to impress Altan.
There are, of course, some very violent, gory and harrowing parts of this book that aren’t YA at all. As I mentioned above this novel is based on 20th century Chinese history, which I know very little about, but Kuang herself is a historian who specialises in 20th century China.
Parts of The Poppy War are based on the Nanjing Massacre and Unit 731. If you don’t know what either of those are then I suggest you look them up, but please be warned it’s horrific. It did happen, though, and I think it’s important for the victims of both that we educate ourselves and remember.
I do appreciate that Kuang, through this novel, is teaching a lot of readers (like myself!) about these parts of history we might not know anything about already. Speaking for myself I know I never learned any Chinese history in school. That said, I also felt very held at a distance during these scenes—particularly during the scenes based on the Nanjing Massacre.
Rin sees the aftermath of the massacre, she isn’t there when it’s happening, and it sounds awful to say ‘I’d’ve preferred to see it happening’ because I don’t know that I would at all, but I’m also not sure I felt the full emotional impact because we learned everything in hindsight. Even the scenes based on Unit 731 didn’t feel as horrific as they should have to me, mainly because Dr. Shiro felt a little like a villain you might encounter in a Marvel movie.
I hate saying that. I feel like I’m being so disrespectful, especially when Kuang knows so much more about this subject than me and, as a Chinese-American woman, she also knows the horror of this history far more than I ever could as a British woman. It was upsetting to read and it made my heart ache for all the people who actually suffered what some of Kuang’s fictional characters suffered, but it almost felt a little too close to the real history for it to hit me where it should have.
I know that probably sounds bizarre, but because we know so much of this story is based on Chinese history I found myself thinking ‘I can’t believe China and its people experienced something like this, it must have been awful’ instead of thinking ‘I can’t believe Rin’s seeing all of this, it must be awful’ while I was reading. In a way the history took me out of the story, so while I’m very glad I now know about this history it felt a little like parts of a history textbook had been slipped into a fantasy novel. I’d happily read a non-fiction book about China’s history written by Kuang, but I can’t say I’m interested in reading more of this series.