On May 1st, Harper Voyager (an imprint of HarperCollins) will publish The Poppy War, a debut novel by Georgetown senior R.F. Kuang. Rebecca Kuang wrote The Poppy War in three months and started seeking an agent at age nineteen. A month or two after that, she had a book deal. The Poppy War may have had an uncommonly smooth path to publication, but then again, it is an uncommonly good book.
Rebecca Kuang studies Chinese history, with a focus on military strategy, collective trauma, and war memorials. The Poppy War has clear ties to her studies, a dark epic drawing from 20th-century Chinese history, specifically Japanese war crimes and the rise of Mao.
Rin is an orphaned peasant girl in the backwater Rooster Province, but despite all the odds, she aces the national exam and gets into the country’s most elite military academy, Sinegard. But Rin’s struggles are not over, and she still faces discrimination against her class, her skin color, and her gender. As hard as she worked for the exam, she will need to work even harder to succeed at Sinegard. Beyond the limits of her studies, other conflicts lurk. Ancient gods are not dead, myths are realities, and a war with the Federation of Mugen is on the horizon.
The Poppy War’s writing is intense and gripping, yet there’s times when I needed to put the book down and clear my head. When I say that The Poppy War draws from 20th century Chinese history, I mean that there are often very direct parallels. When the Federation of Mugen invades, the horrors they perpetuate often have one-to-one correspondences with Japanese war crimes in China. For instance, in perhaps the most brutal section of the novel, Rin encounters a ruins of a city the Federation has utterly destroyed, leaving only a few, traumatized survivors who tell her their stories. If you’re familiar with your history, you’ll recognize the Rape of Nanking, also referred to as the Massacre of Nanking, when Japanese troops invaded the city of Chinese city of Nanking, killing around 300,000 people (including civilians) and sexually assaulting 20,000 to 80,000 women (CW: sexual violence). That was the scene where I had to walk away for a while, but I also knew that nothing Rin was hearing about was beyond what really happened in history. In fact, the real life history is worse in many ways (more details are provided in the link, but trigger warning for all of it). Another parallel I noticed was Unit 734, a site of human experimentation by the Japanese, which involved sexual assault, vivisection, and germ warfare. Again, Kuang’s version is brutal but still sadly less horrific than the reality.
I have already seen The Poppy War being described as “grimdark” for this reason. While I would agree that the book is dark, I am not sure that I would describe it as “grimdark.” I suppose it depends on what definitions you are using, but I always saw grimdark stories as being dark just to be edgy, often using violence as an aesthetic. The brutality in Kuang’s work is not there as an aesthetic. The darkness in her work is tied closely to our own history; she doesn’t have to imagine the horrible things people can do to each other because she’s working off of actual historical events. Somehow, the reality is worse than what any of us could imagine.
For these reasons, The Poppy War will not be a book for everyone and not a book to be read at any time. If you want a fun, escapist read, telling you to go read The Poppy War would be a bit like telling you to go watch Schindler’s List. But make no mistake — The Poppy War may be a dark book, but it is a powerful one. It will stay with me for a long time to come, and I have little doubt that it will be one of the most talked about fantasy novels of 2018.