Book Review: R. F. Kuang's "The Poppy War"

 

 

Fantasy is a popular genre in the publishing world and in pop culture. No matter if the book or video game is geared towards kids or adults, fantasies grab hold of our hearts and stay there for a long, long time, maybe even forever. In my case, I spend most of my time in young adult fantasies rather than adult ones, but it is thanks to the young adult community on Twitter that I found out about R. F. Kuang’s debut adult fantasy novel The Poppy War. The reason why so many people were paying attention to this particular novel is because apparently some people thought the book was young adult since the main character, Fang Runin, otherwise known as Rin, starts as a pre-teen and quickly develops into a teenger in the story. However, people in the industry, as well as some readers and reviewers, were quick to point out that just because a character is a teenager does not mean the book is young adult. At its core, the ‘young adult vs adult’ debate was about representation and trigger warnings; Rin’s experiences and the heart of the book itself are not written for teenagers (although there is crossover appeal) as the target audience but for adults. Put differently, Kuang wrote the book specifically for adults and thus why its content is regarded as unsuited for teens. All in all, the buzz surrounding the book caught my attention and I decided to pick it up.

I read the Kindle edition in June 2018; the book came out that May. It is a story inspired on Chinese history and Japanese history (centering the former), but it could also be science fiction, historical fantasy, or all of those at once. The novel is divided into three different parts, and the first part alone is a rollercoaster. This series is meant to be a trilogy, and the first part of The Poppy War feels like a trilogy in and of itself. It is a long book, so take your time with it. Do not rush; do not try to read it in one or two sittings. Take every moment in, and experience all the things that will come with the ride. Even though the book is harrowing, there are moments where I laughed so hard my belly hurt. I keep asking: How do you put into words how much you love a book? R. F. Kuang’s debut adult fantasy The Poppy War plunged itself into my heart, destroyed it, offered a sliver of hope, and then told me to wait for the sequel because so much more was coming.

Did I tell you I love it?

Rin is a force of nature. She is committed, impatient, impulsive, and thirsty for power. She wants to be on top. She is extremely complex, and you understand her reasoning at all times, though you might not agree with her decisions. This novel is basically her proving everyone else wrong, so you root for her right from the very beginning. She is unapologetic yet apologizes when necessary (when it’s convenient for her), bold, brave, afraid, raw, honest, flawed, messed up, and all the better or worse for all the aforementioned. At times, she is a spectator as opposed to stating her opinion on certain matters, which I thought was great because there is a large cast and I found everyone interesting and wanted to know how their minds worked. Secondary characters are great, and we get a pretty good sense of who everyone is because of having Rin there but listening to them.

Two secondary characters I absolutely love are Nezha and Venka. First, Nezha is so twisted I love him. I feel like we do not get enough of him and that made me want to see him even more. I started off despising Nezha, and then he starts making certain decisions, and then stuff happens and you start rooting for him. His arc is fantastic in this book, and I definitely need more. Second, Venka takes you through all the feelings and emotions. She is a key character in the story and I totally need to see more of her, too. I would love to see her working alongside Rin after everything that happens. Some of her moments will make you bite your fist, sprawl on the floor, and stare into nothing as you try to figure out what to do with yourself.

Now, I will say that this book contains trigger warnings for everything you can possibly think of, and you should pay attention. Kuang dedicated a whole blog post to trigger warnings, titled: on the necessity of brutality: why i went there, because reviewers and critics were pointing out problematic representation in the book. But, in Kuang’s words: “The Poppy War is centered around the 1937 Rape of Nanjing.” The name of the historical event itself suggests that the book is about something which cannot be sanitized. If you do not know what this event is about, I suggest you read Kuang’s blogpost for more information, and then decide whether you want to read The Poppy War or not. Kuang is a Chinese woman who writes about the history of her country, specifically China’s 20th century. Regardless of your decision, I highly suggest you look for more information and learn about what happened. Events such as the ones she centers—dark, difficult and “forgotten”—are the reasons why I love fiction. Academia will only tell you so much; it is through the work of fiction writers, particularly Black people, POC (people of color), WOC (women of color), and women in general, that I have learned so much more than the Western imperial/colonial narratives academia allows. I had never heard of the Rape of Nanjing until I came across Kuang’s work, and I am grateful to have learned of it through the eyes of someone who has a direct connection to it.

I will give a brief summary of how the book is divided, but for HarperCollins’ official description of The Poppy War, click here.

The first part of the novel is about Rin getting to Sinegard, Nikan’s most elite military school, about military strategy, and history. Rin is from the Nikara Empire, a land that has fought in different Poppy Wars against the Federation of Mugen. During her time at school, she learns that the Federation of Mugen is getting ready for another war against the Nikara Empire. Rin takes history lessons, discusses strategies of war, and learns to fight. Rin also discovers she has an aptitude for shamanism, a dangerous power in her world. But to access that power, she must ingest the psychedelic for which wars have been fought—the poppy. As time passes, the war grows near and Rin’s gift grows stronger, and the line between what or who is more dangerous starts to blur. The second part of the novel takes a complete shift. The action focuses on preparing for war as they realize the Federation of Mugen’s troops are close, and it is where we start seeing the magic system in full action. The magic system is deeply imbedded in shamanism, and it is dense to read at times because it is complex, but it’s worth it; the scenes with the gods are spectacular. Though we do not get to see much of the gods until when the war actually begins in part two, and then in the third part. The third part focuses on the war and on its brutal aftermath. It is this part where the hardest chapters are, and where we see the full buildup for the next book.

There are many areas I know Kuang will improve as she grows as a writer. For a debut, I think she does a stellar job and positions herself as someone with a strong and compelling voice, and as someone who isn’t afraid to take risks. All in all, I cannot wait to see how Kuang continues to develop this world. I am so looking forward to seeing where she takes all the characters in the upcoming sequel: The Dragon Republic. The Poppy War is fantastic, and The Dragon Republic will no doubt be equally terrifying and fascinating. As Fonda Lee urges, I am bracing myself for what’s coming.

For HarperCollins’ description of The Dragon Republic, click here.

(Image from HarperCollins)

Reading The Poppy War months after Hurricanes Irma and María made me deeply connect with Rin. Her motivations, goals, and emotions were so close to my own in the aftermath of Hurricane María that the book became a place of refuge. I love Rin because she wants it all and goes after it no matter what others think. I love her because she embraces stereotypes and shatters them. I love her because she is the Other—the outsider, the “evil” one, and the one who rises above it all. Rin wants in all, and that is ok. Much of the criticism towards “unconventional” women characters is because they are “too much.” In fiction, men are not questioned when they want it all, when they are petty and arrogant, when they steal and murder to get what they want and where they want to be, so why should a woman be? She is flawed, yes, just as us, and she has every right to choose whatever she wants and do whatever she wants and we can say HELL YES. We can empathize with her. We can root for her.

 

In sum, there is something spectacular Kuang does in this book: she breaks the rules. I think my commentary conveys as much, but it is worth repeating. R. F. Kuang breaks the rules and The Poppy War is so much better for it. In his article Why So Many Fantasy Novels Are Obsessed With Academia, Jason Heke discusses tropes within the fantasy genre throughout the years and puts forward why Kuang’s work stands out among the crowd. Heke posits that “Unlike … the boys of modern fantasy, Rin, the odd girl out, does not become some enlightened, noble soul through adequate schooling. She ends up caustic, disobedient, selfish, vengeful, more dark than light.” Rin is the villain, and that is exactly why I love her. I read The Poppy War and went, ‘This is my book.’ I waited until the end to say it, but I knew it from the first part.

Dedicated to my fellow collegiates.

(Image from Illumicrate’s Twitter)