The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
Fang Runin (Rin) is a war orphan living with opium-dealing foster parents who physically abuse her and treat her like a slave, which is miserable enough. But when they arrange a match for her at age fourteen with a twice-divorced merchant three times her age, Rin has finally had enough. She comes up with an escape plan, managing to hold off her foster parents’ marriage plans for her for the time being through a combination of threats and promises. Rin spends every spare waking moment during the next two years studying for the Keju, a national test to find the brightest students in the empire to admit to the Academies, even burning herself with hot candle wax to keep herself awake and focused as she crams for the test. And it works: Rin does so well on the Keju that she’s admitted to Sinegard, the military school for the most elite students in the Nikara Empire.
It seems like a dream come true, but Rin’s problems are far from over. As a dark-skinned peasant with no family name or wealth, she’s shunned and mocked by most of her classmates. Characteristically, Rin fights back both physically ― which only gets her more ostracized ― and scholastically, by throwing herself into her class studies like she’s fighting a war. She finds a teacher, Master Jiang, an extremely peculiar man with an unusual gift for the art of shamanism, and begins learning from him how to access higher powers.
If the story thus far sounds like a fairly standard, if Chinese-inspired, road to triumphing over adversity, debut author R.F. Kuang has far more in mind in The Poppy War (2018), a Nebula and Locus award-nominated novel. When Rin finishes her studies at Sinegard we’re only two-fifths of the way through the book, and terrible experiences await her as a member of the Empress’s militia, particularly when she’s assigned to the infamous thirteenth division. The Nikara Empire has already had two Poppy Wars against the Federation of Mugen, a land divided from their country by only a narrow sea, and hostilities between the countries explode in the latter half of The Poppy War.
The similarities to the conflicts between China and Japan are readily apparent, and in fact Kuang has deliberately created a fantasy version of the twentieth century conflicts between these countries, complete with an analog of the Nanjing Massacre. The Poppy War is a close look at the underside of war, all of the cruelties, treacheries, and suffering that war brings with it, and the prices people pay, both individually and as a society.
Kuang does not pull her punches: the brutality and cruelty continue to build throughout the pages of this book, building a terrible picture of the worst that’s in humanity. The triggers are almost too numerous to list, but include self-harm, physical abuse from an admired superior, drug use, rape, vast amounts of violence, murder, and even genocide. The addition of fantasy elements to this tale ― the magical powers that come when people are god-chosen ― are not comforting or charming; rather, they magnify the effects of the hatred and revenge that are in the hearts of Rin and other characters.
Rin is a difficult character to like ― even Master Jiang tells her that she’s too reckless, holds grudges, and cultivates her anger and rage until it explodes ― though there’s much to admire in her determination and sheer grit. She fights with her foster family, fellow students, teachers, enemies, fellow soldiers, and even the gods. She totally rules at rote memorization and sheer willpower, though! But her single-minded determination plays a negative role as well as a positive one in Rin’s life, and her anger and resentment lead her to some incredibly dark decisions.
The Poppy War is an extremely intense, grim and gritty military fantasy in a Chinese-inspired country. Bitterness, betrayal, pain, death and genocide haunt the characters and the pages of this book. It wasn’t really an enjoyable read for me (grimdark fantasy is aggressively not my thing), but I have to acknowledge the scholarship that went into the creation of this novel and the power of its storytelling. Rin’s story will be continued in The Dragon Republic, due in August 2019, and a third book in the series is in the works.