The Poppy War by RF Kuang

A review by JC Kang

Today is May 4, coincidentally the 99th anniversary of the first popular protest in China’s history. Due to the somber tone of The Poppy War, I am eschewing my usual levity in this review.

In my review of Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon, I proclaimed to be an avid student of Napoleonic History. If there’s one era that fascinates me even more, it is China’s transition from imperial rule, through the Republican Era, and the establishment of the People’s Republic. When I heard R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War was an epic military fantasy based on the Second Sino-Japanese War (known by the Chinese as The Oppose Japan War, by Imperial Japan as The China Incident, and the ignored by the rest of the world as a prelude to World War II), and it was receiving rave reviews, I knew I had to get my hands on it.

The Poppy War gives us a lot to love:

The main character, Rin, is an orphan you cannot help but to root for. Raised by opium dealers in the southern countryside, her lot in life is marriage to an old but influential merchant. However, she has not only been secretly learning to read and write, but also studying for the prestigious civil service exams. It lands her into a top military academy, where she faces a brand new set of challenges when pitted against classmates who’ve grown up training in martial arts and studying classical literature. Her failures and growth as a shaman and as a character, as she learns her true identity, make for a compelling story.

Her personal and professional connections feel textured and complex. Among my favorites included her rivalry with a snobby, martially talented classmate, Nezha; her friendship with a brilliant classmate Kitay; her combative student-mentor bond with the perpetually high Master Jiang; and idolization of senior and later commander Altan. What I found beautiful about these relationships is how they evolve as circumstances change and Rin grows both as a person and in power.

Inasmuch as James Maxwell’s Shifting Tides series seems based on a Hellenistic world and the Peloponnesian Wars, The Poppy War is not quite China and Japan; yet has real-life Chinese locations and names such as the Wudang Mountain; philosophers Zhuangzi and Mengzi; and famed tactician, Sunzi (the modern Romanization of Sun Tzu). The author has clearly researched the Gua (Trigrams) of the Book of Changes (I Ching/Yijing) as she infuses the story with lore and a rich history. The illicit drug-related magic system harkens back to real life shamanic traditions, and the infighting among warlords mirrors late Imperial and Republican China’s historic weaknesses. As such, the setting feels real and lived in.

Solid and engaging, the plot moves along at a decent pace. It includes elements immediately recognizable as Japan’s “comfort women” system and ruthless research Unit 731. The story is not for the weak-stomached, due to brutal depictions of torture and murder, and recounting of systemic rape. Yet, the graphic violence doesn’t feel gratuitous. Not only does it move the story forward and contributes to Rin’s character development, but also paints a picture of real war, unsanitized or ignored by basic history books. These scenes might be the closest thing to a visit to the Rape of Nanjing Memorial in China many readers will ever get. (On a side note, the author listed the late Iris Chang as one of her literary inspirations. Ms. Chang wrote the highly acclaimed book, The Rape of Nanking. It is well worth the read.)

All that said, I really really wanted to love The Poppy War; and I think had I approached it with zero expectations, I would have. My major complaint with the book is the military setting. I had seen references to the Second Sino-Japanese War, which to me implied tanks, steel warships, fighters, and bombers; the title The Poppy War reminded me of the mid-19th Century Opium Wars, where Britain’s steam-powered gunboats demolished Imperial China’s wooden junks and proceeded to bombard coastal defenses with cannons that China’s primitive artillery could not match. As such, I was looking for cues as to the technological level.

Although Rin trains in martial arts at the military academy, it did not immediately imply a technological level for me (after all, even modern armies practice unarmed combat; and even though she is depicted with a bow on the cover, even Rambo used one in First Blood). Forty-percent of the way through the book, when hostilities between Rin’s homeland of Nikara break out with the island nation of Mugen, I was frustrated at still not knowing.

Was the “lightly built,” “elegant” ship an Age of Sail ship of the line, or a steam-powered gunboat? Was the “armored column” a line of panzers, or men in mail? Are the soldiers’ “armor” Chinese fish scale lamellar, Japanese yoroi, steel cuirasses, or flak jackets? When all males were rounded up and “shot,” was it with pistols, or crossbows? Were “munitions” musket balls, jacketed bullets, grenades, or mortar rounds? Though Nikara’s soldiers shoot volleys of arrows at Mugen’s troops, is this because they are technologically inferior, or because that’s what both sides use? I felt much of this could have been conveyed more explicitly if not earlier, during Rin’s tenure at the military academy, then as she hears reports about the progress of the war—as is, we know Nikara is losing, but not whether it is due to just organizational inferiority, or also a wide technological gap. It isn’t until Rin faces several warriors hand-to-hand, and then a mounted Mugen general wielding a halberd, that I felt certain that both sides fought at the pre-firearm level.

Despite these complaints, the rest of the story shines. Kuang’s writing style is unembellished, unpretentious, and easy to follow. At times, the dialog feels modern-colloquial, which gives it a young adult feel. With all these factors considered, I rate The Poppy War 8 stars out of 10.

*This review was first published on Fantasy Faction and has been republished here with the reviewer’s permission.

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