The Poppy War: Grimdark military fantasy in an Asian world

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Poppy War by R.F. Kuang science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe 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.

The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War Book 2) Kindle Edition by R. F. Kuang

Sequel

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.

Published in 2018. A brilliantly imaginative talent makes her exciting debut with this epic historical military fantasy, inspired by the bloody history of China’s twentieth century and filled with treachery and magic, in the tradition of Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. 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.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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