Review: The Poppy War, by R. F. Kuang

The Poppy WarFang Runin is a war orphan, one of many left without a home after the Poppy Wars between the Nikara Empire and the Federation of Mugen. The Nikara Empire orders all families with fewer than three children to take the orphans in, and so Rin is raised in the loveless environment of two opium dealers’ home. When she is 14, they arrange for her to be married off to an import inspector, an older man with multiple divorces already under his belt. It’s the perfect arrangement for everyone but Rin — so she makes a desperate grab for an unlikely future, the military academy of Sinegard, the only academy which doesn’t require money she doesn’t have. It just requires her to excel at the imperial exams for which most successful students, the children of Warlords and the wealthy and politically connected, will have spent their whole lives studying.

She’s an outlier at Sinegard, mocked and berated at every turn, but at least she’s an outlier with control of her own destiny, and she’s determined not to relinquish it. Soon she and her classmates will be thrust into a more violent future than an orphan from an impoverished and isolated part of Nikara could have anticipated — the Second Poppy War was a scant victory in Nikara’s favour, and the Third is soon to come crashing down on them.

I was excited to read The Poppy War, as it contained a number of elements that appeal strongly to me. I like fantasy that draws its inspiration from cultures other than the west. I like fantasy that riffs off of historical events, allowing perspectives on them that would be limited by the need for strict historical accuracy if the actual places and people were used. I like coming of age stories in school settings, perhaps because I left school at the age of seven and I get to do a bit of living vicariously without having to personally experience all of its downsides. It ended up disappointing me in a number of ways, but not so much so that I wasn’t able to derive any enjoyment from it.

To start with some of the positive things, the historical parallels are really well done. It riffs off of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and doesn’t do it lightly, touching on war atrocities such as the Rape of Nanjing, Japanese biochemical experimentation, and fantasy substitutes for chemical and nuclear weapons. Don’t let the initial school setting fool you into thinking this is a children’s story; it doesn’t flinch from the horrors of war, and the fantasy veneer over the brutalities that really occurred doesn’t detract from the gut-punch of reading about them. From Khurdalain to Golyn Niis, I found it hard to put the book down despite my issues with the writing.

I also appreciated some aspects of Rin as a protagonist. I liked that she made bold decisions for her future without regrets, even when it comes to things like giving up the possibility of children. I had some issues with the flatness and inconsistency of most of the secondary characters, but I enjoyed two of her close relationships. One is with a male best friend (and there is no hint of romance, they both simply understood from the word go that it was a platonic connection, which I also appreciated) who comes from a completely different background, and those differences are sometimes acknowledged and reflected upon but don’t become between them. The other is a rivals to friends connection which is something I am usually sceptical about it, but in this case it’s very well implemented.

I also thought that the way the gods were portrayed made for an interesting change from the gods as characters unto themselves that I’m used to from secondary world fantasy. The gods aren’t really personalities; they’re something too primal and elemental for that. They’re forces, and they will seek at any turn simply to embody their nature. A god of fire and vengeance doesn’t want fire and vengeance, it is fire and vengeance. The human who channels it is the one who wants, and no matter how broken those desires, it is only too happy to fulfil.

Unfortunately there were more in the way of things that held me back from loving the book as much as I wanted to. There was a lot of promise here when it came to world-building, but it failed to ever gel. Nikara is obviously meant to be a vast and complex nation, but it felt empty, a series of set pieces that Rin moves through, without any clear vision of the bigger picture. My sense of place was also constantly disrupted by the casual modern slang strewn throughout, especially in the first half. When the dialogue is littered with gems such as ‘Your folks are assholes’, ‘Aw, shut it’, ‘We’re here to fuck people up’, ‘Yeah, yeah. […] You don’t need Seejin, kid.’, I feel like I’m reading about disaffected American teenagers who are all about to start calling each other dude, not a Chinese-inspired secondary world of indeterminate but apparently pre-firearms technological progress.

As much as I really wanted to like Rin, and to root for the underdog, she was a very difficult character for me to grow attached to because she’s so damn inconsistent. At first I was irritated with her for constantly getting into easily avoidable trouble and mouthing off to people who could make the fate she fears so much — being sent back home — come true, but that kind of self-sabotage is at least pretty realistic for certain teenagers. After Sinegard, however, she became a chess piece moved around by plot. She also does the most ridiculous things in service to a crush, supposedly because she’s so approval-driven — but there are people whose approval or lack thereof mattered at least as much to her future, and she never fell in line with them. She’s supposed to be someone who is so stubborn and so driven that she’ll mutilate herself rather than give up on what she wants, but she is suddenly meek when the plot requires it.

The funny thing is that we’re supposed to buy that she is blinded by vengeance at times, but she is perhaps the character in the book with the least motivation to take it — other than as a small child who can’t remember anything of what happened to her people, all of the folks she’s surrounded by have lost, or suffered through, so much more.

We also have a tired example of the vague and mystic mentor who could probably sort most of this mess out if they were capable of an honest conversation, and never really gets a good reason why they can’t. I’m okay with characters who have human foibles but there’s a fine line between that and idiot plotting, and this book goes hurtling over that line too many times. Aside from Kitay and Nezha, all of the characters could have used more fleshing out and a good deal more logical consistency.

In the final third of the book, the pacing falls apart as Rin and her compatriots are shuffled rapidly around to set up the next book, and some plot holes, such as how a character who betrays them had the knowledge to do so, are left unfilled. Everything after Golyn Niis is where the book really turned from something I had issues with, but was still pretty captivated by, into something I just wanted to finish so I could move on to my next read.

Despite my issues, I will be picking up the next book, as I am bearing in mind that this is a debut and there is still potential for the series as a whole to grow more polished. And there are elements to like here, ones which kept me turning the pages quite avidly for a while. It just didn’t live up to expectations, perhaps in part because it was excessively burdened with them.

3 stars

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