Upon finishing The Poppy War, I had two very pressing questions: Why was it called The Poppy War, and why does the cover show, presumably, its main character wielding a bow when she never even touches one within the book’s pages? I was not questioning the book’s plot, it’s quite solid, nor the characters, which are excellent. No, I was left with trivial questions – though deserving of some answers – because The Poppy War is a fantastic debut novel from an author who I think we will all be watching for some time.
Rin, the main character and star of The Poppy War, is a great protagonist. She is strong, determined, and infinitely capable. This is kind of refreshing in the fantasy genre because we often find ourselves rooting for underdogs – hoping that kid who was bullied will rise up and become a great warrior, despite watching him or her fail and be trounced down at every turn. This is kind of where Rin starts, she is definitely an underdog due to her economic and social status, but we know from the very beginning that she is going to succeed. She is simply too stubborn to fail, and so we get to watch her succeed over and over. Yes, she gets beat to hell and barely ekes out those victories, but there is satisfaction in watching her triumph despite knowing she will likely never fail. Also refreshing, for me at least, is the Chinese-fantasy setting, something I have not come across in the genre yet (outside of some areas within larger works that might have some Asian-inspired traits). The Poppy War is more parallel to actual history than I am often comfortable with, but I think it works due to the author’s intent to depict some of the real-life horrors of Asian history.
It’s no secret that there is some very grimdark imagery in The Poppy War. I think that’s part of the reason why it has generated so much buzz. For anyone unfamiliar with the Rape of Nanking, I would suggest not doing a Google image search unless you want to start weeping at the savagery of human beings and what they can do to one another. It is a tragic time, both for those victimized and for those whose legacy will never live down the shame of such acts. Kuang is not shy in telling readers that she pulled most of what happens during the sacking of Golyn Niis, one of the fictional cities in The Poppy War, straight from the horrors of Nanking. The Mugens are the Japanese, the Speerlies seem to be some kind of Taiwanese or amalgamation of islander Asians, and of course the Nikarans are the Chinese. Part of me wonders if Kuang’s intent with this novel was to bring up old memories, and simply wanted to tell the story without having to write a history book – and I can see the appeal of doing that. She is a historian of the time, and I can sympathize with the cathartic need to deal with one’s racial history. However, she manages to go beyond even that dark event and craft a story with some real meaning and depth, and in this way creates of herself something more than an author with a gimmick and instead one who has fashioned a large and intricate world.
Chinese mythology is some of the richest in the world, and likely the oldest. In Kuang’s vision, the gods exist, and they are out there waiting for someone to summon them into the world so that they can unleash the primordial chaos that is their nature. For Rin, she is that someone, and it is the Phoenix that calls to her. She is gifted with the ability to travel, via her mind, into the realms of the gods and connect with her fiery patron. But becoming a god’s tool is not as simple as throwing around some fire. In The Poppy War, great power comes with great consequence. The wielders of the gods power often go mad, and many have to be locked up in prisons of stone when they become too powerful even to kill. The Poppy War is so rich with this mythology that it would almost succeed based on that merit alone.
Thankfully, The Poppy War is a tapestry of themes and things that will grab the reader’s interest. For one, it’s incredibly funny. Laughing out loud at books is not that common for me, and I don’t think many readers will interrupt the silence of their reading time to burst out in laughter as I did while reading Rin’s interactions with some of her fellow students and soldiers. Kuang has comedic timing, and the writing ability to convey that timing in a way that many authors struggle with. She is great at banter, and never makes it feel forced or inauthentic. The same can be said for most of her dialogue, and it is a pleasure to read.
All this is not to say that I thought The Poppy War a perfect book. I wouldn’t be much of a critic if I didn’t point out some problematic areas. There aren’t many, but some do stand out. For one, Kuang seems to want to create an emotional impact, particularly between characters, that I never really felt carried its weight. There is some vital piece of humanity missing between Rin and the other characters, despite the very real humor that Kuang manages to convey. In contrast, the emotional weight when she is describing atrocities is very real, and had she been able to give her character interactions as much weight as she does her dark descriptions, it would be been an amazing feat. There is also some inconsistency in the plotting of the book, which is divided in to three parts. Part one is great, and gives that academy/boarding school experience that so many fantasy books do well – From Harry Potter to Red Rising. Part three is also a wild ride because it is where things really heat up and get going. But part two is a slog. Not much happens, and while it might be necessary for Rin to gather information and find the source of her power, its a bit boring to read.
But that’s about it. The Poppy War is a really fantastic debut, and I will definitely be reading The Dragon Republic when its released later this year. I was happy to be immersed in a Chinese fantasy novel, despite the horrors that came along with its mythology. This is something that we need more of, because as much as I love European-based mythology (you might say it was my first love), the fantasy genre needs diversity as much as any other medium. If authors with Kuang’s talent continue to produce works as good as The Poppy War, it will move the entire genre forward.