The Poppy War is the debut fantasy novel from R.F. Kuang. It’s a thoughtful piece, looking at colonisation, cultural constructions, empire and authority, atrocities, and philosophies of violence. Mind you, it also has snappy dialogue, explosive (often literally) magic, a world where the strange and the familiar intermingle, and characters which will make you laugh, cry, and scream – possibly all at once. It’s an incredibly impressive debut, one which explores some dark places, but does so with such honesty and imagination that it’s impossible to put down.
As you may be able to tell, I rather enjoyed it.
The world of The Poppy War is one shaped by empires. There’s the one in which we find ourselves, as an example. A sprawling creature, split into provinces governed by separate warlords, it still has a history. That history is one of violence. Originally separate kingdoms, bound together by strongmen into a nominally functional unit, it was broken apart by a colonising force. After years of warfare, it’s been reshaped to the current form, ruled by a survivor of three heroes that led the fight against the occupation. There’s a history here – one of assumed culutral superiority and arrogance, clashing with the reality of pulling out from under the hand of an occupier. That the occupation ended due to the intervention of a third party is the icing on the cake of identity. It’s a land with heroes, yes, and with a recent history of successful resistance through unification – but a far longer one of internecine conflict and division.
So there’s politics. There’s scheming and the need to decide who controls what, and always, hovering on the horizon, is the understanding that the historical occupying forces could be back this time tomorrow. It’s a space which is rich in history, but also rich in gods. Divinities, lore, magic, are all ideas floating at the edge of the cultural consciousness. They’re maligned, to be sure, considered folk stories and traditions, but they help the seamless, sparkling tapestry of the world leap into life. If the larger world is one of wars, of realpolitik, of tax farmers, of drugs and swords and blood – there is a liminal space here, one in which fire and hope burn together. In a world of formal exams, maintained by and for the elite with a façade of meritocracy, in a world where drugs are forbidden and pervasive – in that world, if and when magic is real, it can shatter lives.
Kuang has constructed a geography which evokes tones from our world – the colonial adventures of the 1800’s, the sociocultural tensions of the Quing dynasty – but gives them a unique spin, one which adds a mixture of blood and sparkle. This is a world of potentially necessary horrors, and the monsters who builds them – but also one of wonders. Sometimes those are built by the same people.
Our protagonist, living in this space is Rin. Rin comes from nothing. Rin is not meant to be anything.
But Rin is stubborn. Rin persists. Rin has fire and determination, and a bloody-minded desire to stick it to whoever has annoyed her. Rin is smart. Rin is cynical. Rin kicks serious arse. And Rin pays for it. In some ways, this is a hopeful book. Rin doesn’t have a thing. She’s trying to escape her dirt poor town, and its dirt poor prospects, by becoming something else, something , if not better, at least different. Rin, an orphan, struggles to define herself against the expectations of the world around her.
She claws back every inch. In between confounding others expectations, she also manages to be better, rising from the social constraints of her upbringing to have a fighters control to go with her spirit. In her interactions with magic, Rin learns, to be sure, but she carries a kind of icy pragmatism, a banked rage and determination which binds some of her self-worth to success, however she defines that. But what she’s really looking for is identity – to either become what her unknown past inspires, or to be whatever she can make of herself.
Rin also makes some hard choices. I’m inclined to call them bad choices, but the texture of the book wouldn’t allow it. This isn’t a place with simple decisions. It’s one where using power has bloody, horrific consequences, mostly for others – and where not using power also has bloody, horrific consequences for others. These decisions sit on a razor edge, and Rin’s struggle with her own capacities, with her own choices and their consequences, helps to shape the book. I’m not sure I agreed with them all, but I understood them all – and both Rin and the reader will come to understand the price which she pays for each decision made. This begins as a story of a young woman growing into her power, but then sidles into a narrative about the consequences of using, or refusing to exercise, that power.
The plot – well, no spoilers. There’s a school, and it teaches martial arts. It teaches tactics and strategy. It may or may not teach the mystical. Rin finds herself there, in her journey to discover herself, and to pay the costs of doing so. But it’s not just a school story, Harry Potter with blod on knives. It’s also a story of war. Of battles. Of lives taken and lives broken. Of atrocities. Of hard decisions taken in despair, and bloody decisions taken in hope. There’s magic. There’s a lot of fabulously kinetic single combat fight scenes. There’s politics, there’s military infighting, there’s gods and magic and more than one hidden agenda. There’s a coming of age story with carmine blades and a whiff of the mystical extracting a price no-one should pay.
Is it any good? Absolutely. The book kicks arse, and I couldn’t put it down. It’s a cracking debut, and one I recommend without reservation.