‘The Poppy War’ by R. F. Kuang

When Rin aced the Keju – the test to find the most talented students in the Empire – 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 had hoped to get rich by marrying her off and to Rin herself, who realised she was finally free from a life of servitude. 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. Fighting the prejudice of rival classmates, Rin discovers that 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 psychoactive substances and a seemingly insane teacher, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive – and that mastering these 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 Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most people calmly go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away….

You know those sword and sorcery fantasies where one lowly girl is destined to succeed against all the odds and, with the assistance of one or two special powers and a band of eccentric but loyal companions, lead the forces of light to push back the numerically superior forces of evil?

Well, this isn’t one of those fantasies.

In fact, it isn’t really a sword and sorcery fantasy at all. It’s an alternative history of the Second Sino-Japanese war with the addition of a small number of Chinese Shamans who can weaponise the power of the Gods.

There is a lowly girl at the centre of the story. Her name is Rin. She’s an unloved war orphan, physically abused by her guardians. They don’t make her sleep under the stairs like Harry Potter. They beat her, starve her, and use her in their illegal opium business until she becomes old enough to marry off at a profit. But Rin’s not driven by fate or a belief in her own destiny. She’s powered by deep-seated anger and a determination to survive, whatever the cost.

By a mixture of bribery, hard work and a refusal to quit, Rin makes it to a prestigious military academy where, to no one’s surprise, she is not treated well but where she demonstrates extraordinary skill and determination.

It does sound a little like a normal sword and sorcery saga doesn’t it? There’s even a charming Shadow Puppet show to explain the local mythical version of history. But nothing here is romanticised. Nothing is about doing the right thing in the face of evil. It’s about learning to focus your anger to ensure your survival.

In this hierarchical, competitive, paranoid and violent society, war is not a heroic game. It’s a no holds barred fight for survival. When war arrives before Rin gets to graduate and she and her classmates are thrown, unprepared, into the middle of it, Rin sums up the martial mindset when she gives her view on why their old enemy from the longbow islands is invading her country, Nikar. She says:

“Because they’re crammed on that tiny island and they think Nikar should be theirs. Because they fought us once and they almost won… what does it matter? They’re coming and we’re staying and at the end of the day whoever is still alive is the side that wins. War doesn’t determine who is right. War determines who remains.

Even though I could see that this was an alternative history of China and even though I knew how grim that history was, I was still shocked when, in Part 2 of the book, the author gives graphic, unflinching accounts of genocidal atrocities. These are not images that would ever find their way into a David Edding book. They’re also not images I wanted to have burned across my imagination with no warning.

Are you familiar with the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army in 1937, on the citizens of Nanjing (sometimes written Nanking) in the six weeks after the Battle of Nanjing? No? It’s usually called the Nanjing Massacre or The Rape of Nanjing. Look it up. The details are horrific.

The Nanjing Massacre seems to be the source material that the author drew on when describing the atrocities committed by the army invading Nikar. The descriptions are graphic, detailed and prolonged. As far as I can see she hasn’t had to make any of them up. They all happened in Nanjing.

There’s nothing exploitative or ghoulish in the way the atrocities are described, just factual statements of what Rin and her people see when they enter the city and first-hand accounts from the small numbers of survivors who had hidden amongst corpses in the streets.

From that point on, Rin is set on a path of revenge. There’s nothing pure or righteous about the path she’s taken. She doesn’t follow the path because it’s her destiny or because her Gods made her. She follows the path by choice. She does what she does because she is consumed by hate so deep that she can no longer see her enemies as people. They are just things to be killed.

Given that Rin is as close as this book gets to having a hero, this is grim stuff.

There are lots of things to admire about this book. The storytelling is engaging. The characters feel real. The world-building is vivid. The action is intense and unpredictable. The supernatural elements are integrated seamlessly into the military narrative. The thing I admire most is also the thing that makes this book painful to read: It is unflinching in its portrayal of what happens when the powerful treat those they hate as less than human. She shows what happens to the victims, the survivors and the perpetrators. None of it is pleasant.

There are two more books in this series. I’m going to hold back on reading them for a while. There’s only so much unblinking realism that I can take at a time.

If this book appeals to you, I recommend the audiobook version. It’s nearly eighteen hours long but Emily Woo Zeller’s narration is so good that the time flies by. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

Rebecca F. Kuang is a Marshall Scholar, translator, and the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award nominated author of the Poppy War trilogy and the forthcoming Babel. She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford; she is now pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale.

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