R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, a fantasy novel inspired by the darkest chapters of China’s twentieth century, tells the story of small-town war orphan Fang Runin (aka Rin). Rin’s life goes from bad to worse when her adoptive parents, a pair of cruel opium dealers, attempt to marry her off to a middle-aged merchant at the age of fourteen. With no money, autonomy, or power of her own, she sees only one escape–the Keju: a staggeringly difficult standardized test that permits a brilliant few Nikarans to attend national boarding schools. Setting her sights on Sinegard, the most prestigious and elite military academy in the empire, Rin’s journey is further complicated by a pantheon of dangerous gods and the shadows of a looming war. In summary, The Poppy War is half fantasy boarding school novel, half war story, and wholly grimdark.
When it comes to characters, Rin herself is an exceedingly gripping protagonist. While she’s human, sympathetic, and a true underdog, she’s written with a raw intensity and brutal determination that are very compelling to read. To me, Rin’s defining trait is her victory-at-any-cost mentality, and this aspect of her personality plays out beautifully and disturbingly as the novel progresses. One of the things I enjoyed the most about The Poppy War was its cast’s capacity to genuinely surprise me for better or worse. Kuang writes excellent character arcs, some of them positive and others negative. One of the things I enjoy most in fiction (and one of the main reasons I love grimdark especially) is a well-written fall from grace–the gradual loss of ideals and compromises on morality. The author does a great job with this device and, on the flip side, handles redemption arcs with equal skill. If they’re anything like me, readers are going to end up liking some characters they initially hated…and having significant qualms about characters they initially liked. In either case, the surprises here are refreshing and believably written.
While some parts of the initial section of the story–which cover Rin’s time in school–can seem a little trope-y, the whole novel flows exceptionally well with plot and pacing, and I felt like most of the common school archetypes (spoiled bully/rival character, seemingly crazy teacher, etc.) were only there to be subverted in interesting ways.
I found The Poppy War’s worldbuilding to be top-notch. Inspired by a mixture of 20th-century and Song Dynasty China, the setting in the academy of Sinegard and the larger empire of Nikan was well-developed and unique. With the Nikaran empire broken down into provinces, each ruled by a scheming warlord and the enemy Federation of Nugen nearby, the setup is great for potential conflict. Kuang’s magic system is especially cool and inventive, with shamans using trance and narcotics to pull down gods into their own bodies and borrow power, often at a terrible price.
On the topic of the book’s darker elements, it does bear mentioning that this is one of the most troubling novels I’ve ever read. The events of the novel itself are based partially on the Second Sino-Japanese War and include fictionalized versions of recognizable atrocities like the Rape of Nanjing. While these events are handled respectfully and are an important and necessary part of the narrative, readers will probably have a hard time getting this book out of their heads. Unlike other dark fantasy novels, I couldn’t close the book and rest easy knowing it was just a story since all of the tragedies described genuinely happened. Like all the best grimdark, these elements aren’t present for a lurid ghoulish appeal–they say something about the bleaker parts of human nature (in this case intergenerational trauma, and what people can do to other people when they stop recognizing their humanity).
That said, The Poppy War is still an enjoyable, compelling read with great action, emotional impact, and an awesome magic system. The story combines the many of the best bits of magical schooling, wuxia, and gritty war stories into an exceptional novel. I would give this book a well-earned 5/5 stars. This is a book that gets under your skin, and it left me equal parts haunted, transfixed, and overwhelmingly glad my standardized testing days are behind me.