“The Poppy War” is a heavy, dark, and unprecedented debut by R.F. Kuang. The first fantasy war novel out of a trilogy covers topics of classism, colonization, and genocide through the experiences of its young female protagonist who survives in a world familiar of Chinese history. Shamans clash with plot points drawn from events like the Opium War, second Sino-Japanese war and an atmosphere of the Song dynasty.
The main character of the novel is Rin, a dark-skinned and poor war orphan. To avoid her future of a forced marriage, she decides to study for the infamous Keju, which bears many similarities to the modern day 高考 (gao kao) and test into an elite military academy. Success ensues and she is admitted to renowned Sinegard Academy. While learning strategy from Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” and strength from qigong and meditation that is often practiced by monks, Rin also discovers her own unique and dangerous shamanic abilities triggered by drugs. Traditional Chinese folklore and stories are also alluded to with characters and scenes, some including the often retold “Journey to the West”, Zhuge Liang from “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and the 16th century “Investiture of the Gods”. Among a much more privileged crowd, she also experiences torments from colorism to puberty while preparing for a looming war. What may be most intriguing, though, is that Kuang bases Rin’s trajectory and personality off of the communist revolutionary Mao Zedong. So as the novel carries on, Rin is transformed from underdog to anti-hero, from a bright and bullied young girl, to someone who is much more infuriating, unreasonable, and ruthless.
While the controversial plot and messed-up characters keep you on the edge, what is most impressive is the world built within the novel. Not only is it complex, but it is painfully real. Rin goes through major events many Chinese people still hold much anger and grief towards. The graphic details of events like Unit 731 and the Nanjing Massacre are described in which the atrocities of history are painfully shoved in your face. As a Chinese-American, I learned more about the stories of my own heritage than I would have if only through the history curriculum at my high school. These often silenced stories were brought to light in a way that I began to ask my immigrant grandparents and parents about their own experiences. The novel allowed me to see that much of this cruel history was still largely unknown in the hearts and heads of Western citizens, and much less formally apologized for. It motivated me to research more about the history I was not taught.
“The Poppy War” is only the first in a long and gruesome trilogy which leads to even more allusions to major Chinese history: the Great Famine, conflict with Taiwan, the Cultural Revolution. And as the pages turn, there are deep questions Kuang asks her readers about Chinese and Chinese-American identity, and many posed for the Chinese diaspora herself. She bravely brings up how the Chinese government is not the black and white structure that we are often told it is.
*Before reading, you should be mindful of the many trigger warnings that come attached to this book, including but not limited to self-harm, sexual assault, mutilation, drug use, war, torture. To see a full list, please view this link: https://booktriggerwarnings.com/The_Poppy_War_by_R.F._Kuang