History and Fantasy Combine in “The Poppy War”

Alexis Yi, page editor

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Fast-paced and brutal, “The Poppy War” by R. F. Kuang is an adult fantasy novel combining twentieth-century Chinese history, moral ambiguity, and one girl’s struggle for unlimited power. The plot is based on the second Sino-Japanese War, during which Japan launched an expansionist campaign into the Chinese mainland. 

The central character is an orphaned peasant, Rin. Her foster parents, drug dealers who use her for free labor, plan to marry her off for profit. Instead, Rin prepares in secret for the Keju, a nationwide exam that funnels students into elite academies. Admittance into Sinegard, the nation’s premier military academy, is only granted to the top scorers. At Sinegard, students are trained in anticipation of war between Nikara, Rin’s home, and its neighbor, the Federation of Mugen. 

Kuang, who has a Masters degree in Chinese studies from the University of Cambridge, displays her expertise in Chinese military history in the intricate backdrop she sets for Rin’s story. Nikara is loosely based off of Song-dynasty China, while Mugen is based off of imperial Japan. On a large-scale, the nuanced relationships between nations provide impersonal stakes, allowing the reader to be invested in issues of morality that go beyond the concerns of individual characters. At a more local level, the world-building is less thorough. There aren’t many significant differences between the provinces of Nikara, which can make the entire country seem like an amorphous blob.

Due to the complexity of the world, there is often so much information presented that some pages resemble those of a history textbook. Occasionally this can bog down the reading experience, but there’s enough else going on that it can be tolerated: dramatic character interactions, mystery, and plenty of violence. The story moves fast; it skips over large swaths of time between and even within chapters. Miraculously, the novel avoids feeling rushed, but at the same time one wonders whether it could have been split in two. While reading, however, one is unlikely to be worrying about that. The plot is intricate and always has someplace to go. There is never a feeling of being stuck in place. 

Despite the time span, Rin remains largely unchanged. Her ambition and brutality are amplified rather than challenged by her struggles, which fits the novel’s bleak tone. The magic system Rin is thrown into, which involves drugs (as the title of the novel suggests), yields intriguing questions about the nature of absolute power and its consequences. Vast in scope both plot-wise and morally, “The Poppy War” is a compelling exploration of the self-propelling cycles of power and abuse. It’s a rewarding read that’s well worth the investment. 

Content warning for drug-use, self-harm, physical and mental abuse, and graphic depictions of war crimes.

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