Book Review: The Poppy War, by R. F. Kuang
At first, R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War seems like an edgier version of Harry Potter: an outcast-at-the-academy story with a slightly older protagonist, drugs, and a few incidents of self-harm. Then the book veers into Hell.
The setting has a lot to do with it. The Poppy War takes place in a fantasy version of 20th-century China; the eventual focus is a magic-infused retelling of the Second Sino-Japanese War, which began two years before World War II and included a slaughter sometimes referred to as the “Forgotten Holocaust.” The novel isn’t escapist so much as it is a brutal reminder of mankind’s capacity for evil.
But again, The Poppy War doesn’t start that way. Rin, the main character and an orphan, takes a civil-service exam in an attempt to escape a dismal future in an arranged marriage. (In Imperial China, only males could enter the bureaucracy; in Nikan—Kuang’s name for her reimagined China—females have a chance too.) She scores so highly she’s accepted into the country’s premier military academy. Few are impressed by this feat, however: most of the other students are scions of rich, powerful families. They scorn Rin even as she rises to the top of her class in subjects like strategy, martial arts, and—eventually—magic.
This is the book’s first shapeshift. Magic is rumored to exist, and referenced occasionally in the early chapters. Yet we see no evidence of it until almost halfway through the story; at the academy, the study of magical “lore” is generally derided. In truth, it should be feared. Magic has a terrible price in this world. Power hurts, and channeling it often leads to madness.
Rin pursues this knowledge anyway, until her schooling is interrupted by the story’s second jolt: the outbreak of war with the Federation of Mugen (Japan). This is when things get horrific.
A gentler narrative would have waited until Rin graduated, perhaps taking the entirety of Book 1 to see her through school and then setting up Book 2 as the “battle book.” But Kuang isn’t interested in sugarcoating savagery. War doesn’t just derail hopes and dreams—it destroys them. Some of Rin’s teachers die. Many of her friends do too. Nothing will ever be the same.
This is especially true after the destruction of one of the cities Rin and her new military cohort are supposed to protect. The carnage is unimaginable: wanton mutilation, pyramids of corpses, extreme sexual violence. It feels over the top. But as Kuang notes in her afterword, she based almost every scene in these chapters on real accounts of the Forgotten Holocaust, also known as the Nanjing Massacre and the Rape of Nanjing. “Very little was made up — most of what you see truly happened.”
Rin struggles to process how the Mugenese could carry out such heinous acts. “They were monsters!” she shrieks to a fellow soldier. “They were not human!” Her friend pushes back. “Have you ever considered,” he says slowly, “that that was exactly what they thought of us?” Rin grapples with this concept—the ways we justify atrocities—for the latter part of the book. She also wonders how you can avenge a genocide without committing one.
So, yeah: not a bedtime story to enjoy with your kids once you’ve finished Harry Potter. I also wouldn’t start The Poppy War if you’re not in a good headspace. But you shouldn’t ignore the history here either (altered as it is). Abominations like the Rape of Nanjing are the last things we want to repeat. And Kuang makes that point with heart and skill. This is a read that lingers.
As it should.
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