Author: R.F. Kuang
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication Date: May 1, 2018
Format: Paperback (ARC)
(I received an Advanced Reader Copy of this book from the publisher. I read it in May and did not take notes at the time so I’m lacking in some details I would have otherwise included. This review is also longer than normal as I address the YA controversy surrounding it.)
R.F. Kuang has delivered a gritty, dark, and violent debut to our fantasy libraries.
“When Rin aced the Keju, the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies, 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 believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. 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. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers 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 a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those 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 militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .
Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.”
I really enjoyed the story Kuang told in The Poppy War in terms of the story itself. Part coming of age far off from home story and part war story I latched onto it pretty quick.
The non-European (specifically Asian) setting is also one I’ve been wanting to read more of and I was delighted to delve into it even if many of the more subtle Asian details went over my head – I noted online many readers of Asian background eating up those details that I totally missed.
It’s important to note something about the book’s structure at this stage because it impacts so much of not just the story in the book, but my experience and review of it as a whole. The Poppy War is broken up into three parts. Part I depicts Rin’s life at home and then at school once getting accepted into Sinegard. In Part II the war comes to Sinegard. In Part III the war continues and things get decidedly dark. This three-part structure and the narrative focus of each has a huge impact on the book. I’ll detail more of that impact in sections below. For now let me say that as it relates strictly to the plot and overall story I liked the way the book was broken up. It eases the reader through stages of plot and character development and serves to transition from one setting to another. The tension and action builds through each stage to an explosive finish that will gut many readers.
Without saying more about the actual plot of the book I think it’s important to note that Kuang wrote The Poppy War while studying history in college. In doing so she based a lot of the book in general upon the Second Sino-Japanese War and in particular on The Rape Of Nanjing. Kuang was studying these subjects for her thesis and turned them into a fantasy novel. She’s discussed this backdrop for her story numerous times in various locations and formats and is helpful to understand the background and motivation behind the book.
The Poppy War is written from a third person POV, more specifically from the POV of its protaganist Rin. As the story is telling Rin’s journey of self-realization amidst life at school and the carnage of war the POV is spot on. I also think third person was the best option for the world-building required in the story.
Kuan’s writing style is very readable in terms of her prose. It isn’t flowery (which wouldn’t fit this book AT ALL), and it isn’t clunky. I never once found myself tripping over the writing style as I was reading. Overall I enjoyed Kuang’s writing throughout the book and I felt she handled the battle scenes very well.
If I had to complain about anything related to the writing it would be two things; at times the foreshadowing was a bit too strong and I could see what was coming, and the use of info-dumping while helpful for world-building within the school setting, may have been a little overdone. Neither of these took away from the book as a whole and were not major issues for me.
Pacing is one of those things that is really important to me in a book. I like fast paced at times and slow-burns at others. I also appreciate when an author changes pace to fit a mood or direction in the story. The Poppy War is one of those books where the pacing changes multiple times. In Part I it’s drawn out over multiple years with Rin’s home life, getting into Sinegard, and multiple years at Sinegard before the war. In Part II the war arrives and the pacing changes with events of that section occurring in a much shorter period of time. In Part III it changes again but not as drastic as between Parts I and II.
For me these multiple changes of pace felt off. I’m not saying it ruined the book or was horrible, or that it was jarring to read, it just felt…off. It was almost like Kuang had more than one book in The Poppy War but didn’t want to split it up. It’s hard to say, not knowing what is coming with the rest of the series but Part’s I and II might have made a good first book with Part III expanded upon for a second and/or added to what comes next. Like I said I have no idea what Kuang has in mind for the series so maybe that wouldn’t have worked but the pacing as it related to the structure of the three parts took a little away from my overall score of the book.
As I mentioned above I didn’t take notes as I read and I should have. Because of that I’m having a hard time remembering the names of most of the characters and I’m being a little lazy in not wanting to page through the book and find them, and even if I did I wouldn’t have notes on their stories, and motivations and all that whatnot. That’s on me.
The story though really focuses on Rin, and having come back to the book after a few months it’s hard for me to remember much about most of the others but her. Rin for me was hit and miss. Mostly hit though. Early on I enjoyed her character even when I could see she was going to succeed at everything. She was determined, plucky, and I found myself rooting for her when the odds were stacked against her. She is a girl from a backwoods province with dark skin and a funny accent. So immediately she is different and looked down upon when she arrives at the prestigious Sinegard. She has to work and fight her way through difficult circumstances.
As the story progresses Rin’s character experiences a lot of change. Based on the events of the book this can only be expected. As the narrative gets darker so does she. Rin becomes a little more ruthless and selfish, and morally and ethically questionable. I felt this was a good shift that fit the mood of the book where the events of the narrative took a toll on the character. Interestingly though I grew not to like her. Now let me be clear this isn’t something I’m being negative about. The bit I just mentioned about her growing dark and selfish…well I didn’t like her as much after that, and I wasn’t pulling for he as much. Yet I thought this aspect of her character was done well. I don’t think hers would be as good of a character had she not been impacted by the events of the story the way she does, forcing the reader to struggle with their feelings about her.
There were some things that annoyed me about Rin however. The most prominant was that for all of Kuang’s effort to write a story with an Asian background, Rin seemed a whole lot like a typical American teenager. This part of Rin’s character is more dominant in Part I but was evident throughout. It was her attitudes and the way she did things, especially the way she talked to elders that just screamed rebellious American teenager. Now maybe this is my white, American, male cultural bias showing through but it just wasn’t what I was expecting. I may get backlash for this, I don’t know. Other characters early in this part of the book had a similar vibe to them but it was most apparent in Rin. This aspect of Rin’s character took something away from the story for me.
One other thing that really bothered me about Rin was one specific event in Part I. Skip this paragraph if you don’t want a spoiler. There’s a point where Rin experiences her first period. Inserting elements of human life such as this in the story is normally something I like because authors often overlook this kind of routine life event that makes daily life more difficult. But what bothered me was Rin’s response to it. She takes a drug that violently burns away her womb so she never has to deal with the difficulty of her period again, and it won’t be a detriment to her studying and training. To me this seemed like it was saying Rin couldn’t succeed without destroying part of what made her a woman. Now I admit female readers may have a very different take on this scene and might have sat there saying “hell yes girl!” but I wonder how many others were bothered by it like me.
One other aspect of the characters I didn’t like in The Poppy War was the way new characters were added half-way through the book and old ones disappeared. We are introduced to a bunch of characters in Part I at Sinegard who shift into Part II who then leave the narrative after that point. New characters are added whom we finish the story with. This made it harder for other characters to grow on me and may be another argument for having split the book into two parts.
Overall I enjoyed the world-building in The Poppy War. Much of it was done in Part I while Rin was at Sinegard. Using her time at school to flesh out the history of the world and slowly introduce the reader to the magic system was a good method where the reader learned as Rin learned. While the reader learns about the wider world and a little about magic early on, it is in Parts II and III where magic and the nature of the gods is really fleshed out. The use of magic and interaction with the gods is something that Kuang builds up to in the book and it adds to the suspense.
I found myself really enjoying the magic system and Shamanism and the way the gods were depicted. The use of psychedelic drugs to bring one into communion with both magic and the divine was a great twist. I’ve seen some reviews where readers didn’t like the use of drugs in this manner (and I get that) but I rather liked how it affected the characters and narrative.
I don’t want to say much about the gods themselves as I liked what Kuang did with them and don’t want to give that away here.
The Poppy War touches on a number of themes and one of the most prevalent is xenophobia. Kuang took real life events from the history and conflicts between China and Japan and turned them into a fantasy narrative for a wider audience. But xenophobia isn’t limited to the history of those two nations and as such The Poppy War has something to say to all of us in that regard. Other themes are touched on in the Controversy section below but I won’t go into them here.
The Great YA (Or Not) Controversy
Before (and after) publication if you followed the book or the author online you would couldn’t miss the controversy that arose because some reviewers labelled The Poppy War as a YA novel. Kuang and many early readers fired back that it in no way was YA, not as a slam on YA but because of many of the books’ themes and elements. Kuang even listed them and discussed trigger warnings. Here’s the list she put on her blog:
- Violent rape
- Sexual assault
- Substance abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Physical abuse
- Relationship abuse
- Human experimentation
- Chemical warfare
Kuang was (and is) concerned that young readers might go into the book thinking it is YA and be shocked at its content. Much of the defense of Kuang was couched in issues of racism and sexism, the argument that non-white and non-male authors often get pigeon-holed into literary categories (such as YA) in the book industry because of their race and gender.
While I agree with Kuang about the content of the book, and I agree racism and sexism exist within the industry and wider reading world, I can’t help but feel thought that Kuang doth protest too much. Here’s why…
The book as she wrote it really does have a YA feel to much of it. That’s not the reader’s fault! In part it is due to the school theme that takes up all of Part I. A bunch of young kids and teens in school lends itself to a YA label. And that section of the book isn’t where you’ll find all those adult elements, they all come in Part III.
It isn’t just the setting though. Part of what makes YA, YA is the characterization. In the world of human development the teenage years are one summarized by the teen trying to find their identity and place in the world apart from their family and authority. This is why we think of rebellious teen years. For younger kids it is summarized by trying to find identity and place within and as part of the family and authority units. We see this played out in YA and Middle Grade books. Rin’s character as a female heroine fits very well within this kind of YA framework for over half of the book.
It isn’t until we reach the third part of the novel that the YA feel really goes away. And once it does it really does. Make no mistake what Kuang put in this final section isn’t what would pass muster in YA.
At the same time, after I finished those sections Kuang warns the reader about I asked myself “was that it?” I’ve read many comments from readers saying they were disturbed by these chapters and I appreciate that not all readers like grimdark or books with dark themes (not everyone likes horror for instance). But as a fan of those genre’s I’ve read the same or worse in other novels and even in history books for that matter. And if you remove just two chapters most of the disturbing elements (but not all) would be gone.
The controversy just seemed overblown. While I wouldn’t label the book as YA I’d say it starts off that way and ends as adult fantasy, which makes it somewhat unique and interesting.
Ever since I finished The Poppy War I’ve been torn about how I wanted to review and rate it. It didn’t blow me away so it isn’t a five star. I know I’m in the minority here and I realize it’s probably going to win awards next year but it just didn’t reach that level for me. So is it four stars…or three?
I did love the narrative of story itself and the Asian context. The history nerd in me also really appreciated the historical inspiration behind it. The world-building in general and the use of magic and the gods more specifically were highlights for me. The pacing and some aspects of the characters were negatives on the other hand.
The YA controversy didn’t take away from the story though it did play in my mind as I read. In the end I think the shift in feel from YA to Adult fantasy was interesting and something I liked, and tracked with character development as the story progressed.
Taken as a whole the positives outweighed the negatives with the narrative carrying the day…so…