Monday, September 28, 2020

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Whew. I buddy-read this with my friends Maraya and Sage and I'm honestly glad it was a team effort, because I'm not sure I would have gotten through the book on my own. The last time I tried to read this, I ended up quitting at 14% because I was so bored. THE POPPY WAR is a pretty widely-read book that a lot of people have read and have opinions about and I guess I'm just one of the masses in that regard, because I have a lot of things to say about this book and it's going to be really difficult because a lot of those thoughts are conflicting.

***WARNING: some spoilers to follow***

First, I'd like to say that I've noticed that some members of this fandom likes to attack people who didn't like this book. I muted "TPW" and "The Poppy War" as keywords on Twitter because I kept seeing people making fun of the one-star reviewers and saying that anybody who didn't like this book was too stupid to understand/enjoy it, and that is such toxic behavior to me. There are a lot of reasons why people won't like this book and honestly, some of them are valid. If you are sensitive to violent content of any kind, this is going to be an incredibly unpleasant read. Bad things happen in this book and the main character is very unlikable. Part I is very different in tone from Parts II and II. Parts II and II move much slower, and more unpleasantly, than Part I. I understand that sometimes people hold authors of color to different standards than white authors, and might say racist things in their reviews, but simply being put off by negative content or critiquing the writing or the pacing or the story in and of itself is hardly problematic and doesn't, in my opinion, warrant shaming and bullying. I read positive and negative reviews of this book, sans spoilers, and unlike 99% of other books, where I fall firmly on one side or the other, I can actually see where both sides are coming from and why this book is so polarizing. The things that make one side love it will make another side hate it. One person's idea of daring is another person's idea of triggering.

Second, I'm writing this review as someone who is somewhat familiar with both Sino-Japanese Wars, the Nanjing/Nanking massacre, and The Opium Wars (of which, I believe, the Poppy War is a play). I've read Iris Chang's book on the subject, which scarred me for life (although it ended up preparing me for chapter 21 soooo... mixed blessings). However, even though this is heavily inspired by Chinese history, I wouldn't say that it's a direct allegory like ANIMAL FARM. It's more like GAME OF THRONES, in that it borrows in bits and pieces, and there are some direct parallels, but most of that borrowing is used to further the fantasy elements and give a "grimdark" feel to a book while also making people feel smarter for reading it for noticing the borrowed elements (no hate-- it worked for me). I say this because some people are saying that this book is history or historical and I would argue that while that may be a matter of some debate, I don't really think this book is history. It has demons and gods and magic in it. It isn't history. It just borrows from it and takes artistic license with it.

THE POPPY WAR stars Rin, an antiheroine who is willing to sacrifice literally anything to be the best and win the war against the stand-in for the Japanese in this world, the Mugen. When she starts the book, I think she's a young teen because she hasn't had her period yet (so maybe 13?). To avoid getting married, she crams for the national exam, the Keju, spending two years working her butt off to pass. She ends up scoring the highest in the province and goes to Sinegard, an elite military school. This portion was honestly my favorite, as it reminded me of other "dark school" type stories, like VITA NOSTRA or SCHOLOMANCE (the R. Lee Smith one), which also feature morally gray heroines with sociopathic tendencies who are slowly corrupted by power. I think this is also why so many people categorize this book as YA. It does have a dark YA vibe to it, the way some of Victoria Schwab's allegedly adult books do, and it can be hard to pinpoint who the audience for this book actually is. I liked Rin's unusual education and how she came into conflict with her peers and masters as the underdog, and probably would have given this portion of the book four or five stars.

Parts II and III have a major tonal shift as Nikara, Rin's country, engages in war with the Mugense for real. Rin finally has to put everything she's learned into action while also trying to control the magic she's only just realized she's had (she, like a very rare few, has the power to call gods down from their sacred realm and let them temporarily possess her). In part I, her mentor was the delightfully eccentric Jiang. Here, she's attached to Altan, and unpredictable student of immense power who was the only survivor of a genocidal attack by the Mugense. Altan is a drug addict and abusive, and thinks nothing of yelling, throwing things, or hitting people, including Rin. Rin is in love with him and idolizes him in a way that feels uncomfortable, despite the abuse. Especially since so many reviewers laud Rin as a strong heroine when she seems comfortable acting as a pawn at the hands of others and apologizing for the people who use her ill. Again, I think that this will be a major trigger for some people.

The absolute worst part of this book, in terms of violent content, is the infamous chapter 21. This chapter feels like a Wikipedia dump of the Nanjing massacre, so if you aren't sure if you will be able to handle the content, read the Wikipedia article on the massacre. If it is too much for you, do not read this book or skip chapter 21. It is brutal, but not as upsetting as I was expecting since, again, I've read Iris Chang's book on the actual events that inspired this book (which had photographs). This is a reason I think that this book shouldn't be categorized as YA. Most U.S. schools don't teach the Nanjing massacre, and so students reading this likely won't have the context that puts this chapter into perspective. It's incredibly violent and horrific, and while I won't begrudge anyone who felt legitimately triggered by this chapter, I think having that historical context does put this book into perspective. That said, there are other moments of violence that don't really have anything to do with the war, such as Rin giving herself a chemical hysterectomy (in a scene that was uncomfortably similar to Yennefer's similar decision in The Witcher, but way less graphic) or graphic dueling scenes in the school or Rin getting grabbed or hit by the boy she loves. This book is very violent, period.

That said, I'm not really sure what this book intended to do with that historical parallel to Nanjing. In ANIMAL FARM, for example, the purpose was to show the slow slide into a dictatorship with the gradual relinquishing of one's personal freedoms, and how sometimes liberation can lead to an even greater prison. Here, the parallels seem more like GAME OF THRONES, in that they kind of feel like they're just there to shock. There is no real context for the war unless you are familiar with Chinese history, and it isn't really clear why the Mugenese hate the Nikara unless you interpret them literally as Japan in that specific time frame of history. There is no slow backslide into corruption on behalf of the Mugenese because, through Rin's eyes and those of their other victims, they were never human to begin with. So many of the descriptions of the Mugense describe them as inhuman or not human, and the only really humanizing moment is Rin's shock that they look so superficially similar to the Nikara. There's really nowhere for them to go because they are the de facto evil villains in this book.

Ironically, the slow corruption happens in Rin, who ends up becoming a perpetrator of genocide herself, which is ironic, since in an earlier portion of the book, she says, "War doesn't determine who is right, only who remains." She survives but at the cost of her soul, I would say, since by the end of the book she is a despicable person who doesn't see reason and makes decisions solely on rage (like Altan). She is literally unable to see how her own actions put her on the same level as the Mugense and their annihilation of Speer, which is interesting from a moral perspective, but kind of frustrating from a reader perspective. Especially since we watched her give her all to understand everything in Part I, only to throw everything away that she learned in Parts II and III. It almost felt like she was a different person from the first part, and part of that is because she grew up and was subjected to horrible trauma, but it was frustrating to see someone who I admired for tenacity (despite loathing her for her selfishness) become such a stupid person who made such stupid decisions. Why, Rin?? Why?

I didn't hate this book, despite thinking I might, but I didn't love it either. I can see why people do, because it is different, and it does take a lot of risks, and in some ways, it is very similar to some of the manga storylines I loved as a child. The scene with the chimei, for example (one of my favorite parts) was like something right out of Inuyasha: a pseudo-historical epic filled with violent magic and dark content, with characters you rooted for even though they were incredibly annoying. I think Inuyasha even had a face-stealing monster in one of the earlier books. So it was cool to read a book that had some interesting Chinese mythology thrown into a world filled with geopolitical intrigue. I just wish the second and third parts of the book had meshed better with the first, and that Rin didn't flip-flop (to borrow my friend's term) quite so much in terms of her character. She was all over the place, and I expected a brutal queen and not an idiot with a magical firearm she didn't know how to use but was all too willing to fire. Even if it is a revenge fantasy that does appeal to the dark satisfaction all of us would have at triumphing over our enemies at tenfold delivery, I don't really like the message in that.

Anyway, hopefully all that makes sense. I'm probably forgetting half the things I was going to talk about but I think I hit on all of the important key points, and I'm wicked proud of myself for figuring out the major "twist" in this book before I even got to the 15% mark. Props to the author, by the way, for taking the chosen one stereotype and at least subverting the trope a little bit by making the character work for it. That, and the brilliance of part I, is why this is getting 3 stars and not a 1 or a 2.

3 out of 5 stars


  1. I'm still on the fence about whether I like it or not. The violence was very disturbing to me.

  2. Nice review! I do think a lot of the mixed reactions to this book are due to the tonal and genre shifts between the first part of the book (which is very YA academia, down to the Hana Yori Dango-ish relationship between Rin and Nezha which I ate up like candy) and the rest (which is grimdark military fantasy). People seem to either really love the school portion and then got a nasty shock when they hit the war part, or thought the school part was typical and boring and the war part was much more interesting. I enjoyed reading the first part wayyy more but thought the second & third were more novel and ambitious in what it was trying to achieve, even if it didn't always stick the landing. But this might have been because I was spoiled beforehand that Rin was based on Mao Zedong with a dash of Azula from ATLA, so I knew going in that her arc was going to be Protagonist Journey to Villain instead of the usual Hero's Journey, so I wasn't unpleasantly surprised when she started making increasingly bad decisions as the book went on.

    re: the Nanking Massacre analogue, the author has said in blog posts and interviews that part of the reason she wrote Chp 21 was to bring greater awareness of the historical atrocity into the public consciousness. She's also said it was one of the first scenes she wrote for the book and was so emotionally draining she couldn't bear to rework or edit it, and I think you can tell in the finished work. The prose in that chapter feels a bit more rough than the rest of the book.

    re: the depiction of the Mugenese as one note evil villains, I actually thought that made a lot of sense. Sinegard and the Nikara military have a vested interest in depicting the Mugenese as inhuman monsters to the students (just the same as they depict the Speerly as primitive savages). Rin hasn't seen enough of the world to really question the propaganda before the war begins, and once she does meet them in person she sees them brutally kill her friends and countrymen, and the narration sticks pretty closely to her pov so... It is also, sadly, pretty true to life--a lot of the older generation of Chinese ppl I know *still* think of all Japanese ppl as evil, thanks to their traumatic experiences in the Sino-Japanese war.

    Overall I thought this was a promising debut novel, with a lot of the typical debut novel problems with inconsistent pacing and tonal clashes. I really liked the blend of Chinese history and mythology (the chimei scene was also one of my favorites!), but didn't like how underdeveloped the female characters other than Rin were. Apparently Kuang is working on an actual dark academia book--I'm hoping that will be like the first part of this book, but for the full book this time.


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