My attempt to read as many of this year’s Hugo finalists as I can had led me to several popular works that I had either not gotten around to or had actively avoided. One of the latter was The Poppy War, with its reputation for a jarring tonal shift and some absolutely brutal war scenes. But R.F. Kuang’s debut has no shortage of glowing reviews, and with its nomination for Best Series combined with a perfect fit for 2021 Bingo, I thought I’d give it a shot. Happily for me, it turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of my Hugo reading (for some values of “pleasant”).
The Poppy War opens a trilogy drawing strong inspiration from the Second Sino-Japanese War, but where the Chinese analogue has access to powerful but incredibly dangerous magic. At the center is Rin, a girl from the rural South desperate to gain admission to an elite military school and escape her reluctant adoptive parents. But, with the elite expecting invasion from the island empire to their East, a berth in military school promises to throw her into the middle of the incipient conflict.
By picking up Rin’s story so early, The Poppy War delivers a fairly tropey academy arc—with a gifted protagonist who must overcome rampant prejudice and who finds solace with a brilliant but eccentric mentor—followed by a shockingly brutal military fantasy. It sounds like this ought to be jarring, and some readers find it so. But even if a reader were to come in knowing nothing about the book, the academy arc is packed with hints about how dark the story will go, from the brutality of the sparring sessions to the extended discussion of genocide and its place in the most recent clash between Rin’s homeland and their Eastern neighbors.
The reception of the book’s opening third will depend heavily on the audience’s attitude toward fantasy schools, as The Poppy War doesn’t really break new ground in that respect. Personally, while I dislike “lack of sleep is a sign of discipline and recipe for success” subplots, I generally enjoy school settings and found the opening to be well-written and easy to like, even as it set the stage for the horrors that were to come. And then comes the war, where the promised dark turn comes to fruition. The quality of the writing continues apace, and The Poppy War remains difficult to put down. But it also becomes difficult to read, with Kuang putting the particular brutality of this conflict on full display—a choice that makes this a poor choice for the squeamish, but a choice that seems only appropriate given the real world inspiration, where even the Wikipedia entry veers heavily towards the grimdark.
In the midst of all of the brutality is an elite force of powerful warriors and the constant struggle between the power at their fingertips and its devastating consequences. Rin and her fellows repeatedly face opportunities to rescue their people, but by means that might destroy as much as they save. The wrestling with this power forms the emotional core of the novel, carrying through from the academy training to the beginnings of conflict and further into its horrifying development. And Kuang paints an astounding picture of these struggles, with every right choice a battle, every wrong choice sympathetic, and plenty of choices where even the reader can’t see the proper way forward.
The Poppy War is not flawless, and some of the academy characters tend a little toward the flat side. But a consistently engaging, well-paced narrative, a fantastic exploration of the use of large-scale weapons and the inevitable collateral damage, and a compelling portrait of characters grappling with impossible decisions make it well worth the read. And with a heart-wrenching climax of its own and myriad plot threads left open, it succeeds both as a novel and as a series-opener.
Recommended if you like: academy arcs, military fantasy, moral complexity.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Set in Asia and Revenge-Seeking Character, and it’s also Over 500 Pages.
Overall rating: 18 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.