As I’ve said a few times on the site, I’m kind of purposefully spending 2020 focusing on sci-fi and fantasy novels, just trying to experience a little comfort food genre stuff while the world falls apart around me. And, while I’ve come across some really fun traditional fantasy during this time period, I’ve also felt the need to branch out a bit. Because I think one of the biggest problems with the public perception of the fantasy genre is the idea that it’s all stuck in a sort of Tolkein/Dungeons and Dragons type Western perspective. Just stories full of elves and dwarves running around stand-in’s for Western Europe. But, the whole world has their own versions of folklore and mythology to pull from, and I find myself really connecting with fantasy stories that take other culture’s foundations as the basis for their worlds. I’ve talked about Saladin Ahmed’s great Throne of the Crescent Moon, which told a fantasy story from a more Middle Eastern perspective, and that sent me down a path to seek out some more fantasy novels that try and explore different cultures. Such as the book I’ll be discussing today, R. F. Kuang’s the Poppy War, a fantasy story that pulls off a more Chinese point of view, specifically being inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War. And, it’s certainly unlike any other fantasy book I’ve ever read, and a hell of a good read.
The Poppy War takes place in a world similar to Eastern Asia, with the large Nikara Empire in a state of constant turmoil with the island nation of Mugen, representing China and Japan respectively. The Empire of Nikara, which is split into several provinces, has a yearly exam where the best of the best students are sent to the capital of Sinegard in order to train to be the military leaders of the future. And, this test is the only way out of squalor for our protagonist Rin, a war-orphan forced into a life of misery with a drug-dealing family living in the poorest region. But, Rin is able to buckle down and study to the point that she’s able to get a position in Sinegard, heading to the capital to begins learning and forging her own path. Unfortunately, when Rin gets to the capital she finds that most of the other students resent her, seeing her as some sort of token student who isn’t going to last long. She makes a few friends, but is largely pushed aside, having to constantly strive to be better than her classmates. And, it’s during this struggle to become better that she meets one of the more mysterious teachers in the academy, Jiang, who teaches the barely understood subject of Lore. Most students and faculty ignore Jiang, but Rin starts to bond with him, as he teaches her more about the world. Because the whole idea of Lore is the worship of the Gods, something that people generally don’t do any more. Jiang teaches her about the use of psychoactive drugs that can expand ones consciousness to the point that they can communicate and work with the Gods, which Rin starts to believe can be used to grant powers during combat. But, this goes specifically against everything Jiang teaches her, as he attempts to mold her into a monk rather than a warrior.
However, after a few years at the Academy disaster strikes and the Empire is brought into war with Mugen. The kids are all drafted, and forced into combat as Mugen marches straight to the capital. Things become dire, and Rin ends up embracing Jiang’s teachings, reaching out to a God known as the Phoenix, and gaining its power to kill vast swaths of Mugen soldiers. This makes Rin something of a problem for the Nikara military, who end up sending her to a secretive platoon in the military staffed entirely by people who supernatural abilities. This group is led by a former classmate of Rin’s, Alton, the last surviving member of a race known as Speerlies who worshiped the Phoenix and who the Mugen soldiers exterminated in the last major war. Alton and Rin begin training, and Rin begins to realize that she must be a Speerlie too, due to her immediate connection with the Phoenix, and she works with Alton to fight against the invading forces using their magic. But, it’s not enough, and eventually Alton is led to the point where he and Ren decide they need to go free other magic-wielders from a supernatural prison in Nikara, home to people who have been completely subsumed by the Gods they worship. They manage to free one of the men, who has gone completely mad and wants to destroy the world, only to be abducted by Mugen soldiers. Alton ends up sacrificing himself to destroy a Mugen research facility where they’re trying to solve the question of how he and Rin communicate with Gods, letting Rin escape and reach the destroyed island of Speer. There she’s able to give herself completely over to the Phoenix, fueled by rage, and letting it run wild. Which results in it using its power to trigger a series of volcano under Mugen, killing thousands of people. So, Rin is let with the knowledge that she may now be the greatest killer in history, along with the task to having to deal with the God she let escape earlier, and knowing that it’s up to her to stop him.
The Poppy War is a novel that really keeps you on your toes, becoming very different sorts of stories as it progresses, all of which are captivating. I didn’t really know much about it going in, and so when things were first starting I kind of settled into the idea that it was essentially going to be Harry Potter, just following Rin as she went through the struggles of dealing with a strange school situation while also learning that she can use magical powers if she trips out with a God. But, as soon as the war breaks out things become something very different as Rin gets to run around with an elite strike-force of drug-popping wizards, getting involved in all sorts of crazy battles. And, then things take a much darker turn there at the end as Rin gets to become some sort of metaphysical terrorist, while setting up an ongoing narrative that will get more and more mystical as it goes on. And, it all works beautifully. Kuang is a great writer, and she really guides the reader through Rin’s rise and fall, making her slide into a state fueled by hate and vengeance seem natural. Rin may have become a villain by the end of the book, but her journey down this dark path is handled in such a way that you never really question it, and just have to sit back and lament her choices.
One of the things that I always find most interesting about fantasy novels is how they grapple with the idea of magic. It really does seem to be one of the biggest issues that an author has to deal with while building up their world, either by just deciding if it’s going to be present or not, and how it will be implemented. And, I think I can easily say that I’ve never seen another fantasy story that tackled magic quite like this. The idea of getting magic through devotion to a God is unique enough, but having the only way to commune with your gods be by expanding your mind with drugs really gets points for originality. But, beyond just being unique, it also ends up being a really fascinating exploration of faith, and the way that it can be twisted. Jiang does his best to teach Rin that her faith and abilities are something to be honored, something to take deadly seriously. It’s a process of respect. But, that’s not in the interests for those around her. She’s in a military academy, and she’s taught that she needs to take this knowledge, and bend it to a destructive path. She takes a personal thing and is forced to wield it like a weapon. And her faith is used to kill thousands of people. I’m really interested to see where the story goes from here, and how Rin’s exploration of faith will be tested with the knowledge that she was used a weapon.
The Poppy War was written by R. F. Kuang, 2018.
Categories: Page Turners