Book Review: The Poppy War, RF Kuang
Fantasy: The Poppy War, RF Kuang
Shortlisted by many as one of the best fantasy books of 2018, The Poppy War is a stellar debut novel that feels both familiar and brand new. In some ways there is familiar territory being covered: Runin, a poor orphan girl, studies hard to excel on the test granting admission to the top school in the country. While there, she is largely shunned and mocked for her poverty, her gender, her color, her accent, and her lack of a family. However, she discovers within herself access to a power greater than her classmates can comprehend, a power that allows her to become more than just a mere soldier, a power that can change the course of a war, a country, humanity itself.
Runin can become a shaman, a conduit of the gods. There is a cost, though. It may require she lose her very humanity. If the result is the salvation of her country, though, is that not worth it? What price should not be paid, what price is too high, if the enemy is at the gates?
RF Kuang’s novel is rich and nuanced. Runin is a very complex character, flawed and deep. Her drive to escape her childhood is so strong that she is willing to burn her skin with candles to stay awake and master the course of study. To study with the Lore Master at her school she is willing to carry a pig up and down a mountain daily (it builds physical strength, speed, and stamina) for the months it takes for the pig to reach maturity. Yet with this drive comes rashness and immaturity. She is nearly expelled for fighting a classmate. And later she comes close to killing that same classmate, pulling herself back only at the last moment.
When her country is invaded by their long-term enemy, Runin is drafted to serve in the defense forces. She sees how ruthless the invaders are toward both enemy soldiers and civilians, and she starts to come to grips with her own powers. And as both the atrocities increase and the country begins to fall, the questions of right and wrong become more muddled. The god she can access is a god of fire and a god of revenge. How much fire is she willing to unleash? How far is she willing to take her revenge? The rules of war are different when you are fighting with a god’s agenda. That agenda may overlap with human desires, but they should never be mistaken as being the same.
Reinterpreting portions of 20th Century Chinese and Japanese history, The Poppy War is both a fantasy and an alternate history that has some resonance with other coming-of-age books but is also unique and distinctly Asian in its telling. It is a powerful and thoughtful book, and a great start to what looks to be an excellent series.