The Poppy War by R F Kuang (review copy from Harper Voyager) is a stunning and gut-wrenching debut. Kuang mixes up real historical events (such as the Rape of Nanjing) with bigotry and violence to tell a complex story of betrayal and revenge.
The novel opens as Fang Runin (Rin) – a war orphan – is studying for the entrance exam to earn a scholarship place at Sinegard, the foremost military academy in Nikara. Education is Rin’s escape from her abusive foster parents and the prospect of an unwanted marriage. It offers her the chance of independence and a career. Successful, she finds herself one of a group of new students at Sinegard. But her education is interrupted when the always strained relations with neighbouring country Mugen erupt into war. Mugen and Nikara have a history of tit-for-tat conflict, with peace always uneasy and never lasting long. Both countries have long memories and lists of the war crimes committed by the other.
The early parts of The Poppy War have the feel of Pat Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind – student from the wrong side of the tracks enrols in school, makes enemies among the students and tutors, but catches the attention of the most eccentric and elusive of the school’s tutors, the Lore tutor Jiang. Rin learns that the stories of her childhood about gods and men able to summon them and their magic have truth in them. Under Jiang’s supervision she begins to learn how to access her spiritual side and the Pantheon of the gods. This is in sharp contrast to the rest of her training on military medicine, strategy and history.
The latter parts of the book are pure military fantasy, with shades of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. Rin’s loyalty to her command structure and her patriotism to the Empress and Nikara is tested to the limits as the novel progresses. This is a novel that asks us to choose between conflicting loyalties at every turn.
The Poppy War is strong on the horrors of war (particularly the sequence based on the Rape of Nanjing, where the invading Japanese army massacred the civilian population of the city) and the camaraderie between unit members. It draws heavily on the contested history between China and Japan, particularly the Second Sino-Japanese War. (Kuang’s academic background is in this period of history.) The military incidents in the book are modelled on that war, right down to the use of chemical and biological weapons.
This is a novel with a fantastic level of class-consciousness and awareness of inequality and prejudice. Although the national examinations are supposed to be meritocratic, they inevitably favour the rich and privileged who can afford the classical education tested for. Sinegard is the only college that offers a full scholarship – for all the others the student’s family must meet the costs of their education. So, while superficially meritocratic, this education system acts as a tool to reinforce and embed the privilege and stratification in Nikara society. Although Rin’s fellow Sinegard student Altan Trengsin, the last of the Speerlies (a nation of fearsome warriors with the reputation of being able to summon fire, who were wiped out in a brutal act of genocide in the last war), is idolised for his fighting skills, he is treated as a curiosity and freak: mocked for his dark skin and the target of all the other students.
Rin is the inevitable product of this society. Abused and exploited as a child and the victim of racist and classist bullying at Sinegard, she is used to mistreatment. That for her is normal. She blackmails her childhood tutor to help her prepare for the exam. She gets through her studying by self-harming. Anger at her mistreatment and the fragility of her life and future are what keep her going and focused on her education. When she does encounter kindness, from Jiang, she doesn’t quite know how to respond to it. Ironically she ends up most comfortable in the strict hierarchy of the Militia, where she can rail against orders and authority, but within the familiar context of abusive and controlling power structures.
To that extent it is no wonder that The Poppy War ends where it does. This is a book about what happens when you dehumanise people and push them to their limits of pain and endurance. That this is a story rooted in real history makes this all the more chilling. Anger and the desire for revenge are powerful motives, but they are inherently destructive ones. Almost inevitably, the abuse victim lashes out in revenge, but the price is a terrible one.
Goodreads rating: 5*