R.F. Kuang’s epic grimdark fantasy The Poppy War first came to my attention in the form of a Twitter argument about whether or not it was YA (no, according to the author, because of the genocide and the rape and the torture).
Kuang’s epic fantasy novel follows the exploits of Fang Runin, Rin for short, an abused orphan shop girl from the south of not!China, aka Nikan, who, improbably, does well enough in the countrywide entrance examination that she earns a place at the Academy in the capital, Sinegard. Here, the masters are frantically trying to train up a new generation of generals to fight Nikan’s old and menacing enemy not!Japan, that is, the Federation of Mugen. Rin escapes her terrible foster family for the boarding-school bullying of the rich northern elites, where her expulsion from combat classes throws her into the path of Jiang, the school’s mysterious Lore master.
Does Rin have mysterious special powers and does she somehow possess a unique and marvelous heritage? Is she Jiang’s last hope of redeeming his legacy of failure intraining shamans who, despite his tutelage, have proved hungry for nothing but power and revenge? Is the war about to happen despite Nikan’s internal divisions?
The turning-point of the story comes when Mugen invades once again, in the midst of Rin’s Academy education. When she goes to war, she does so not as part of the regular army but as a member of an irregular unit, the Cike, known derogatorily as “the Bizarre Children,” under the leadership of Jiang’s former student, Altan. The Cike are the Empress’s assassins, torturers, and killers, barely tolerated by the regular army despite their shamanic gifts. Altan himself is well known as the last surviving scion of the Speerlies, an incorrigibly warlike indigenous subject people who were annihilated in the last war between the Empire and the Federation. The similarities in Altan and Rin’s backgrounds aren’t coincidental, and they share the preferred strategic approach of fighting fire with firewood.
Kuang, who is Chinese-American and who earned a bachelor’s degree in history earlier this year, sold this book when she was nineteen, and it has to rank as one of the more assured fantasy debuts in the last decade. Although the plot is fairly predictable until the Federation invades and everything goes to hell, after which it’s predictable in a different way, the fluidity of Kuang’s prose and the biting sarcasm which the well-drawn characters employ carry the reader along at a zippy pace through the cavalcade of horrors that Rin witnesses and perpetrates: the book is extremely readable from start to finish. If you know anything about twentieth century Chinese history, the horrors are depressingly predictable; the genocide with which the book ends isn’t really surprising either. Books like Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire (2014) have already introduced genocide into the fantasy conversation; Kuang’s narrative is distinguished from Hurley’s largely in that it has less sexual violence and that not every character in the book is totally evil all of the time. Admittedly, that’s a low bar, but it makes for a much more pleasant and much more plausible reading experience.
Rin herself is an ethical vacuum, and what tension there is in the book comes from the reader betting as to whether she will abandon her professed desire for power at all costs before she crosses the line into the unthinkable (no). At first this desire is understandable: she has nothing and no one, and if she doesn’t do well in the state exam she’s headed straight into a terrible marriage arranged by her opium-smuggling foster family. Once at Sinegard, she needs to become stronger to keep her place after the first year, and she needs to learn martial arts to keep up with her classmates, sons and daughters of the political elite, who’ve been training for the Academy literally since birth. The Sinegard sections, after Rin comes under Jiang’s tutelage, are probably the best in the book; a classic Daoist sage in method, if not in name, Jiang’s martial arts instruction is fascinating, and Rin’s learning shamanism from him is extremely interesting, not least because shamanism is dependent on the same illegal drugs that formerly laid waste to whole swaths of Nikara society. But Rin always makes the worst possible choice, the one that will get her the most power with the least thought for the consequences, and at some point I found myself asking why she gives a damn about her country at all, let alone why she cares enough to commit genocide for it.
For those familiar with contemporary Chinese history, the parallels n The Poppy War are clear or puzzling by turns. (Some touches, such as a carriage driver in Sinegard making sure to finish off their victim in a hit-and-run accident in order to avoid a disability payout, are purely twenty-first century China.) Going into the book, I knew that there was no clear equivalent to Mao and the Chinese Communist Party, which on the one hand simplifies an extremely long and complicated record by leaving out the Long March, the United Front, the Chinese civil war(s), and a whole host of other complex phenomena. On the other hand, Kuang lays a Song Dynasty society over the bones of modern Chinese history, and compresses more than a century of western and Japanese imperialism in China, laying the blame for it squarely at the feet of fake!Japan: the better to justify Rin’s actions against that country at the end of the novel, I suppose. It's an interesting decision, but I can’t help but wonder to what extent twentieth-century history even makes sense as the foundation of an essentially medieval or early modern society, as the Song Dynasty was and Nikan mostly appears to be. There are things about modern history in East Asia which could only happen as part of modernity, but that discussion is most likely beyond the scope of Kuang’s work.
I’m still somewhat surprised that so little of the discussion I’ve seen about this novel even seems to register the genocide as a thing worth discussing. The blurbs on the cover praise the book for offering a warrior heroine who becomes a ruthless military commander, which is certainly one way to interpret Rin’s story. Perhaps readers were desensitized to the whole concept by the genocide of the Speerlies by Mugen a generation before, a genocide which is foregrounded in the narrative and which is one of the acts Rin specifically wants to avenge. Speer seems to be somewhat analogous to Taiwan, but the slaughter of the Speerlies has no clear historical equivalent, particularly since Rin suspects that the Nikara leadership allowed it to happen in order to end the previous war. The book does, however, in its final sections, offer fictionalized recreations of the Nanjing Massacre and the horrific torture and medical experimentation of Unit 731: eventually, these events goad Rin into communing with a god and demanding the power to murder a nation. She believes that the gods that shamans commune with don’t have their own agenda; I can’t help but wonder whether she’s ignoring evidence that doesn’t fit her own beliefs.
In interviews, Kuang has suggested that the book portrays reality, which is superficially true in that not everyone in the book is evil all of the time, and the events on which she’s drawing actually happened in history. Rin even has a friend from the Academy, Kitay, who is an unambiguously decent person; not surprisingly, he’s sidelined once the war takes over the narrative. But that doesn’t mean the book isn’t grimdark. Indeed, proponents of grimdark quite often claim this very “realism” as the subgenre's chief virtue, but you can open any newspaper or even look at Twitter and see that this is gaslighting: the more difficult truth about the world and about history is that the genocidal horrors of the blood-soaked twentieth century, and the slow-motion disaster of our current crazy years, are not the only reality about humans and our relations with one another. We are as capable of acts of kindness as we are of acts of wanton cruelty, and the ability to deny our empathy to some of our fellow members of humanity even as we are compassionate towards others is what makes us so monstrous.
Authors like Kuang are all too often obviously putting their thumbs on the scales to make their narratives plausible. In the case of Kuang and of Hurley in The Mirror Empire, this means making fascist propaganda literally true: in Hurley’s case, it was the Nazi concept of lebensraum; in The Poppy War it’s imperial Japanese propaganda about the divine emperor and the ensuing divine obligation to put the eight corners of the world under one imperial Japanese roof. There are other, equally telling divergences from the historical record: the Sinegardian embrace of the most nationalist possible version of modern Chinese history, right down to the rhetoric about the “Century of Humiliation,” but also a concerted effort to downplay the agency of the Nikara in their own victory over Mugen. Mugen itself embodies the worst possible interpretation of the Japanese Empire in every respect, symbolized by the fact that in Kuang’s version the atrocities of the Nanjing Massacre were deliberately planned in advance.
The cleavage between history and fiction is also particularly glaring in the Unit 731 section; the book depicts the head of the laboratory using mad scientist clichés, but the far more awful reality is that the historical figure in question just didn’t care about his project’s victims, who were referred to as “logs” instead of as people. If you can make it through even the Wikipedia article about the unit and its actions without nearly blacking out with rage and horror, you’re a stronger person than I am; Kuang’s prose doesn’t pack anywhere near as hard a punch. Similarly, Kuang depicts the Mugen soldiers with an unnuanced brush: burning with fanaticism, they don’t see the Nikara as human, and in return Rin declares that they’re not human either. To be sure, The Poppy War is a long book and depicting the Mugen soldiers in such an uncomplicated fashion keeps the novel moving along, but the narrative’s refusal to recognize the human complexity on the other side of the war weakens the reader’s sympathy for Rin.
What makes Rin the villain in her own history isn’t “just” her willingness to commit genocide; it’s that she shares in and ultimately endorses the horrifically casual attitude towards human life which has characterized so much of modern East Asian history, from the British who deliberately fostered opium addiction in the Chinese populace to have something to trade for silver, then used Asian “coolie” labor as the foundation of their perpetually sunlit empire, to the Japanese colonizers who followed the same pattern of addicting subject peoples to drugs, then working them to death through physical or sexual labor, to the Nationalists and the Communists who willingly sacrificed millions for military strategy or political ideology or whatever. This is the attitude of Empire, and what makes it so difficult to sympathize with Nikan, or to understand Rin's passionate attachment to it, is that she and its leaders share the same utter disregard for human life for which they indict Mugen. They’re not wrong in their claims, but that doesn’t make them right.
I also wish that Kuang had leaned harder into the drugs angle of the shamanism. Drugs, particularly opium and amphetamines, were the open secret of much of western and Japanese imperialism in East Asia, and there’s an intriguing tension between historical reality, the Nikara policy declaring all drugs illegal (also drawn from the historical record), and the fact that shamans like Rin and her fellow members of the Cike need drugs to commune with their gods and deploy their supernatural powers. I’m not sure I’ve read another fantasy novel in which getting high is treated so matter-of-factly, and there’s an interesting resonance between the Cike and the military usage of drugs in the twentieth century. Perhaps there will be more of this in the next book. If Rin herself is analogous to Mao, I can certainly guarantee more mass death in the next two volumes of the trilogy.
As much as I’m not personally a fan of grimdark, I understand the impulse to lean into feeling terrible by reading about terrible things; I’ve gone through my own spates of reading doorstop novels about totalitarianism as a coping mechanism, and I’ve read more than a few books about the 1930s in the past year or two. But history is more complicated than fiction, which must necessarily adhere to artificial structures that make narratives comprehensible and satisfying. As you can be reminded of daily by opening Twitter, reality is under no such obligation to conform to artificial human ideas about what’s plausible or surreal or what a writer could get past an editor worth their salt. Kuang’s leaning on history so heavily doesn’t obscure the mostly familiar beats of her story and its structures. But The Poppy War does suggest that she has a bright career ahead of her, if brightness is indeed what she wants.