“What if Mao had been a young girl” – and had access to magic and gods? Such is the premise on which R.F. Kuang bases her fantasy trilogy, starting with The Poppy War. It’s a fascinating basis for a story.
The story follows Fang Runin, who goes by Rin, a young orphaned girl raised by abusive, opium-dealing foster parents. Rin lives in one of the poorer provinces of the Nikara Empire, which closely resembles 19th/20th century China. As the book begins, 14-year-old Rin faces the horrifying prospect of a forced marriage. Her only hope of escape is gaining entrance into the empire’s elite military school – the only school that does not require tuition payments. But to enroll, she must pass the rigorous entrance exam, better than the elites and hopefuls from around the empire, most of whom have been preparing for this exam all their lives.
On top of that, she must face the racism and classism of those around her, endure the rigors of her education, and attempt to master a long-forgotten power that brings her into contact with the rage-filled Phoenix god.
And then the war begins.
Rin is a complicated character. We want to cheer her on and see her succeed. She’s sympathetic, smart, and determined as hell. She’s also desperate for power, to overcome the powerlessness of her youth. The more suffering and horror she sees her fellow citizens endure, the more determined she is to gain that power and use it, no matter the cost.
As the story continues, particularly in the subsequent books, it became harder and harder to like Rin. Her actions and feelings were understandable, but she also makes you want to reach through the pages and shake her or shout for her to stop and really think about what she’s doing. Plenty of other characters try. But Rin is marching along her own path.
Kuang does an excellent of bringing Chinese historical themes and events to The Poppy War. There are ties to the opium wars, the Chinese/Japanese relations, and of course the rise of Mao Zedong. Kuang’s parents immigrated to the United States from China and never spoke of life there. Kuang eventually spent a year living in China and heard stories from her grandparents of their experiences.
***CONTENT WARNING FOR THE BOOK AND THE REST OF THIS REVIEW***
Be aware that there are numerous scenes of self-harm, drug use, torture, rape, war crimes, and more. For the rest of this review, I’m going to refer to the atrocities committed by Japan against China at Nanjing during the 1930s and how that relates to the book, though without going into detail. There’s mention of suicide as well, so feel free to stop here if needed.
Of course, using early 20th century Chinese history means there are some very, very dark chapters. About halfway through The Poppy War, war breaks out. There is a very accurate depiction of the horrific atrocities committed by the Japanese army against the Chinese during the Nanjing Massacre (also known as the Rape of Nanking) in 1937, during the Pacific War/Second Sino-Japanese War/World War II. If you’re not familiar with it, Iris Chang’s book The Rape of Nanking is a foundational account of the seemingly endless atrocities – mass murder, mass rape, torture. It’s an important book, but Chang does not hold back. (She later died by suicide at the age of 36. One article focuses on her work and its effects on her in a discussion about historians traumatized by their studies. https://newrepublic.com/article/161127/can-historians-traumatized-history.)
I’ve read bits and pieces of Chang’s book, I’ve seen some of the pictures from the time period, I’ve watched movies about the massacre. When I was teaching, I made sure to include it in my lectures about World War II. And to this day, I cannot read or think about it without starting to feel physically ill. Which brings us to the question – should such things be included in a fantasy novel that also has a pantheon of gods to which humans can connect with meditation and opium?
As hard as it was for me to read that section, I think it’s important to include. First, it is not done gratuitously or as torture-porn. It fits with what we’ve learned so far in the book and it helps us understand (if not condone) where Rin goes from there. Kuang cites her sources at the end of the book and gives her own scholarly and personal background. She handles the whole thing well. Second, I strongly believe that fiction is an important vehicle for learning about reality. The inclusion of real-world historical events or current events, and especially those which do not get much or any coverage in school, can really open doors to learn more or at a minimum develop a sense of empathy and compassion for people. The fact that Kuang includes a list of non-fiction reading about the Nanjing Massacre is very helpful in that regard.
While Rin herself is only a witness to the aftermath of the atrocities, other characters endured the actual event. We learn more about it from them, and importantly, how it affects their lives going forward. Kuang also has us grapple with the question – in the face of such evilness, is any response going too far? Is justice even possible or only revenge? Should there be limits on that vengeance?
In the end, The Poppy War trilogyis a difficult but rewarding series of books. The magic/religion aspects are well done and still feel like this could be part of our own world (likely enhanced by all the close historical parallels). But just like real history, nothing is ever clear cut or simple, including the purported heroes. That’s what makes it so compelling.