Note: This review contains spoilers! This particular critical review is intended as literary commentary/discussion for those who have already read the book or who don't mind spoilers!
The Poppy War, published in 2018, is a three part novel that follows the story of war orphan Fang Runin (Rin). In desperation to escape from her abusive foster family, Rin studies for two years straight to ace the Keju, an Empire-wide aptitude test which determines which youth are intelligent enough to be trained in the military academies. When Rin gets in to Sinegard—the most elite military academy—tensions rise between her (a dark-skinned peasant) and the privileged children of military leaders attending Sinegard with her. She is taken under the tutelage of the Jiang, the Lore master, to learn fighting and the ancient skill of shamanism. In the second and third sections of the book the Federation of Mugen invades the Nikan Empire, and Rin must join the fight under the command of Altan—who as the last of the Speerlie race has a natural affinity for shamanism and an aptitude for fighting.... just like Rin. Ultimately, Rin makes a decision that goes against everything she learned at Sinegard and takes the fate of the war into her own hands.
General Thoughts and Ideas
I wanted to love this book. In fact, I started out loving it. But as I read through part 2 and 3, I fell out of love—fast. With elements of fantasy, folklore, and war, this book has all the makings of a book I should adore. And the content is important and relevant; it deals with racism, violence, power dynamics, gender inequalities, and social inequalities. But by the end, though I was provoked into deep thought about violence, I can't say that I felt invested in the story anymore. That said, this book is a page turner, and the pace of the story kept me engaged and reading until the end!
Though the plot kept me reading, the characterization ultimately failed to make me root for Rin past the first section, and by the end of the book, I was completely alienated from her. I also was never fully immersed in the setting because of the lack of attention paid to the world-building in Kuang's writing. I got a good "big-picture" idea of the world, but I never felt immersed. I never felt that I was right there with Rin. I think this book is a good choice for readers who are primarily interested in action, and who don't necessarily need an emotional connection to the story in order to enjoy a novel.
This book has a little bit of identity confusion. It reads, at times, as pure historical fiction. Other times, it reads as pure fantasy. I think the merging of the historical fiction and the fantasy elements could have been smoother. It's almost as if there are two stories being told in this novel: Rin's story and a re-telling of the Rape of Nanjing. I feel that these two stories are at tension with each other.
The plot is part of what makes The Poppy War a page-turner. It excelled at making me ask questions that I want answered—what happens next! Why did she do that! How will this resolve?—which made this read super engaging. I read this book FAST because of this structure and the consistent pace. The hook is excellent, the stakes are made apparent immediately, and the ending leaves off on quite the cliffhanger.
Setting / World Building
I think that the most intriguing part of this novel's world building was the magic system! I was very interested in the 64 deities of the pantheon. The Phoenix God was the most developed God, and though he is intriguing, I wish that I knew the names and roles of the other 63 gods so I could understand if they are all the same as the Phoenix or if they are different. I was intrigued by the idea of balance in this book. I appreciated that using power, becoming a shaman, has consequences—namely the loss of one's identity and mind—and that power wasn't just freely given to a few chosen people.
I enjoyed the setting of The Poppy War immensely because it's different than most fantasy novels—it takes place in an alternate universe China as opposed to a fantasy medieval Europe. I wish there was even more description linking the narrative to the Eastern setting, such as through descriptions of architecture, climate, culture, or foods. There were many gaps left in the setting; I truly have no clue about the climate in Nikan and I have no idea what the landscapes of the 12 provinces are like. I really have no clue about the behavior of the people coming from the different provinces either, and I wish I knew if there are separate cultures, religions, and celebrations between provinces. To be honest, I never really felt immersed in the way I was yearning to.
One thing I couldn't help but notice is the pages upon pages of info-dumps in this novel. Masking some of the the info dumps in Rin's classroom learning—especially in her tactics class—was clever... but still, I dislike being lectured to! I always prefer to learn about the world in a more natural, organic manner.
In terms of the structure of the novel, it was jarring to have the first third set primarily in Sinegard. I was just getting a feel for the academy when suddenly we are thrust out into the war with Rin. From there on, it felt like we jumped from setting to setting without ever really getting the chance to experience it.
As the underdog in so many ways, in the beginning of the novel it's easy to relate to Rin, root for her, and admire her determination and resolve. But Rin is also full of rage and a single-minded desire for power. Throughout the book, she doesn't even try to understand what the ramifications of the power she seeks might be though she is warned by two authorities, Tearza and Jiang. Instead, she considers Altan the best authority even though he is as untested in battle and life as she is.
Rin is an undeniably strong character, but she is never forced to deal with her traumas or the violence she has endured. Perhaps as a result, she also doesn't seem to know how to develop true friendships; she doesn't even seem to have fondness for her one and only friend, Kitay. Even when he invited her to his family home, there was a lot of distance between them. But still, I knew that Kitay is important to her because she is desperate to find him at Golyn Niis (the city that mirrors Nanjing). Further, his disapproval of her committing genocide forces her to start to acknowledge the truth of her actions—though at the end of the novel she remains in denial about what she's done.
I had a hard time understanding Rin's desires, wishes, fears, shames, and feelings. I couldn't connect with her disappointments, her humiliations—like when she was banished from fighting class for simply defending herself from Nezha's attacks. That was a moment I wanted to rally behind her, but I just couldn't feel her emotions because of her propensity to bounce back without acknowledging the hurt and pain—to put up a front, so to speak. Her strongest desire was to get into the academy, and once she achieved that, I lost my connection with her. She seemed lost in the academy to me. She says in the book that she wants to be a soldier, and that she wants power... but that's not the true answer, or a compelling answer. And so just as she is disconnected from herself, I became disconnected from her.
I was impressed with Nezha's character dynamics. In a way, I think he acted as an excellent foil for Rin. His light skin and beautiful features highlighted the way that his world viewed someone like her. Further, his "refinement" and cultural knowledge highlighted how much of an outsider Rin was. All in all I think Nezha's frustration and competitive spirit pushed Rin to work hard to prove him wrong (even though he was wrong to hold the opinions he did and she definitely shouldn't have had to prove anything to him). He even seemed to overcome his anger and violent tendencies as the book progressed.
I understood Nezha's character from the beginning. He wanted to fulfill his family obligations and become the best fighter to impress his military father. He truly believed that he was better than Rin and he felt a sense of superiority. He was humbled and terrified of her when they finally fought and she could not only hold her own but defeat him.
I was intrigued by their relationship once the war started. It seemed that he actually may have fallen in love with Rin, or at least that he cared for her deeply. He shed his sense of superiority and accepted her as an equal—and even felt remorse for his previous beliefs! Now that's character development. I was truly upset when he was lost in the gas attack and I am holding out hope for his character to return in the next book.
I really loved Kitay's character. I admired the fact that he flaunted social expectations and chose to befriend Rin, even to his social exclusion. I think he is strong like Rin, albeit in a different way. He is independent of thought despite his privileged upbringing. His invitation for Rin to spend break at his home demonstrated that he is thoughtful. His discomfort with Rin's actions at the end of the novel demonstrate that he has a strong moral code, which I respected. All in all, I really adored this character and his ability to remain moral and ethical despite all external circumstances. I especially admired his ability to disagree with Rin because it demonstrated just how strong he is—imagine disagreeing with someone with the power to make a volcano erupt! That takes guts.
Kitay is a very stable and calm character, which also foiled Rin and highlighted her hot-blooded nature. He did grow as a character as well: for example, his infatuation with Altan highlighted his own immaturity at the beginning of the book, and by the end of the book, I think he learned how to stand on his own rather than to blindly admire others.
I understood his desire to study tactics, and I empathized with his desire to serve in the army using the knowledge he learned.
Altan, like Rin, is full of rage due to his previous trauma. And Altan never really had a chance to resolve his traumas either. Instead, he was used by the academy and turned into a tool. While I had immense empathy for Altan, I couldn't get behind him at all. In my opinion, Altan's character was static. He never changed. He continued to make horrible decisions. He continued to treat people poorly. Even in the end, he choose to just... die. Or maybe he didn't. It's unclear. But it seems to me that he committed suicide so that Rin could survive to commit literal genocide. There was no character growth for me. In the end, Altan didn't even give himself the chance to face the consequences of his poor decisions. He just... gave up. I am not even sure he realized his own delusions in the end. The ending amplifies his static characterization and takes it to the extreme because not only does he not overcome his rage or his escapism, he commits suicide (which in a way can be viewed as the ultimate escape). Perhaps some would argue he sacrificed himself but somehow I just know he wasn't only thinking of saving Rin when he walked into enemy fire. He wanted to die. Something about this character ark just doesn't satisfy me.
Jiang as a character takes on the roles of the eccentric and the wise old mentor. I truly felt that Jiang was underdeveloped, especially for such a key character. I still have no idea what his character motivation was, what he truly wanted. He, like Altan, is all about escapism, and in the end he just buggers off to finish off his life trapped underground, sealed away in the Chuluu Korikh, where all shamans eventually go to be buried alive forever to prevent them from destroying the world. Jiang didn't live up to my expectations. I really thought he'd be able to reach Rin. To guide her.
The Violence: Let's Talk About It
TRIGGER WARNING: Please, please don't read this section if you are mentally, emotionally, or physically upset and troubled by descriptions of sexual or physical abuse or war crimes.
Kuang says "To be entirely frank, if you're turned off by violence, I might pick up a different book" (Goodreads). And I would agree. There are scenes described in this book that I think will always haunt me.
Sexual Violence / Violence Against Women
Violence against women is something that Kuang doesn't shy away from in this book. One of Rin's roommates from Sinegard after being captured by the enemy is forced to be a "comfort" woman, meaning she endured rape after rape, forced abortion, beatings, observed genital mutilation, was forced to watch men raping babies and girls, watched the dismemberment of other women, the murder of babies, girls, and women, and watched or endured countless other horrors. These atrocities are based off of Japanese "comfort" women who were women and girls taken by Japanese soldiers in World War II.
I was dismayed at how Rin choose follows—and loves—Altan despite his verbal and physical abuse towards her in the story. Rather than exploring how Altan was abusing his authority and position, the story explores how Rin grows to feel sympathetic for Altan and how she chooses to justify his behavior because of his traumatic past—almost condoning it. I don't think that will ever sit well with me.
A lesser violence that shocked me was Rin's decision to have a hysterectomy after her first period. I apprecaite that Rin has an iron will, and I absolutely agree that bodily autonomy is something all women MUST have, but the mutilation of her reproductive organ after only one period sends the message that a woman with a period can't participate in society. For an organ to be so easily discarded made it seem to me that Rin was out of tune with her body. I appreciated that she doesn't run into any trouble doing this, because in real life women are barred from this decision, but to have a 16 year old do this on a whim feels callous. Further, the delight of the nurse and her comments about how much better it is for women soldiers to be sterile felt regressive to me.
Other Forms of Violence: Physical, Emotional, Mental, Systemic, Epistemic
While I didn't yearn for a romantic subplot—Kuang is adamant that "this book is not a romance story" (Goodreads)—I struggled to find any love at all: no friendship, no familial love, no trust, no playfulness, no selflessness, or generosity. The lack of love, of humanity, made this novel feel uneven, unbalanced. The Poppy War explores only the negative side of humanity—Genocide. Rape. Slaughter. Murder. Bullying. Torture. Threats. Intimidation. Suicide. Humiliation. Ethnocentrism. Death. Fear. Abuse. Mutilation. Human experimentation. And Anger. So much Anger. The onslaught of human cruelty and darkness never lets up—and Rin in the end is just as guilty as those she initially despises.
I don't think it had to be this way. Some of the most violent shows I have seen and books I've read are also full of love—platonic love, filial love, romantic love, love for one's country, self-love, friendships, love of mental thought or ideas, etc. Even Game of Thrones, perhaps one of the most violent shows I have watched, had love: for example, Ned and Catelyn romantically loved each other, held great familial love for their children, and both had an undying love and loyalty to The North and what it represented.
Even though some of the most violent parts were based on real historical events, such as the 1937 Rape of Nanjing, the relentless violence at times felt gratuitous, pulling too much from history for the sheer shock value. I will never unsee in my mind the descriptions of babies boiled alive. Of babies being sliced in half. Of people skinned. Of babies being ripped in half. Of people being disembowled. Beheaded people. Gassed people. Burned people. Piles of dead bodies. Dismembered bodies. Bodies nailed to walls. Genital mutilations. Piles of heads. Bodies half buried in the dirt with the top halves eaten by dogs. These descriptions are horrific. Kuang makes no effort to bring the reader out of the violence or provide any light at the end of the tunnel. The book revels in human suffering.
Similarities To Other Stories
There is nothing unusual with writers being inspired by other stories... but it was hard to ignore some of the more obvious references. Kuang herself references her inspirations on Goodreads:
"If you liked Avatar the Last Airbender but always wished it were a little darker and more fucked-up, you might like this. I think everyone writes, unconsciously or not, from the sources they loved, and this book ended up being my creative smorgasbord of ATLA, Ender's Game, The Grace of Kings, and Game of Thrones" (Kuang, Goodreads).
This story noticeably pulls from other stories. Here is what I noticed:
From Avatar the Last Airbender—There are 2 strong similarities that I noticed. First, ATLA features a spirit called Koh the Face Stealer, who is one of the oldest, most knowledgeable, and most dangerous spirits in the Spirit World. Koh can take on the face of anyone whose face he has stolen previously. In The Poppy War, there is a beast called a Chimei that can also take on the face and shape of people due to a lifetime of stealing faces called. Secondly, the white haired mentor associated with fire magic who suddenly disappears and abandons teaching the protagonist in a display of superior magic wielding in ATLA is Jeong Jeong. In The Poppy War, it's Jiang.
In the Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss—The story of the orphan of superior intelligence and talent who makes it into an elite academy and is able to learn extraordinary feats (magic!) is shared by both main characters, Kvothe from In the Name of the Wind, and Rin from The Poppy War. The similarity for me is felt mostly in the first section.
From Samurai Champloo—Since the story is based off of the Sino-Japanese war, Kuang re-named the Japanese the Mugenese, from the land of Mugen. One of my favorite animes, Samurai Champloo, has the memorable character, Mugen, who was born in a penal colony on the Ryukyu Islands. Something about Mugen seems like the Speerlies (not the Mugenese despite the name similarity) who are a race of people both Rin and Altan belong to. Mugen is dark skinned, like Rin, with unhinged and exceptional fighting ability, like Rin. Lastly, Mugen is associated with the animal of Rooster, and Rin is from the Rooster Province. This is a loose connection, but I was reminded of Mugen from Samurai Champloo the whole time I read The Poppy War.
From The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins—In the hunger games, the world of Panem is separated into 12 districts. In The Poppy War the Nikan Empire is separated into 12 provinces based on the 12 Chinese Zodiac signs.
So, Do I Recommend this Book?
I know, I know. I spent a lot of time writing criticism about this book... but it kept me reading until the end, and now, two weeks after finishing it, I am STILL thinking about it. While I can't say I liked everything, it was engaging enough to make me feel frustrated, and to make me consider difficult questions far past the last page. And I think that is successful writing.
I would love to know what you thought about this book, dear reader! Please sign in below and comment with your opinion. Do you agree/disagree with me on any points I discussed? Let me know!
See Kuang's review here at Goodreads!