Are There Lesbians? No
Rin is a war-orphan, destined for nothing more than to be married off by her opium-peddling guardians in order to advance their business. But then she aces the Keju – the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies – and works her way into the most prestigious military Academy, Sinegard. With war brewing on the horizon, Rin’s acceptance into the academy is only the beginning especially when she learns that the ancient powers of shamanism aren’t so ancient after all, and that Rin has an uncanny aptitude for them…
The Poppy War is less a novel and more a paper-wrapped sucker-punch to the gut. You will think you are prepared, but you will not be. What starts as an almost Rothfuss-esque university story at a prestigious military academy, soon dissolves into an account of the worst things humanity is able to do to one another when the country is invaded.
Unlike so many fantasy novels, The Poppy War is unafraid to shy away from the reality of the atrocity and futility of war. Unlike Tolkien there is no glory in battle here, unlike George RR Martin there is no gleeful wallowing in the atrocities committed. There is only fact, voiced plain and simple by an anti-heroine slowly descending into apathy, from which she will emerge enraged. Victory in battle is neither decisive or complete. There is no single figurehead to crush, no general whose defeat will cause an entire army to crumble. R.F Kuang based her story on 20th century China, with a focus on the Rape of Nanking and readers should not treat this history lightly, because the author does not, and if you go into this book lighthearted and sure then prepare for heartbreak. Kuang is adamant about providing trigger warnings for this novel, with drug use and addiction, and images of wartime terror including rape and torture, rampant throughout, but especially in the latter half.
The main character, Rin, is a horrible person. She is violent and merciless in her approach to overcoming a problem and displays a single-mindedness that is completely terrifying. Yet she is eminently likeable. In her quest for knowledge and power, Rin makes herself barren – sacrificing the possibility of children for her education. This scene in particular is fantastic because it shows not only how sure a sixteen year old is able of being in the decision to not have children, but the sheer rationality Rin shows in doing so. She has fought her way into Sinegard – the country’s most esteemed military academy – so that her foster family will not sell her to a merchant. She has done all this to escape a life where she would be forced to bear and raise children, why would she give up all her hard work just to have the life that she fought so hard to escape?
Most refreshingly, there is no romance in The Poppy War. This is severely lacking these days, especially in novels with a female protagonist. Relationships are between friends and found family with the only hint of a potential romantic relationship a queer one-sided affair.
The Poppy War takes one look at the tropes that make up standard high fantasy and sets fire to them. There are the occasional tropes – mostly where unlikely odds are overcome in order to further the story, and in particular the trope of the mad old man who is actually full of ancient wisdom and power. However, the big fantasy tropes are noticeably absent. There are no prophecies here, and any attempted fortune-telling is only deciphered too late to be of use. Destiny becomes a myth, there is only the choices that are made, and the simple fact that once made, even bad choices have to be lived with. It is these choices which are likely to become a harsh reality in the second novel.
Kuang has written a fantasy novel that is guaranteed to stick with its readers well after they have finished reading. It will be surprising if The Poppy War does not make it into fantasy canon along with the works of authors like Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel as Kuang has produced a marvelously thought-out, provoking and well-written work and it would be a shame to see all this talent ignored by readers simply because The Poppy War is not based on a medieval western society.