I will say this about R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, and that will probably be enough to make it clear how much I enjoyed it without the distraction of the rest of this post: I lost quite a bit of sleep over this book. I read it in a couple of big gulps over a few days, and both nights I was reading it I was up much later than I wanted to be because I couldn’t put the damn book down. I was even carrying it around with me in the house and reading the occasional chapter or few pages whenever I had a chance to during the day. A huge percentage of my book-reading is done in bed nowadays, so if I’m setting aside time I could be spending doing something else during my limited free daylight time it’s a really impressive sign.
Early on while reading it I described it to my wife as “Harry Potter, only in sort-of-China, and the main character is Hermione instead of Harry.” It does start off very much in that vein, almost a YA-ish format, right down to the character’s Big Bully Enemy being identified right away. That’s only about the first 20-30% of the book, though, at which point the nation goes to war (the school the main character, Rin, attends is a military academy) and all fucking hell breaks loose. This book lulls you in, see, and makes you think you’re in a comfortable, recognizable sort of narrative only with some East Asian cultural influences thrown in instead of Hogwarts’ staid Britishness and some occasional swearing, but once it goes off the track it goes off the track hard, and once it starts surprising you it never really stops.
Hermione was super-dedicated to her schooling, right? Did she take medicine to burn out her own uterus so that she wouldn’t have menstruation distracting her from her studies, thus rendering her permanently infertile? Hermione ain’t shit, then. And once their country is invaded, genocide becomes a major theme of the book. I don’t remember anything about genocide in the Harry Potter books.
I’m going to spare you much of a plot summary, because you deserve to see the twists and turns as the story unfolds, but be warned that R.F. Kuang does not hold back. Once the war starts there are some scenes in this book that would have made Genghis Khan himself think man, they’re going a bit too far with this. Oh, and drug abuse. Lots of drug abuse.
Seriously: this is not a book for the faint-hearted, but if you aren’t too bothered by profanity and hyperviolence and drugs in what, again, starts out feeling like a slightly more grown-up version of a kids’ series, you’re going to love it. This is definitely the first book of a series, at least a duology– and I can’t wait for the next book in the series.
(Some spoilers after this part, but I think you want to read it anyway.)
I did the thing I usually do when I really like or really hate a book and went to read a bunch of Goodreads reviews once I was finished with it. I generally start with the bad ones; they’re more fun. The Poppy War does not have a lot of bad reviews, but one of the one-star reviews described the book as “super-duper racist,” or something along those lines. I blinked a couple of times at that, utterly unable to figure out what the person was talking about, and looked around some more.
So here’s the thing: this book is set in a fictional China analogue. And the event that kicks off the last 2/3 of the book is the mainland country being invaded by the natives of the small, “moon-shaped” island not far off the coast. In other words– and I needed this pointed out to me; I didn’t pick up on it on my own– Japan.
I do not know a lot about Chinese and Japanese history, but I know that historically Japan has not been nice to China. And this book’s Federation of Mugen has occupied Nikara (pseudo-China) in the past, and … well, they’re not very nice either. Now, the interesting thing is that over the course of the book Rin develops some rather major shamanic powers, to the point where by the end of the book she basically calls down the literal wrath of God on an entire island full of these people and razes it to the ground. Now, it’s an island where the Mugen have been doing experiments on people from her ethnic group, so it’s not as if it’s unjustified, but most of her compatriots react with horror at what she’s done, and it’s set up that Rin is becoming just as bad as the Mugen were by forgetting that they’re people. There is lots of innocent blood shed here, on both sides, and plenty of it by our protagonist.
I simply don’t know enough about the history here to be able to confidently state whether Mugen is a clear Japan analogue– I mean, there are definitely parallels, but it’s not like Kuang (who was born in Guangzhou in mainland China) dwells on racial differences between the Nikara and the Mugen very much, and this is a book where Rin’s dark skin causes a lot of friction at her exclusive military academy, so it’s not like race is something Kuang ignores. It may be that my own ignorance is keeping me from seeing how bad this is. So, while I absolutely enjoyed the hell out of the book, and everything I said before the line is still true, it might be that there are things about it that make it problematic that I haven’t fully explored. Be aware of that, I guess. I would be interested to know if someone from Japan was bothered by this; I don’t know enough to say.