I’ve been looking forward to reading THE POPPY WAR for a good long while now. An East-Asian inspired grimdark fantasy based on the horrors of the second Sino-Japanese War and the Nanjing Massacre with a main character loosely based on Mao Zedong drew me like a moth to a flame. It’s a book that’s had two years worth of overwhelming praise combined with the shocked gasps of horror from its readers to cement itself in my mind as a gritty, serious and very dark fantasy novel. The story revolves around Fang Runin (or Rin, as she’s known), a peasant determined to escape the toil and oppression of life in her backwater village, where her foster parents plan to sell her as a wife to the local customs officer in return for the freedom to ply their opium trade free of interference. Rin resolves to take the Keju, the imperial exam to find the most talented youth to study at the prestigious Academies, where she begins her studies as war looms with the neighbouring rival island nation, the Federation of Mugen.
This is one of those times where I’m gonna be majorly out of step with the rest of the fantasy community – this was a rocky book man. I don’t know whether it fell victim to high expectations or what, but it ended up being not at all the book I thought I was signing up for. It started out well and I enjoyed the first few chapters a lot. We’re introduced to Rin’s monotonous life in the village of Tikany and the tyranny of her foster parents the Fangs, who exploit her as free labour before resolving to marry her off for their own gain; we get a brilliant glimpse of Rin’s determination to escape the life that’s planned out for her and the lengths she’s willing to go to make sure that happens. I saw how dark this story promised to be as Rin showed flashes of ruthlessness and manipulation and self harmed in order to force herself to study hard enough to pass the Keju. But then she arrived at Sinegard Academy and things just got a bit weird. The tone became noticeably lighter, at times bordering on whimsical. We spend a lot of time with Master Jiang, a teacher at the academy who is regarded as a bit of a joke among the other masters but who takes Rin under his wing. My expectation going into the story was that I’d be reading a serious, gritty narrative but instead I found myself reading about Jiang walking round the academy making fart noises and banging his head off tree branches cos…I dunno, cos he’s funny and quirky? I honestly felt like I was reading crude slapstick comedy for a lot of this section and Jiang was playing the archetypal ‘dumb as a bag of rocks’ character in a cookie-cutter sitcom.
I had a bit of a gripe with the academy itself as well. We’re constantly told how Sinegard is the most elite academy in the empire, the absolute best of the best, cream of the crop. We’re told the classes are outrageously difficult and students frequently have to go without sleep so they have enough time to study history and practise combat and everything else. Granted, the martial arts side of things actually is fiendishly demanding, but when we actually get a glimpse into the level of classroom discussion of history, I felt like it read more like a GCSE level introduction than the curriculum of an elite academic institution. I didn’t see much depth to it. Again, further down the line when Rin is taking her final exam, it seems to only consist of the masters just asking a few questions that she’s able to answer with a rote three line response lifted straight out of a textbook. My own actual childhood school exams were harder than that. To me it felt like I was being told this is the most elite academy that only the most dedicated and intelligent students can graduate from, but I didn’t actually see it in how things actually existed in the story world.
I found a lot of the banter and humour quite childish as well. I’ve already mentioned the eye-rolling fart jokes and slapstick routine, and I understand the immature back-and-forths between some of the academy students because they are actual teenagers, but even the dialogue from the masters is disappointingly similar. I get that Master Jun is a petty man, but there are ways to write petty without turning a serious figure into a petulant child and making the tone come across almost cartoonish. I’m thinking of some dark books that do this quite well, like The Prophet in Alexis Henderson’s The Year of the Witching, or Virgil Doyle in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, both books which portray these serious characters as petty without ever infantilising them. I’m not saying R. F. Kuang necessarily failed to do what she set out to achieve; it’s entirely possible this is exactly the vibe she was going for, and if that’s the case, then she succeeded, but it didn’t work for me I’m afraid. I had similar thoughts about the banter and jibes between the members of the militia unit Rin is assigned to as well. Their ages do vary quite drastically, but I couldn’t get away with the characters who were well into their twenties talking like childish teenagers.
I expressed some of these issues in condensed form on twitterdotcom while I was reading the book and got a lot of responses from people saying some variant of “Just You Wait Lol”, and the book does get super fucking dark about 400 pages in but (for me anyway) dark fantasy is more than just adding a few chapters with graphic descriptions of atrocities and war crimes in the final quarter of an otherwise not-all-that-dark book. And as I’m writing this I’m thinking about how subjective this all is, because there are undeniably dark fantasy elements running through the story from start to finish, I just never felt it until towards the end. Which suggests that, at least for me, tone and atmosphere is very important when it comes to writing grimdark and dark fantasy. There’s a particular moment I recall thinking this in the story, where Rin describes the besieged city of Khurdalain as ‘hell on earth’ and while some pretty nasty stuff certainly was going on, the writing never felt evocative enough to me for this to ring true.
There are a few very significant mitigating factors to weigh against all the things that didn’t work for me, and that’s story and character. I can forgive almost anything in a book if I’m invested in the characters and their story, and Great Tortoise is Rin compelling. She does some veeeery questionable things, to put it mildly. But you can understand why. You really can. And the foreshadowing of her behaviour is very well done. Right from the beginning, when Rin is still a peasant in Tikany, you can see flashes of the aspects of her personality that will be amplified by her experiences later, her willingness to suffer for success and to make sacrifices most people would not have the capacity for. And even while I thought the world building and the world’s history itself was a bit shallow, Rin’s engagement with it was very complex. My favourite scene in this book relates to Rin hearing the story of a ruler she believes failed her people by refusing to use her power to defend them. Rin asks her companion, Qara, if she thought this ruler was correct to sacrifice her people to prevent the destruction defending them would necessarily unleash. Qara responds “I think Tearza was wise. And I think that she was a bad ruler. Shamans should know when to resist the power of the gods. That is wisdom. But rulers should do everything in their power to save their country. That is responsibility”. When she said this I could almost sense Rin’s perspective shift; I could tell the how formative a moment this was for her and would shape how she saw the world from that moment on, along with all the consequences it would unleash. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about that moment, it was incredibly well-executed.
Taking all this together, I’m clearly on the fringe when it comes to The Poppy War; barring a few exceptions, almost all the people I’ve spoken to about this book think it’s incredible. Obviously, I don’t think that. It has some things going for it that kept it readable, and I will carry on reading the series because I think Rin and her story is compelling enough that I want to see where it goes, but overall The Poppy War was a bit too rocky for me to side with the majority here.
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