The Poppy War

-Rebecca F. Kuang


The push for more diverse writers (and identity politics in general) has had the unfortunate side-effect of convincing many readers, on both sides of the political aisle, that a number of writers were only published because of their gender, or the colour of their skin, or because of something that the vast majority of writers are unable or unwilling to leverage to their advantage.  The fundamental unfairness of affirmative action makes it harder to accept that a book might not be your cup of tea, but others may feel differently.  ‘Diverse’ writers therefore have to deal with the stigma of being ‘diverse,’ of being prejudged as having effectively cheated their way to publication.  This is fundamentally - brutally - unfair, but it happens.


The Poppy War is an excellent demonstration of precisely why it is unfair.


When I read it for the first time, I was hooked.  I slid into the story as easily as I slide down a ramp.  When I finished, I decided that the author had jumped to the top of my A-List; I promptly started reading it again.  On the second read, I noticed a handful of problems with the text, but the author’s writing skills were more than good enough to convince me to overlook them.  In short, I really liked this book.


In an Empire that bears more than a passing resemblance to Imperial China, Rin - a young war orphan - sets out to escape her unwanted foster parents by taking and acing the empire-wide tests to find the best students in the empire.  Winning a scholarship to Sinegard, the foremost military academy, she thinks she has it made ... until she discovers that a brown-skinned peasant girl sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the grandees.  Ill-prepared for the academy, facing bullies of both genders, she forces her way up the ladder ... slowly uncovering hints of magic and power beyond her wildest imaginations.  Eventually, she learns how to call on the gods themselves for power ... at a hefty price.


Her studies are interrupted by war.  The empire is being invaded by ‘Imperial Japan.’  She is pushed into defending the academy, then a city under siege; she discovers, too late, the truth behind her origins ... and how she can use them to stop the war.  Betrayed by her superiors, she unleashes a nightmare upon ‘Japan’, takes control of her army unit and sets out to avenge the betrayal ...


It’s easy to draw comparisons between The Poppy War and The Girl King.  They do have much in common, being based on Imperial China, but The Poppy King is a vastly superior piece of work.  The author effortlessly evokes both the grandeur and squalor of China, taking us on a ride from the heartlands of empire to lands devastated by war.  She makes no bones about the multiethnic dimensions of the empire, discussing races within the empire that had strange powers ... some of which proved very dangerous.  Her description of corruption within the empire, of racism and opium smuggling and how the warlords refused to work together, is a very accurate description of what happened to our China.  The failure to unite and adapt to an outside foe eventually brought the whole system crashing down. 


The Poppy War also has the advantage of a fundamentally different magic system than most books, one that is both rational enough to be understandable and yet manages to maintain a sense of wonder.  Martial arts are not magic, the tutors say ... except they are, under the right circumstances.  (Shades of Iron Fist and countless other stories featuring oriental wisdom here.)  Rin learns she can call on the gods, but the price for doing so can be very high.  Her first real teacher is terrified of his power, with reason; her second accepts the price and pays it willingly.  And, in the end, Rin herself makes the same decision.


As always, the core of a great book lies with its main character.  And Rin is fundamentally likeable, right from the start.  She works hard to get what she wants; she never gives up, even when pushed to ‘admit’ she cheated.  (She points out, rather dryly, that if she cheated she somehow beat an anti-cheating system that was lauded as unbeatable.)  She faces immense difficulties, from the standard bullies to the anger of the gods themselves, but overcomes them.  Her character sharpens as she grows older, she loses some of her more likable points, but ... she stays a great character.  There is much for writers to learn from The Poppy War.


The book also managed to give life to a wide cast of other characters, from her first teacher (who appears, on the surface, to be a little crazy) to aristocratic students who have huge advantages over her.  The author does manage to develop them, for better or worse: the school bully becomes a partner, then a friend; the queen bee is captured by the enemy and gang-raped ... an experience that leaves her broken.  And the author does not hesitate to show that each level has its own problems.  The greatest student at the academy is introduced to us as a Marty Stu, but - when we meet him properly - it becomes clear that he’s just as insecure as everyone else. 


It is rare, these days, for a ‘diverse’ book not to take a few pokes - deserved or not - at colonisation.  The Poppy War largely avoids this by having the main enemy be an analogue of Imperial Japan, although it does make a snide comment about ‘westerners’ documenting the war rather than doing anything about it.  (A common problem; the west has often been a day late and a dollar short when it comes to intervention.)  One may quibble about the portrayal of the ‘Japanese’, from their ruthless dehumanisation of their foes to their willingness to carry out horrific experiments on their captives, but it is firmly rooted in reality.  Imperial Japan could have - and did - give the Nazis lessons in committing atrocities.


The book also manages to illustrate the high cost of privilege without being too preachy about it.  In theory, the empire-wide examinations are fair (and they are, as Rin manages to pass without being disqualified for being a peasant girl); in practice, kids raised amongst the nobility are trained in everything from classical literature to fighting from almost as soon as she can walk.  She is hopelessly outmatched, at least at first.  Worse, even when she does get to the academy, she finds that she is still at the bottom and she has to keep climbing the ladder.  The system is designed to present an appearance of social mobility while, in reality, keeping things relatively static.  This ensures that it is rare for new blood to reach the rarefied heights of power, weakening the empire and eventually ensuring its collapse.  The people raised in the aristocracy simply don’t understand the conditions on the ground.  This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this in a book, but it is remarkably well done here.


If there is one major flaw in The Poppy War, it is that it reads a little condensed in places ... the action skips forward midway through the book, something that may weaken elements of the storyline.  (But, on the other hand, it doesn’t need to glide through class after class once the academy is firmly established.)  There are other moments - the heroine makes a string of decisions that may be regarded as practical, but utterly heartless - that darken her character (she ends the book by effectively committing genocide); there’s also the odd question of precisely why no one recognised her origins, if her skin was that distinctive, although in such an era it’s possible that no one really knew what made her people stand out. 


But ... overall  ... The Poppy War is a very good book.  I liked it.


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