The Poppy War is the debut young adult novel written by R.F. Kuang, inspired and set in China’s 19th and early 20th century. War orphan Fang Runin, aka Rin, seeks to escape being married off to an older man for his influence on trade for her drug dealing adoptive parents. She spends two years preparing for the Keju, the Nikara Empire wide admittance test for national academies, and at the age of 16 not only passes the test but scores within the top percentage. Rin is admitted to Sinegard, the most elite military school. Rin’s story escalates as the narrative moves forward through a lens of unlocking potential. The author focuses heavily on the idea of individuals becoming more, of not counting individuals out because of where their lives begin.
After refusing a typical apprenticeship, Rin decides to study with Lore Master Jiang. Her associates don’t understand her reasoning for choosing to study with the disreputable instructor.
“Don’t be silly. I am not a god,” he said. “I am a mortal who has woken up, and there is power in awareness.”
The reader quickly understands the importance of looking past the surface of someone.
Mulan is, to this day, one of my favorite Disney princesses and when I read the summary for this novel, I immediately wanted to jump in. The author is currently studying Chinese history at Georgetown, where her research focuses on Chinese military strategy, collective trauma, and war memorials. Her expertise easily shines through each page. The historical influences are immediately apparent. I felt like some moments were taken from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The work is original while being reminiscent of past narratives. There were moments that the voice was more lecturing than explaining. Some passages feel forced, telling instead of showing.
In the below passage, Master Yim lectures the new class about war history.
“We have survived the last century through nothing more than sheer luck and the charity of the west,” said Yim. “But even with Hesperia’s help, Nikan only barely managed to drive out the Federation invaders. Under pressure from Hesperia, the Federation signed the Non-Aggression Pact at the end of the Second Poppy War, and Nikan has retained its independence since. The Federation has been relegated to trading outposts on the edge of the Horse Province, and for the past nearly two decades, they’ve more or less behaved.”
Yet, there are these beautiful moments where education and storytelling intersect effortlessly.
Some of the most enthralling exposition is in the dialogue Rin has with Master Jiang. Mostly because his seeks to revive the discredited shaman tradition.
“Fire: the heat in your blood in the midst of a fight, the kinetic energy that makes your heart beat faster.” Jiang tapped his chest. “Water: the flowing of force from your muscles to your target, from the earth up through your waist, into your arms. Air: the breath you draw that keeps you alive. Earth: how you stay rooted to the ground, how you derive energy from the way you position yourself against the floor. And metal, for the weapons you wield. A good martial artist will possess all five of these in balance. If you can control each of these with equal skill, you will be unstoppable.”
Sadly, I found myself not incredibly engaged with the characters. Even the protagonist, Rin, felt more like a vehicle than a being, a way to educate the masses about Chinese history. Each character felt more like objects than breathing entities.
The author’s expertise in this subject matter is obvious and quite welcomed. It’s clear that an incredible amount of research has been put into this novel. Though I found myself desiring to connect more with the characters, the creative liberties taken with the historical events not only was creative but bold and admirable. The Poppy War is a love letter to Chinese history and I’d curious to see how the rest of the trilogy will go.