Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year; every two weeks between now and the awards ceremony on May 18, Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize.
R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War is an epic, but not at first. It starts small, and only later do things escalate, racing toward a shattering, dynasty-changing conclusion. We meet our fated protagonist, Rin, as a luckless orphan who’s been taken in by a family of small-time criminals in a backwater province of Kikara. She has few options open to her save being married off to one of her family’s creditors, so she sets her sights on acing the national exam that will allow her acceptance to Sinegard, the empire’s premier military academy. (Though Kikara is at peace, the devastation wrought by the titular Poppy Wars hangs heavy on the national memory, and military service is still highly valued.) Through sheer cussed force of will, Rin passes the test.
What should be an escape from the provincial smallness of her upbringing only ends up underlining how low her social placement is: the students of Sinegard are mostly the children of governors and generals. Many take issue with her upstart entrance to the academy, including the teachers; she has to fight constantly just to maintain her place. As a result, her journey through the school is atypical: she enters into a strange kind of apprenticeship with the Lore master, Jiang Ziya, who is as likely to be too high to show up to teach class as he is to make a series of fart noises into a lesson. Lore is a strange discipline in a military academy: something like a religious study, but the gods are real, quixotic, and dangerous. Jiang has attracted few, if any, eager students in his time as master; Kikara is a modern country, and has no time for mysticism.
Before Rin can graduate, the empire’s bubbling conflict with the neighboring Federation of Mugen heats up, and with wrenching speed, the novel shifts from something like a boarding school fantasy directly into the grim terror of warfare. The country of Kikara is something very like 20th century China, and events like the great national horror of the Nanjing Massacre are only very lightly coded in the novel. Rin sees things no person should ever see, which drives her do things no person should ever do. She is a fierce, complicated, often scary character, whose actions are understandable even as they are inexcusable.
The Poppy War is an unflinching character study of both a person and a place.
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Why it will win:
I used to believe that fantasy novels didn’t stand much of chance of winning the Nebula unless your last name was Bujold or Le Guin, but that certainly hasn’t been true for the last five or six years. The last three winners have been either full-blooded fantasy novels (Uprooted by Naomi Novak, The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin) or featured strong fantasy elements (All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders).
Unlike 2012 winner Among Others, Uprooted and The Stone Sky aren’t even contemporary or urban fantasy, modes of the genre that seem to have been more attractive to Nebula voters in the past than traditionally epic fantasy.
Assuming an epic fantasy has as much a chance as a sci-fi novel, then, I think Kuang’s debut is definitely in play: The Poppy War manages to detail a devastating bildungsroman in the context of an even more devastating national epic. The sense of place is both richly textured and expansive—this is a place with history. Even while we live through most intimate details of Rin’s matriculation, we are given glimpses into the lives of the gods themselves. Maintaining the balance in scope is a talent indeed, and this author has it.
Why it won’t win:
Though there seems to be a tendency to nominate debut authors for the Nebula in recent years—since 2016, more than half of the nominees in this category have been first novels—there is a clear precedent for more seasoned novelists to actually take home the prize (Charlie Jane Anders’ recent win notwithstanding; certainly she was already an accomplished short story writer, and well-known in the genre space).
The preference for books from established writers makes sense: not only have they had time to hone their craft, but, as and industry award, connections within the industry factor. This year, The Poppy War and its fellow nominees Trail of Lightning and Witchmark—debut novels all—may be at a disadvantage in this regard.
As accomplished as The Poppy War is, I think it suffers from a sort of bifurcation, where the second act turn transforms the novel into something other than it seemed to be building towards in the early going. I think there are good reasons for the shift, but the transition is nevertheless jarring to the unsuspecting reader. Thankfully, it is but the first in a series, and Kuang has time to further hone her craft in subsequent installments.
Which is to say, I will not be surprised to see this summer’s sequel, The Dragon Republic, on the ballot next year.