Cover Story: R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, an Epic Debut Inspired by 20th Century China

Last year, Harper Voyager introduced us to two exciting new voices in fantasy, Nicky Drayden (The Prey of Gods) and S.A. Chakraborty (City of Brass), so when David Pomerico, the imprint’s editorial director, R.F. Kuang, whose debut The Poppy War Harper Voyager will publish in May, “an incredible new talent in the speculative fiction industry,” we’ve got reason to trust his judgement (and track record). Certainly the book sounds like just the thing—a richly detailed epic born out of 20th century Chinese history, with an adult sensibility and a narrative hook that gives it the addictive appeal of the best young adult literature.

The official summary for this first-in-a-trilogy novel makes a compelling case—as does the cover, which we’ll reveal in just a few paragraphs…

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

Interested yet? Pomerico, who acquired the book after a heated auction on what turned out to be the author’s 20th birthday, promises it blends military fantasy and a coming-of-age story, combining the author’s “cultural authenticity with personal creativity at a time when both qualities are very much demanded by readers.”

That strive for authenticity extended to the novel’s cover, with art by Jung Shan Chang and design by Dominic Forbes. Here’s the full image:

According to Pomerico, the original cover looked a bit different—until a conversation with Kuang prompted a change.

“Originally we planned on using red as the accent color—it made perfect sense, considering that’s the color of poppies,” Pomerico said. “In talking with the author, she pointed out that in Chinese culture, red and white are rarely mixed. Most people know of red as a color of joy and good luck, but white generally represents mourning and death—so mixing the two is taboo. I have to admit, I never knew this. But this is why we work with the authors to get a cover everyone is happy with. Based on her insights—and seeing how much we liked the negative space of the white, and the way the smoke and line-drawings popped off of it—we ended up with the orange/bronze you see now, which hints at fire…and makes a lot more sense as you read on.”

For her part, Kuang is pretty pleased with the illustration that graces her first book, which she wrote while teaching debate in China (she is currently studying Chinese history at Georgetown, and will graduate a few days after The Poppy War hits shelves).

“It’s incredible to see your own characters come to life, and I honestly don’t know how the illustrator managed to portray Rin precisely the way I’ve always imagined her,” Kuang said. “I’m really delighted with the minimalism of the title font and the Asian-inspired ink brush art style. I think it conveys very well the sort of story–stark, modern in style but ancient in inspiration, and jam-packed with Chinese history–that The Poppy War is trying to tell.”

The book releases in hardcover on May 1, and is available for preorder now.

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