When a friend approached me with an opportunity for a person of Chinese descent to review The Poppy War, the debut novel of Chinese-American author R.F. Kuang, I didn’t think much about the request. It made sense to me: someone Chinese would probably have a stronger grasp of the book’s cultural references and understand it on a deeper level than someone less familiar with the context the novel is steeped in. I went into the book expecting to find allusions that a non-Chinese reader might not pick up on.
That was indeed my experience throughout the first two acts. The book begins with a young woman, Fang “Rin” Runin, cramming for a national exam that would award her a spot in the prestigious Sinegard academy—a way out of her glum future in the small town of Tikany, where she has few opportunities outside of marriage. Both the opening chapters and Rin’s journey through the academy are familiar and draw from elements of Chinese history, such as the imperial examination and the rigor of a Chinese education.
Despite being a secondary world setting, Sinegard, part of a nation known as the Nikara Empire, felt familiar to me: the descriptions of the language, the street vendors, even the little toy statues of peeing boys evoked the Beijing of my past so strongly I felt homesick in an imaginary world. Kuang’s worldbuilding is masterful. The Poppy War is rich with history and detail that give it a lived-in feeling. Kuang’s hand is light but deft; whether through choice descriptions of the cuisine or longer expositions of the world’s past embedded in history lessons at the academy, every piece of the world feels vital and necessary, inexorably woven into the fabric of the narrative.
As we follow Rin through her time at the Sinegard academy, we come to learn more about her. Although Kikara is at relative peace, Rin trains for war and learns military history, theory, and strategy with her classmates, including the haughty Nezha, the bookish Kitay, and the mysterious and powerful Altan, who is a survivor of the Speer genocide. As the first and second acts progress, we learn that the world is not as straightforward as it seems—in fact, the gods of Kikara aren’t just mythical beings, but actual forces that can be channeled, often through the use of hallucinogenic drugs. Rin discovers her own ability to contact and channel the Phoenix, a vengeful fire deity. In these scenes, I picked up on elements that my non-Chinese friends had missed (for example, the references to Journey to the West in the characters Baji and Suni). These references are delightful. It became my own running joke: what seemed unique and original to non-Chinese readers was, to me, familiar and well-worn, in a cherished way.
But it was the third act that truly resonated with me, in a way that I didn’t expect. Rin and the group of assassins she’s become a part of realize that the seaside town they are defending is merely a diversion as the Federation of Mugen, the enemies of the Nikara Empire, raze the major city of Golyn Niis. As I read vivid descriptions of the fictional horrors committed by Federation soldiers, I recognized in them the horrors of the real Nanjing Massacre. I can’t speak for all Chinese people—not even for those of us in anglophone diasporas—but I find many of us have the horrors of the Massacre and the atrocities of the Sino-Japanese War carved into our bones. I’m not a stranger to horror or grimdark novels; I’ve read many a gory true crime book. But something always stopped me from reading about the Nanjing Massacre or its infamous Unit 731, both of which form the basis for the third act of The Poppy War. These are horrors my parents and grandparents rarely spoke of, but that still embedded themselves in my consciousness as a Rubicon that I couldn’t cross, a topic I couldn’t explore.
What shook me, then, as a Chinese reader of The Poppy War, and what non-Chinese readers may not feel, is the knowledge that, under the veneer of fantasy and the glamor of gods, the events of its narrative were things my own people suffered, that are still in living memory. As I read the third act, I felt an overwhelming sense of grief and connection that I’ve rarely felt reading any other speculative fiction. It was a sensation that was beyond tears. And what distinguishes this novel from other grimdark works is the depth with which Kuang explores these horrors: they are not a backdrop or mere set dressing, actions depicted carelessly, without an internalization of their consequences. War and its rippling effects are the core of the book, suffusing every page, informing every character’s decision.
We often see the trope of the sole survivor in speculative fiction without a thorough exploration of the psychic toll of having to embody that position. Kuang colors Rin and Altan’s pain and fury in shades of nuance that I’ve rarely encountered in fiction or in nonfiction. They’re both flawed, hurt people who make terrible decisions, and we sympathize with and understand them while simultaneously recoiling from their actions. Kuang articulates over and over that dehumanization and fury destroy not only their targets, but also their sources; conflict and war are never as easy as black-and-white solutions. They are loaded with weight and cognitive dissonance that breaks people forced to reconcile impossible decisions.
The Poppy War is a masterful piece of fiction. Even as someone who often struggles with high fantasy and political intrigue, I found myself drawn into the narrative, chasing after each character to keep up with the twists and turns of their decisions, none of which are made in isolation, all of which emphasize their individual agency. The ending is both unexpected, and yet a logical conclusion to Rin’s journey; even after I finished the book, I found myself longing to see what she would do next.