R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War starts as a typical coming-of-age fantasy about a girl from humble beginnings who discovers she has special powers. Despite a cliched beginning, the first chapter had me hooked, as it’s probably the best bit of writing in the novel — not surprising given the knock-them-dead-from-page-one nature of publishing today. The story of Rin, a poor orphan girl working for an underground opium mill, grounded the story in real-world pathos . . . a pathos that gets lost as the story progresses into increasingly implausible and absurd situations. The Poppy War reminded me of Harry Potter, The Lightning Thief, Eragon, and sometimes Graceling. You’ve got your obligatory upper-class bully, your plucky, Ron Weasley-type best friend, unreasonably strict professors—er, masters—and an enigmatic mentor (my favorite part of the book) who turns out to be not what he seems. Unlike Hogwarts, Kuang’s story draws heavily from Chinese and Japanese history and myth to build a convincing, fleshed-out setting.
But the story goes downhill from there. Part II abandons the school premise to veer into X-Men territory, complete with a gorilla-type strongman reminiscent of Beast, and a water elemental character who sleeps in puddle form inside a bucket. After developing attachments to Rin’s classmates, we are introduced to a quirky gang of superheroes, a secretive league of assassins, none of whom are as well-developed or relatable. What’s worse, the tone clashes with the seriousness of the subject matter. Kuang, who is of Chinese descent, takes inspiration from the rape of Nanjing, possibly the most horrific event in history, if The Poppy War is any indication. It reminded me of Magneto’s Holocaust origin, except the comic deals with the Jewish genocide in a more tactful way. I am not saying a writer couldn’t or shouldn’t conflate high fantasy with real-world tragedy, but it takes a deft and sensitive pen and a great deal of subtlety. Otherwise, the story can come across as exploitative and trivializing, and in this regard, Kuang’s writing falls short to the point of insult.
Things get worse as the war progresses. The story borders on what feels like pro-racist propaganda, something I found particularly bothersome considering the obvious parallels between the Japanese people and the book’s Muganese villains. Tolkien’s orcs are nowhere near this cruel—and Mordor isn’t based on anything resembling a real country. I kept waiting for the author to offer a counter-perspective, a sympathetic Muganese character, but every Muganese we meet is an amoral monster committing acts of atrocity so heinous I couldn’t help but skip ahead to the next chapter. I am not the type of reader to cry racism. Many of the reasons for cancel culture, I feel, are sensationalist and unwarranted. But The Poppy War gets away with some gross stereotypes because this isn’t America’s racism — this isn’t about blacks or Jews — but people of Asian descent.
Another major problem involves agency. Things happen to Rin, and she makes decisions, but her story is a railroad and every choice she makes is illusory. Again and again, she is warned against fully embracing her powers, but what choice can she expect to make when her entire country is being massacred? The climax hinges on a false dilemma, but Rin wouldn’t be human if she were to act any other way.
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For example, could we expect an Auschwitz prisoner not to take the nuclear option, and nuke Berlin, knowing that if he doesn’t, every friend and family member belonging to his race will be tortured and exterminated? Sorry, that’s not a dilemma; it’s a foregone conclusion, a climax lacking any nuance or the moral ambiguity the author wishes the reader to assume.
Overall, The Poppy War is a decent book with a sympathetic heroine, but the story gets bogged down by an overreliance on tropes and a late-to-the-game war story involving racist caricatures.
But what the Hell do I know? Wired magazine called it “The best fantasy debut of the year,” while Time Magazine placed it in their top 100 fantasy novels ever. Seriously, if this is what passes for great writing these days, you’ll have to excuse me while I commit seppuku.
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