The Poppy War by R F Kuang

Publisher  - Harper Voyager

Published - Out Now

Price - £16.99 hardcover

I thank the publisher for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

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…..Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive….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.

Fantasy by definition being genre we tend to decide that certain tropes mean that the story obviously must be an x, y or z plot. We know the theme and expect the story to run along the same lines. For me the best stories are those that subvert or build upon these well-trodden ideas and gives us a fresh perspective. In this fantastic debut what appears at first to be a story of a young teenager discovering magic and fighting the prejudices of her society becomes a much bigger epic tale examining war and its consequences.

You’ll be hard-pressed to not feel supportive of Rin our main character the story focuses on. As a young woman she is ‘fostered’ by the local village opium dealers who believe she will make a fine young bride/bribe for the local middle-aged single government official. Rin finds just one single way out – she must pass her local exam and get herself a free scholarship into the nation’s best school at Sineguard. There she can find the skills to make a future for itself. It’s not too spoilerish to find that after a brutal few months of cramming that she passes and then finds herself the only non-noble in her year. In this academy skills such as Combat, Strategy and even Medicine are covered to make the students into the best soldiers but Rin’s temperament and approach to life attracts her to the Academy’s less than salubrious Master of Lore Jiang who feels Rin is a prime candidate to learn about shamanism where drugs do work…to show you what reality really comprises or to bring the humans to the attention of the local Pantheon of Gods.

The Poppy War almost like it’s title in this first third is deceptively beautiful. Rin is a hard-working student; there is the standard teenage banter and even a local school bully and a hostile teacher to face while in Jiang we have a friendly slightly stoned mentor guiding Rin to a better understanding.  Cheering Rin on as she develops her confidence and fights back is a joy; but this is not Hogwarts and while the school setting is an excellent way to smuggle in world building explaining the social strata and history of the Nikaran people and their enemies the reader starts to notice that ultimately this school turns people into weapons for the state. The culture is one of competition; Rin is happy to burn her own skin to stay awake for exams; Students are encouraged to fight and maim each other, and the magic can just as easily send you mad as give you new insights. Rin arrives just as war with the historic enemies in Mugen becomes a talking point. By the time this first third of the book ends we understand the approaching conflict and find Rin’s future is closely involved with the battle to come.

The second part of the book explores Rin joining a secretive division in the Empire known as the Cike now managed by one of Rin’s school heroes - Altan This small but deadly group is now tasked with a major defence against the Muginese forces on their way to invade the country. Rin must learn how her powers can bolster the group, but she finds she shares far more in common with Altan than she ever dared hoped but at the same time finds her destiny is one that will potentially cause far more death and destruction than her teachers ever hoped for.

This is a hard story to describe and it’s a testament to Kuang’s skill as an author that that school setting allows you to understand the nature of the country, it’s power structures and magic systems. All done smartly as lessons or conversations between various school factions so that it never feels like pure exposition and always serves the plot at the time; the pace of the story never feels to have been slowed down either. Just as Rin learns how the world works so does the reader and once Rin leaves her school as wartime requires her to join the Cike we understand their role and potentially how her magical skills can aid her people. In many ways the reader can be reassured with classic signs of fantasy – the motley mercenaries with amazing skills; the noble but tragic squad commander but slowly we also get these almost deconstructed. Our mercenaries are not simply mavericks but people to whom magical abilities are having huge psychological impacts on; the noble Empire is riven with politics and feuding and is the aim to protect your country or to just finally avenge the results of the last war?

Kuang has created some fascinating characters that appear often as one thing only to turn into the virtual opposite over the story. Enemies can become friends, the mad can be sane and the noble can be ruthless. It’s tempting to call this grimdark but for me that title is almost a genre that delights in showing off moral ambiguity and indulging in the joy of violence. Here violence is shown as ugly, immoral and often perpetrated by all sides There is no joy being taken in the death and destruction we are witnessing which gets darker and more graphic. For me this is an epic fantasy war story examine how a society creates war and the soldiers to fight it.

The latter half of the book examines the merciless nature of battle and I did wonder if there were some parallels with WW2 and the invasion of China with Japan and some of the atrocities performed in that time in the name of an Emperor. My only caveat is that it really does show the starkness of battle and the horrific aftermath creates scenes that some readers may find too upsetting. This also led to the question as to what you need to do to stop the war and is that decision and what it will then unleash justifying the means? In a fantasy environment this means allowing Gods to exert their powers on earth – is that choice justified. Kuang does not make the decision easy and nor is it clear certainly in this first volume that the right answer was used. There are signs an even larger game is being played between these forces and a theme is made about choices – we decide what we want to do, and we must then be responsible for our actions and what that means for our world.  Can we still support Rin and her path at the end?

The novel this book most closely reminds me of is The Fifth Season (one of my all-time favourite series) in that it examines how a society gets to where it is and the consequences due to the structure and prejudices created by it. This first volume perhaps has focused more on the build-up and at the end of it we have a very different set-up to the one we joined, and I’m intrigued how the aftermath of these choices will be handled. One of the most impressive fantasy of the year and I think well worth your time.