originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/675051...

I read The Poppy War (2018) by RF Kuang, the first in a trilogy (because everything must be a trilogy) that is… ok, so it’s the Sino-Japanese War with major wuxia elements, but it’s written like a recent Western-style grimdark fantasy novel, is probably the way I’d sum it up.

here’s my brief thoughts on finishing it… which seem to basically reprise this review in more words, but ah well! tl;dr I was kind of ambivalent and I go into great length about things that didn’t quite work for me.

so. the bit that jumps out, of course, is the war crimes. the depictions of genocide, mutilation, rape and body horror - mostly concentrated to one chapter - were certainly vivid, and probably the book’s strongest parts, drawing on the comparably horrific history of the mass rapes and killings committed in Nanjing and the human experiments carried out by Shirō Ishii, who is quite literally placed in the book name essentially unchanged. but these historical atrocities sat uneasily with the genre elements: the secret wizards and the elite order of special superpowered assassins. but OK, let’s back up…

the story is set in a fantasy country of Nikara that I took to be basically late Qing China but was apparently more closely based on the Song Dynasty. it’s split into twelve squabbling provinces named after the animals of the zodiac, with everything west conveniently replaced by ocean so we don’t have to think too much about Central or South Asia I guess. It has been repeatedly humiliated in ‘Poppy Wars’ that are a sort of blend of the Opium Wars and the earlier Sino-Japanese Wars; its obsolete military cannot defend it, and in the last war, only the intervention of the western-analogue (blonde haired, monotheistic) Hesperians was able to prevent further losses.

1. wizards

the protagonist Rin, after proving herself by rising from nothing to be a great military prodigy in the prestigious military school against all sorts of vicious class prejudice, gains access to the secret ‘shaman’ powers to call on the gods which structure most of the second half of the book.

she discovers that she’s actually a distant descendant of the Speerlies, people from an island roughly analogous to Vietnam in terms of position that was in distant history conquered by the China analogue, and then sacrificed to be exterminated by the Japan analogue in a prior war. the Speerlies have special powers: their god, the Phoenix, feeds on their hatred and need for revenge and can be used to commit vast acts of destruction. for this reason they are valuable military assets.

(I think ‘Speerly’ sounds absolutely terrible as a demonym but it is what it is.)

so, there’s wizards - or rather, shamans. through intense training in martial arts you can reach a state where, when taking drugs - particularly opiates - you can ascend to the ‘Pantheon’, and encounter the gods, which you channel to get special powers. beyond this, the powers do not have a massive unifying theme, and this is where some of my frustrations with the book like: when you have a guy who’s made of water, a big ape guy, a girl who can control birds, a guy who can summon fire, an unpowered teenager who loves bombs… well what you’ve got is a superhero team, and that’s an odd feeling for a book that’s about generational trauma over the Rape of Nanjing.

anyway, the major thematic fulcrum of the book is the question of whether to call on the terrible power of the Phoenix to intervene in a war against a genocidal enemy.

the book makes heavy use of the ‘wise old master’ device; in the first part, Rin is trained by master Jiang, who speaks in riddles and drinks and ignores the formal structures of the school but is secretly a terribly powerful shaman who wants to train her in the proper path. however, the arc of the book - and this is just book 1 - is that Rin increasingly rejects his teachings and discards more of her humanity (in quite overt language) to call on the Phoenix more, culminating in essentially blowing up the entire landmass of not-Japan at the end after fully devoting herself to the Phoenix.

we have a corruption arc, then, which is usually territory I’m quite fond of. I was enjoying the story of ambitious, ruthless Rin rising to power; however, this arc kind of grinds to a halt for a while in the second half as she goes to war, but generally becomes a much more passive and reactive character, idolising her commander Altan (more on him in a bit) and prevaricating on her fear of using the Phoenix again. instead, the narrative is mostly advanced by other characters. the purpose of this is perhaps to maintain her underdog status, and rack up enough traumatic experiences that when she goes nuclear at the end, we can see why. but given that ‘Rin becomes superpowered Phoenix shaman’ is so obviously where it’s going, it feels like treading water.

2. the baddies

the not-Japanese villains of this book seem… well, they’re barely even one-dimensional fanatics, seemingly to a man devoted absolutely to the nationalist cause of genociding not-China, escalating steadily from dirty tricks like smuggling a bomb with a ceasefire flag or poison gas attacks to the above described chapter of rubbing your nose in stacks of mutilated bodies and mass rapes. the Japanese Empire wishes it could have had such devoted soldiers.

there’s a perhaps a difficult line to walk here: go too far trying to ‘humanise’ and deny how much dehumanising nationalist zeal really was a thing for Japan in this period and you end up with apologism, but refuse to do at all and you basically end up with a cardboard pantomime villain. unfortunately, it ends up feeling like while the Nikaran (not-China) rulers may be ruthless and evil in an understandable way for their miserable world, and are full of internal tensions and conflicts, the Mugen (not-Japan) may as well be orcs.

when Rin flattens Mugen at the end of the book - an exaggerated metaphor for the atomic bombings and US firebombings in the latter part of WWII, which ultimately ended the Sino-Japanese war? - the narration starts fretting like, well, these people had futures, families etc. and look, even the hardcore assassin crew are a bit disturbed, but Rin doesn’t care!

despite this attempt to draw equivalence, the fact that this all happened offscreen and enters the narrative as a distant cloud and speculative descriptions means that it really doesn’t feel like Rin has answered genocide with worse genocide, especially since the people of Mugen were so one-note previously. (perhaps it’s best not to think about this in relation to the atomic bombings, because a vast logistical project of a world superpower is scarcely analogous to the more emotional logic of trauma-powered fire magic; yet it is hard not to see it in light given the other historical analogies).

the ‘cost’ that keeps getting raised throughout the book for calling on the Phoenix seems only to be, you commit some atrocities, blow up a lot of civilians - but if it’s mostly the other guy that dies, what does that bother a fervent nationalist who has already dehumanised them? just distant impersonal cruelty. perhaps that is the point, but the effort to make us feel Rin’s hypocrisy feels a bit flat just by how each one is presented.

3. altan

now, the second major character of the book is Altan Trengsin, the other Speerly character. Altan is introduced as the flawless prodigy whom everyone worships; we eventually learn he was tortured by the Mugen in an attempt to discover the source of Speerly magic, during which time he was addicted to opium; this addiction was maintained when he fell back into Nikaran hands, as they groomed him to be a perfect soldier to exploit his fire superpowers. Rin encounters him first at the school as an older student, and later serves under him in the special assassin unit, desperately seeking his approval before becoming disillusioned with him as he cracks under the strain of command.

however, after witnessing the big old genocide, she comes around and decides to support his plan to free all the super immortal crazy wizards from the super immortal crazy wizard mountain. this goes wrong and they free only one super immortal crazy wizard, who just leaves. before long, they are captured by the Mugen who arrive on this isolated mountain pass in a rather unlikely plot twist and taken to the medical experiments facility, where we meet Dr Shiro, who tortures them with heroin to try to get them to explain the fire magic. Rin comes to understand Altan and takes up his mission of revenge, and then, his narrative purpose fulfilled, Altan blows himself up and destroys the experimental facility to secure Rin’s escape. but even after nuking Mugen, she’s not done, and sets to overthrowing the Empress of Nikara as well to get full revenge for Altan - ‘paint the world in Altan’s blood’.

on the surface it’s not at all an unreasonable arc for the character: not entirely unlike Baru Cormorant and Tain Hu. my reticence towards this is perhaps that, well, its presentation. for one, each beat of the relationship arc is generally rather flatly spelled out in the narration; there are adoring paragraphs describing how wonderful Altan is, but it feels kind of impersonal - designated hot guy identified. moreover, it’s much less cruel; Altan dies heroically pursuing his life’s mission and Rin has no doubt that what he would want is for her to go on a big old slaughter spree, because he pretty much told her as much. they’re drawn to each other because they’re both Speerlies, and now Rin will take up the inherited revenge mission and become super-Mao or something.

4. rulers, countries, great people

the other figure who fits into the whole ‘accept power at what cost’ theme is the deceased ancient queen of Speer, who refused the Phoenix’s bargain and chose not to destroy the world to save her country, in return being executed. her ghost implores Rin not to take up the Phoenix’s power; Rin ultimately rejects this and dismisses the ghost as a coward who couldn’t do everything necessary to protect her people, thus failing as a ruler.

this leans into a certain question of nationalism in general that is touched on but not thoroughly explored by the book; Rin insists frequently that her primary desire is to be a loyal Nikaran soldier and serve the Empress (who is herself a shaman with mind control powers), while the Empress would happily sacrifice her - and indeed eventually does. eventually, her loyalties shift to upholding the legacy of Speer by prosecuting her huge campaign of revenge; there’s a certain unspoken sentiment implied that the Nikarans are ultimately almost as bad as the Mugen, but Rin does not really give this much thought.

ultimately, this all comes out feeling like a very Great People view of history. the shamans are the driving force; the other people of Nikara, who surely suffer as much or worse than Rin but are not blessed with the ability to turn their generational trauma into big volcanic eruptions, are basically there as window dressing; their mutilations and rapes, though vividly described, narratively just serve to drive Rin’s personal epiphany.

which is… frustrating. of course, a novel can only focus on so many characters - but to me the terrifying sense of chinese history or the world wars is the way they see people swept up by vast impersonal forces of history. the characters in this book don’t feel like representatives of such larger forces, but rather, the only people that matter. kind of like Star Wars.

meanwile, the dead people of Speer almost seem to function entirely of one mind; once the Queen refused the Phoenix’s bargain and allowed her country get conquered, which it seems she alone was capable of preventing, the Nikarans kept them addicted to heroin until they all got killed by the Mugen. I suppose the idea of this is like… generational trauma: Rin here is akin to an immigrant discovering the horrible things that happened to her ancestors from a distance? but since we are shown little more of the Speerlies than ghosts dancing around a fire while Rin downloads some cultural memories, it feels we have little concrete connection to what is supposed to be the core of Rin’s character arc.

5. drugs

perhaps the other frustration I had is that for a book that involves many psychedelic drug trips into the spirit world, it all seemed to function in a very literal and dry way: clearly delinated locations (which we are informed are constructed by Rin’s brain), fairly straightforward delivery of information. it seems like, in a story that elsewhere likes to lean into horror, this would be the time to get all Grand Guignol and show us how the psychic plane reflects the all consuming violence that has taken over the physical.

perhaps this is my biggest problem with the book: it doesn’t push hard enough into vivid, distinctive imagery that could lend weight to its fantastical elements.

moreover, as that other review mentioned, the drug angle seems… underdeveloped. the pieces are there: the Nikarans harshly suppress drugs; the devastating effects of drug addiction are raised repeatedly by Rin; the shamans depend on drugs to use magic. there are times where this comes up as an issue later, e.g. a soldier pleading the assassins for their supply of opium, or Altan’s addiction; by the end, Rin is also smoking it to numb the pain. but it never quite seems to come together into saying anything.

still, there’s two more books, and now Rin has finally decided to commit to her anti-hero status, so hopefully book 2 can move on and we can see her rise to be Fantasy Mao or whatever her deal is. I’m not giving up on this series yet - and it’s a debut novel so I should perhaps cut some slack! I hope RF Kuang keeps developing her sense for this kind of thing, because I think there’s potential here for something really cool.

6. reading around

as far as the background to this book… OK, so for much of it I was thinking, this sounds kind of like AtlA, these characters are basically firebenders, right? well guess fucking what she says in this interview:

The Poppy War grew out of a lot of childhood influences — Ender’s Game, Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA), and way too many Chinese wuxia TV dramas. I’d always wanted to write a story that mixed the kind of geopolitical and psychological drama of Ender’s Game (and the Shadow sequels, which are objectively better than the Speaker sequels) with Chinese mythology and magic. But I didn’t have a story in mind until I started seriously studying Chinese history and delved into the horrors of China’s twentieth century wars. Historian Rana Mitter published this groundbreaking book in 2013 about China’s role in World War II titled Forgotten Ally — forgotten, in part, because Western curriculums rarely discuss the Chinese theater in WWII curriculums. Every high schooler in the US has heard of the Invasion of Normandy. How many of them know about the Battle of Shanghai? So I chose to write a fantasy reinterpretation of China’s twentieth century, because that was the kind of story I wasn’t finding on bookshelves.

Also, I’ve always thought ATLA would be way better if Azula were the main character. You can read The Poppy War roughly as precisely that.

This set of influences honestly explains a lot and I’m almost tempted to go back and rewrite my post in light of it. For example, the story of Rin working her way up in the school’s internal hierarchy carries a lot of Ender. Much like Ender, while she is often extremely violent, the narrative goes to pretty extensive lengths to try to get us to sympathise with her violence. And the whole, teenager does a super-genocide and blows up the enemy entirely thing? Yeah lmao.

The odd thing is, Rin is very much not an Azula character. About as much as they have in common is that both are proud, ruthless girls with fire magic. Azula, however, is proud because she was born into ultimate privilege and praised endlessly as the favoured, prodigal child; she views everyone around her instrumentally; she’s brittle and quick to throw her weight around over petty slights, and frequently sadistic. Rin meanwhile is certainly proud, impetuous and angry, but equally often full of anxiety; when she uses force, it is typically with grim resignation against a bully or tormentor; she becomes infatuated with people much more than she threatens or manipulates them.

In another section of this interview, she speaks about ‘chosen one’ narratives:

I don’t like Chosen One stories. I don’t like that trope where the heroes just luck into things — they’re the best warrior in the land just because, romantic interests are drawn to them for no good reason, they inherit magic that can save the kingdom, etc. I think a defining character trait for Rin is that she has no heroic destiny. Life has dealt her a nasty. She isn’t born into royalty, she has no money and no connections, and by rights she has no business altering the fabric of the universe. She claws her way into everything she gets with terrible consequences, and she has a massive chip on her shoulder because she’s always had this sense that she doesn’t belong. The only thing she has that’s truly hers is her pride, so of course she’s going to defend it. Rin was also written as a direct parallel to a certain figure pivotal to Chinese history, and she borrows many of his personality traits. I don’t know if it’s a spoiler to specify who it is. Guess! 

(it’s Mao. she’s come out and said that elsewhere.)

the thing is… this mostly isn’t true? certainly, Rin begins the story in abject poverty: but she also has the grit and determination and natural skill to ace the examination system and the talent for shamanism to access the most scary powerful god because oh, she’s descended from a race of people with incredible shamanistic fire powers. to be clear: there’s nothing wrong with a character being skilled or succeeding, and Rin’s tragic flaw of pride does factor significantly into her arc, I have no desire to resurrect the despicably narrow ‘mary sue’ framework. and moreover, fire is a delicious source of horrible images. I think the thing is… I would have liked the book that Kuang describes here more than the actual book. If Rin had never been awarded super-special fire powers (e.g. if fire powers were less unique and special), and she continued to work her way up to a position of power through vicious stubbornness and politicking as she did in the school arc, as decidedly tropey as that part was… I’d have liked that arc. but that wouldn’t be as wuxia, so perhaps I’m describing a different project entirely.

i think the feeling is… for all that characters are killed off left and right and horrible things keep happening, Rin always has her trump card. you know by the end she’ll be the strongest one, and that her block towards using her powers will arrive just when it needs to to save her.

also it’s awful hetero but whatever i guess some people really are straight lmao. but that does rob it of a whole major dimension compared to its peers.

anyway. matter of taste lol. clearly some people really like it. Wired magazine went to some lengths to situate it in a history of very similar school stories, but then calls the second half of the book an ‘acid trip’ that defies those expectations. I… can’t say I agree.

for my part, I mostly feel like if Baru Cormorant was an important intervention into the grimdark fantasy genre, this is one that mostly ignores its challenges in favour of just rehashing familiar stories and themes. hopefully The Unbroken will do a little better when I get around to that since that’s also held up as Baru-core. but anyway tbh I think I need to go back and read more of the oldschool stuff lol…


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