I started R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War: A Novel for a reason. I finished it because of how well it represented a comp to my own unpublished project. Most of the things I could write about the plot of this novel will spoil the ending, so it might work to talk around things.
The Poppy War features a strong female protagonist named Rin, who is tough as nails but also full of anger. What is strange about this book is that it feels like two smaller books stuck together. On her review on goodreads, this excerpt is exactly what I might write and I agree 100% with her:
This book is not a romance story. This is not a YA fantasy school story (sorry. I love those too.) Yes, there’s a school, and we learn some things at the school, but please don’t let that description deceive you as we leave that setting quite quickly.
This is, as I’ve always conceived it, a war story. It draws heavily on the Second Sino-Japanese war which–if you know anything about Asia–was one of the darkest and bloodiest moments in Chinese history. It grapples with the Rape of Nanjing. It deals heavily with opium and drug use. (Opium was a source of Chinese weakness. This book asks what would have happened if opium were instead a source of shamanic power.)
I don’t really agree that we leave the school setting quickly though, even knowing the book was going to take an abrupt turn I was still surprised by just how abrupt it was. The book has a habit of throwing a curve ball at the reader then blowing everything up. The ending is particularly explosive. It’s a unique style that I haven’t encountered much outside of anime (think: Dragon Ball Z villains) so I wonder if this was an influence on her.
What was cool about all this to me was how she built up the setting. I don’t know a lot about Chinese mythology (aside from how it’s shown in anime, often through the Japanese or Korean lens,) but this served as a pretty compelling introduction. It hinted at the well of cultural knowledge she was drawing from and invented new gods and pantheons to go with it.
She doesn’t hold back on the violence in the Rape of Nanjing and it’s truly shocking. Reading about it in history books is one thing but she uses the personal setting and characters to make it more real and terrible. Because of this and a few other things, I can’t recommend it to everybody. If this book looks interesting then read about the real history first and decide if you’re OK with more of that.
It’s a quality book though, very unique and strange. My own work deals with alternative history and a “what if” scenario, so it was nice to finally find a new book that does it well.