Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Review - The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Short review: Rin is a poor war orphan who aspires to attend an elite military academy to avoid an unwelcome arranged marriage. She succeeds, but that just means that things get worse from there.

If you learn to serve
The gods that just means you serve
An alien will

Full review: The Poppy War is R.F. Kuang's debut novel, and it is a magnificent debut. Set in a thinly disguised fantasy version of China (called Nikara in the novel) the story follows Rin as she goes from being an impoverished and despised war orphan to being a powerful and despised war leader. Along the way, Rin faces obstacles stemming from her poverty and social standing, overcoming them with a dogged single-mindedness that draws the reader in and conceals the fact that Rin is, ultimately, really a frightening and in many ways unpleasant person. The true brilliance of this book is that Kuang guides the reader along Rin's path in such a skillful manner, making every step seem so perfectly reasonable that one doesn't realize how terrible the destination is until it is imminent and inevitable.

The story follows Rin, who is a war orphan of the last conflict between Nikara and the Murgen Federation who has been taken in by the Fang family, not out of the goodness of the Fang's hearts, but rather because families with fewer than a certain number of children were required by law to take in war orphans. As the Fangs clearly didn't really want to take in a war orphan, they provide for Rin, but require her to work in their rather crooked business and take the first opportunity they can to try to arrange a marriage for her that will work to their benefit. To escape the unwanted marriage, Rin hatches a desperate plan: She will study for an take the nationwide examination that grants admission to the various academies that prepare entrants for prestigious jobs as teachers, bureaucrats, and military officers. Rin attacks the task (and every other obstacle that she comes across in the story) with a single-minded determination that serves as one of the dominant character traits for the character throughout the novel, and this trait is both Rin's greatest strength, and what makes her dangerous to everyone around her.

It is readily apparent that Kuang has drawn heavily on Chinese history and mythology to build her fantasy world: Even with my relatively moderate knowledge of Chinese history and legends, I recognized several elements of The Poppy War as having been adapted therefrom. One should not come away thinking that this is a weakness of the novel, but rather that these serve as little Easter Eggs that enhance the story for those who can spot them. I think it is reasonably likely that I missed some, but there ones that I did notice were pretty obvious: The Murgen Federation stands in for the Japanese, Hesperia takes the role of Europeans complete with Hesperian trading enclaves and meddling in Nikaran politics, and the Hinterlands are the steppes of Asia from whence the Mongol-analogous Hinterlanders hail. This borrowing of Chinese history and folklore to serve as a framework to build a fantasy world is similar to the manner in which most Eurocentric fantasy uses European history and folklore to build a fantasy world. This makes the book feel simultaneously comfortable and approachable while being notably different in tone and focus.

For the most part, the story is the story of Rin's coming of age, as she grows from a child into an adult, and the reader discovers the world she inhabits as she does. As she takes each step of her journey, Rin seems convinced that if she can just overcome the obstacles right in front of her, she will have smooth sailing thereafter. The trouble is that Rin doesn't know what lies beyond the next metaphorical hill because so much information about the society she lives in - both its history and its current structure - has been obscured, either by being intentionally hidden or lost to the vagaries of time. "Forgetting", whether as the result of official policy to occlude the truth, or just because the historical record gets misty with age, has a price, and in The Poppy War the full extent of that price is driven home time again to Rin specifically, and Nikara in general.

Throughout the story, layer upon layer of falsehood is peeled back as Rin progresses first through her studies and then through the ranks of the Nikaran military. Much of Nikaran history and culture is based upon false information, large portions of which are intentionally spread by the ruling class in an effort to avoid facing inconvenient truths that would threaten their position, but when a real threat emerges in the form of an aggressive Murgen Federation, this policy of disinformation serves to hinder Nikaran efforts to fend off the foreign threat. Through the story, it becomes clear that Nikaran isolationism, insularity, and love of secrecy has served the nation poorly. One of the dominant themes that runs through this book is that while disinformation may appear to create stability for a time, it is only the illusion of stability, and when the veneer comes off everything is so much worse than it would have been has the Nikaran nation simply faced its history head on, sins and all. The truly masterful part of this book is that all of this sneaks up on the reader, just as it sneaks up on Rin and her peers. Because the world is presented through Rin's eyes, and thus Nikaran eyes, the built in assumptions of a Nikaran are baked into the presented viewpoint, and consequently, when the deceptions inherent in that world view are stripped away, it is an appropriately jarring experience.

If this book has a weakness, it is that Kuang is clearly a believer in Chekov's Gun. If something odd or unusual appears in an early chapter, it is almost certain that it will be of crucial importance later in the story. From the mystery of the fate of the island of Speer and the Speerlies, to the oddities of Master Jiang, to the enigmatic and superlatively talented upperclassman Altan, pretty much every curiosity that pops into the narrative turns out to be significant in some manner. As weaknesses go, this one is pretty minor, but this writing technique is used so often in the book that it is noticeable. One should also note that this is the first book in what is planned to be a trilogy, so while it does have a reasonably satisfying conclusion, there are significant loose ends left hanging at the close of the story. I feel I should also point out (as some have touted it as such), that despite its youthful protagonist and cast of characters, this is decidedly not a Young Adult book, and anyone looking for such a book should steer clear of this one. That is not to say this is not an excellent book, merely to emphasize that it isn't a Young Adult book.

The Poppy War is, quite simply, an excellent novel. Rin is not exactly a "likable" protagonist, but she is a protagonist that one will root for, even as she follows an increasingly dark and dangerous path. Kuang's Nikara is a brilliantly executed fantasy world, that is so full of color, intrigue, contradictions, and three-dimensional characters that it almost feels real. In Kuang's hands, Nikara is a place that feels both familiar and fresh at the same time, with a story that is cruel and harsh and yet is also fanciful and imaginative at the same time. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, as it tackles some rather grim and gritty topics, but it is a book that is well-worth reading.

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  1. I’m following this autho4 on Twitter and was considering whether to get it or not. I think I will, now.