TW: reference to sexual violence.
R. F. Kuang tackles the nature of war and humanity in her dark military fantasy The Poppy War trilogy, inspired by China’s 20th Century bloody history and the second Sino-Japanese war. This trilogy is by no means an easy read. Kuang incorporates real world historical events, such as the rape of Nanking, exposing the atrocities which humans are capable of. Woven into this story of war is shamanism. With the use of hallucinogens, shamans commune with gods and wield divine powers. They walk a dangerous line between sanity and madness as they mentally wrestle for control of their mind. Despite the presence of gods in this trilogy, humanity is repeatedly the cause of its own suffering. Kuang presents no ‘just’ side but focuses on what war does to the people and the countries it ravages. As Kuang aptly states in the first book The Poppy War: ‘War doesn’t determine who is right. War determines who survives.’
The story follows Rin, a poverty-stricken war orphan, who, to escape an arranged marriage and life of servitude, earns herself a place at the most prestigious war academy in Nikara. Here, she learns of war strategy, the cyclical bloody history of her country and the reality of the gods. Rin discovers her ability to channel fire from Phoenix, a god fuelled by anger and vengeance, emotions of which she has a surplus. Rin is not in for an easy ride. She is discriminated against for her dark skin, poverty and dialect. She must fight for her place at the academy, her crumbling country and ultimately her right to exist in this world. If there is one thing Rin is good at however, it’s war.
Kuang bares Rin’s ugliest internal thoughts which makes for an engaging and complex main character. It quickly becomes apparent that Rin is strong-willed, determined and hungry for power. Through her, Kuang explores what it takes for a person to be capable of monstrous acts. Rin is no hero. She is quick to anger and even quicker to condemn. She is ready to mete out her own justice whatever the cost. Despite this, Rin is not an unlikeable character, she is painfully human. She constantly grapples with her humanity, struggling to reconcile both her own and others’ actions. Experiencing every injustice and horror she faces, you understand what brings her to each decision even whilst desperately hoping she might act differently.
This trilogy is full of interesting and captivating characters that compliment and offset Rin. They shed light on her development and put her actions into perspective. Whilst the pacing of the books can feel a little inconsistent at times, Kuang’s characters, prose and clever plot reveals keep you transfixed.
By Antonia Harrison.