The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang (Fantasy Novel, 2018).
Like many writers, this first-time fantasy novelist has drawn on elements of a real-life subject she knows about (in this case, Chinese history and mythology) as inspiration for an imaginary world series. There’s nothing wrong with that, yet I must confess to some slight ambivalence in this particular case. While overall, this world is certainly the product of Ms. Kuang’s imagination, some things are a bit too “on the nose” for my taste.
Consider the title: It more than echoes China’s crippling Opium Wars, in that foreign parties have used this product of the poppies to weaken and dominate the Nikara Empire (which stands in for a vaguely pre-industrial China). This ancient nation has frequently been subject to civil wars involving local warlords, as well as foreign invasions. Sound familiar?
It gets considerably more-so.
To the north, the nomadic people of the Hinterlands don’t really figure in this volume, but remind one of the Mongols (complete with rulers called, yes, Khans). But the immediate foreign threat to Nikara’s shaky (and soon to fail) peace is the Federation of Mugen, a militaristic island nation to the east. The Federation is ruled by an allegedly divine Emperor whose fanatical citizens literally worship (in a blatantly souped-up version of State Shinto). And when the invading Federation forces massacre the inhabitants of one city, I was inevitably reminded of the infamous atrocities known as the Rape of Nanking.
Beyond magical elements, one major break from our world’s history concerns another group of foreigners. While Europeans were the aggressors in our Opium Wars, a powerful nation from across the western ocean actually helped Nikara in a previous war with Mugen’s Federation. A genocidal attack that wiped out the magically war-like shamanic people of Speer (an island vassal state of Nikara) was too much for these to stomach and they intervened, saving the rest of the Empire. But would help come if/when Mugen attacked again? It seemed unlikely.
That war had left its share of war orphans, including one named Rin. A dark-skinned peasant girl from southern Rooster Province, she was dirt poor and hardly beloved by the scheming family who raised her from infancy (among other things, they were opium smugglers). Yet she not only took the Empire-wide test to identify talented youths for special training, she did so well that she won a place at the elite military training academy in the far-off capital.
Rin’s stay at Sinegard was not an easy one. Most of the cadets were from pampered rich families, while she was a backwoods peasant of unknown lineage. But she had something that set her apart–a latent power that only a few fellow students and instructors recognized and respected. She slowly learns of her own shamanic powers and when war comes she struggles to channel the flaming powers of a vengeful Goddess.
Rin may be the only real hope for Nikara, especially since certain officials may be betraying their country. But can she win the war without losing her humanity?
In one savagely brutal moment, Rin finally opens herself entirely to the power of the Phoenix Goddess, destroying the enemy homeland as the book climaxes. She’s shaken by the sheer scope of what she’s done. But the now-homeless invading army is still rampaging through the countryside–and there are powerful traitors also to consider. So Rin and her squad of allies (each having his/her own mythic power) still have work to do.
In other words: Stay tuned for Book Two in the series.
I stand by my conviction that much of the book is a bit too transparently borrowed from our real-world history. And beyond the fanatic mindset of the invaders and internal factions weakening Nikaran forces, the author presents little explanation for the assumption that Mugen’s forces will so easily overwhelm this mainland power.
But that isn’t to say that this novel isn’t worth picking up. It’s capably written, an uncompromising study in revenge and the horrors of war. Rin and others are interesting characters (especially the slightly motley crew of friends/fellow magical warriors she’s hooked up with by the book’s last sections). As first novels go, this one is as ambitious as its protagonist–dramatic and powerful.