The Poppy War

R. F. Kuang’s recently released novel – The Poppy War – has received a great deal of publicity and praise. It’s a remarkable book. It’s also an incredibly brutal book set in an analogue to the Song Dynasty that incorporates the issues of the long-standing conflicts of the Sino-Japanese wars, including a fictionalized, but not glossed, rendition of the Rape of Nanking; the legacy of the Opium Wars; the incredibly marginalized status of women; the roles of power and religion in society; the failure, unwillingness, or inability of the elites to govern fairly; and the inability of the people to hold those elites accountable.

While most reviews have centered on the use of a Chinese-centered cultural and political background, and a very-well researched and presented one at that, and the protagonist, who is an orphaned girl from the lowest possible status in the most despised backwater who is driven to succeed at any cost in her efforts to right all manner of past wrongs while justifying her very existence and her right to be heard and respected, what struck me most about the book was how Kuang used the accuracy of Chinese history to present a fantasy story and a tableau that represents current global challenges in a stark and bleak way, that in a strange fashion, is far more dismaying than George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. I say “strange” because, while Kuang doesn’t pull any punches in depicting the total inhumanity of both sides, the ineptitude of those in power, and, also, the unwillingness or inability of the “masses” to rein in their ruling classes, neither does she glorify or exaggerate. It all just is.

Whether she meant it or not, in the ending of the first book, she’s also posited a damning view of deities and religion, and of their believers and followers, but that’s an open question, because the remaining two volumes of the trilogy have yet to be published.

The Poppy War is not a book for the faint of heart, or for young readers, and it’s definitely not a “fun” read. And if American chauvinists read it, they’ll likely either see it as just an improbable Chinese fantasy or something that “can’t happen here.” Unfortunately, as American and world politics have changed, or perhaps reverted to the worst in history, it strongly appears that they’re wrong on both counts.

But, most likely, those who understand history will wince slightly, then nod, and those who don’t will think that these kinds of events only happen in other lands. It’s still a remarkable book.

2 thoughts on “The Poppy War”

  1. Thank you very much for the above commentary on “The Poppy War,” which I have accordingly pushed higher up my horribly-long reading list, many of whose members will likely never get read.

  2. Alan says:

    I read this book shortly after it came out and enjoyed it a great deal. The historical parallels sent me back to looking at the history of the time period both out of curiosity and to refresh my memory from classes many years ago. It also reminded me of events during WWII in the Pacific.

    I found the writing to be a bit abrupt and there were modern references that seemed jarring to me in the context of the story. Some of the character development seemed flat. However I enjoyed the story enough that I’ll definitely be reading the follow on book.

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