Good Reading: The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
I read a lot. My home is a library; between Bree and I, we’ve literally had to get a storage locker for our books. One of my friends semi-jokingly got me a book stamper so that I can keep track of my books because they get lent out a lot.
As I get older I find myself gravitating to more and more complex narratives that are simply written – the sort of books where you can tell the writer loves language and knows their world. The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang is such a book, with flowing language that works for the characters and a deeply detailed world that is deftly woven together. You won’t even realize how good she is at what she’s doing until one of the many revelations she works towards pays off, leaving you in awe of the story and its characters.
We’re given a simple story about a girl orphaned by war working her way into a prestigious academy, where she finds she has a secret power and finds mentorship from an unexpected source. A far off war that is hinted at comes to find her in a very visceral way and she loses old allies and gains new ones as she goes off to battle, only to learn that war is horrible and not glorious at all, but it is still sometimes necessary.
This is not a book of shocking swerves. You can see most of the twists coming from quite some distance, but it is the scale at which they are done and the elegance with which they are executed that will leave you breathless. The author has a degree in Chinese history and it shows; this book is heavily rooted in the mythology and history of the far east, exploring the difficulties between mainland China and old Japan.
Let us be clear: until their surrender and disarmament in World War II, the Japanese were a nightmare to live with. Their culture and philosophies were grounded in ideas that would have put British Colonialism to shame with the damage done, and we know this because the Chinese, Koreans, and Russians all kept detailed records of the horrors Japan inflicted on them.
This doesn’t excuse any of the things those nations did, either, or the flaws in their cultures or philosophies. This book, in fact, is quick to point out the flaws of every culture its heroine encounters.
All of that would make for an entertaining read, but the Poppy War takes things one step further by embracing the concept of shamanism. This is the secret power of the heroine – an ability to navigate altered states of consciousness to find gods and bring their power from heaven to earth. It is an idea that is introduced slowly and handled with the same elegance with which R.F. Kuang handles everything else.
The real trick is that the shamanism she presents feels real and echoes many of the experiences of shamans you may have met, regardless of what they may call themselves. There’s some discussion as to the drugs different societies embrace, where faith becomes dogma and why dogma is safer politically. The magic here feels like a real thing that real people could do in reality, while also explaining why when magic is real not everyone can or should use it.
That said, historians, mythologists, and lovers of fantasy all should read this book. It does everything well, from providing a series of nuanced characters with evolving relationships to expanding its own world and mythos with a concrete sense of purpose. It’s brilliant and difficult to put down; I bought it on a whim and ended up reading all 544 pages in a couple days. The words flow, the ideas are weighty but easy to digest and the heroine is affable, with a collection of admirable qualities and sympathetic flaws.
You can order the book, audio, or buy it on Kindle by clicking here.