Hugo 2021: Best Series – The Poppy War by R F Kuang

Having already read three of the six Best Series finalists, 2021 was already looking like the year that I might actually have a well-informed opinion of the category. In the time since the finalist were announced, I’ve completed The Lady Astronaut series [https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2021/05/21/hugo-2021-the-fated-sky-relentless-moon-lady-astronaut-by-mary-robinette-kowal/ ] which left Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series and R F Kuang’s Poppy War. Given the sheer amount of material for McGuire and the fact that the Covid years have shifted me to audiobooks (long story), the choice of “what’s next ” went to The Poppy War and it was a good choice.

Spoilers for the whole series in terms of broad plot arcs follow…

It is not unusual for a fantasy story to make use of real historical events to provide the historical patterns in the broader plot. George RR Martin famously used the War of the Roses as material for Game of Thrones. However, it’s usually done fairly loosely or explored more tightly in the alternate history subgenre.

The Poppy War is neither loosely historical nor alternate history. The setting is its own distinct fantasy world that like many fantasy settings becomes a little thing and blurry beyond the main focus of action (not a criticism – there’s only so much backstory & world building we want to divert us from the plot). Kuang’s Nikan is a fantasy China in the same way so much fantasy is dark/middle-ages Europe. At the time the novels are set Nikan is a pre-industrial land with wars fought with swords and arrows but also cannon and gunpowder. It is also a world where magic is almost (but not quite gone). The people of Nikan have an almost forgotten tradition of shamanic magic, where people can access the pantheon of gods and gain powers themed according to the nature of the god that becomes their patron.

So it is a fully formed fantasy setting but what Kuang does with this setting is to tightly fold into it several hundred years of Chinese history — specifically the long, bloody and troubling history of China’s relationship with Japan on the one hand and the European nations (and later America) on the other. That folding collapses the timescale into decades but with events such as the Jesuit missionary expeditions and the events of the Opium Wars (1839-1860), the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Second Sino-Japanese War/World War 2 (1937–1945) as well as the second phase of the Chinese Civil War (1946-1949), all occurring within living memory of some of the characters or as actual events in the book.

Obviously, it is necessarily a simplified and more fantastical version of events with magical interventions and composite characters who aren’t exact homologues of historical figures. The composite Western/Europeans are the Hesperians who have a kind of steam-punk technology (including airships and matchlock “arquebus” guns) that also reflects their monotheistic not-Christianity belief in a divine creator. The not-Japanese Mugenese Federation are more military advanced than Nikan and have self-loading crossbows and chemical weapons. So there’s no intent here to simply replay Chinese history with the serial numbers filed off but rather re-create events and perspectives that pull from real events but which create novel perspectives on them. Yet, you can make reasonable guesses about what will occur based on actual historical events.

Of course, many of those events are horrific. The names of countries have changed and the history condensed and technology is different but the brutality is unchanged. All the horrors and genocidal actions inflicted on China are there and Kuang is not sparing in the depiction of the crimes against humanity committed by multiple forces on the people.

Looking at the description above as a project, it is easy to see how this whole series could have been a disaster. That Kuang managed to pull even a fraction of that together is impressive but to do that and deliver a compelling page-turning fantasy epic is extraordinary. I’m even more impressed because the central protagonist who is the main point-of-view character for all but a few chapters is not a very likeable person. Fang Runin (aka Rin) starts life as a poor war orphan and through sheer bloody-mindedness is close to being the supreme ruler of all Nikan close to the end of the third book. She’s not Mao Zedong (the mapping of characters to historical people isn’t that tight) but before the end of the first book she is an almost primordial force for radical change.

Throughout Rin’s journey Kuang makes use of and then discards elements of conventional fantasy and YA stories. In the first half of the first book Rin finds herself at an elite school (specifically the Imperial military academy) and while it isn’t a magical school as such, it is where she discovers that she has access to powers and begins her training on how to use them. Kuang also teases a kind of love-triangle set up but these are more feints than tropes. They appear as if to suggest a different story in which Rin follows the character arcs of fantastically powered protagonists. Instead Rin must face betrayal and cynical manipulation as well as brutalisation in multiple meanings of the term.

The contrast with the fantastical element and the horror of a war in which violent degradation is a norm only heightens how appalling things become both for Rin and Nikan. The first book alone is exhausting and not east in reading in the way real historical atrocities are folded into the narrative. There’s an additional tension in whether this use of real events in a fantastical setting is exploitative but I don’t think Kuang crosses that line. Instead, the story reinforces that war is dehumanising and that war where the parties involved have already dehumanised people is even more appalling.

So Rin is not likeable. She kills, she commits genocidal acts, she is consumed by a need for power and she often acts impetuously. She is though, a compelling character and without ever excusing or apologising for her acts, the narrative lays out clearly how circumstances (and supernatural forces) are shaping her decisions and character. Again, I keep being impressed by how Kuang makes us care so much for Rin as a character and to follow where her story takes her, even though it clearly will never end in a happy way for Rin.

I’m reminded of Robin Hobb’s books and the meat-grinder that she puts Fitz through in her Farseer sequence of books. Hobb uses periods of relatively better (but not good) circumstances for her character to set him up for much worse periods of violence and degradation. In comparison though, Fitz gets a better deal than what Kuang puts Rin through. For Rin things normally get worse and when they get better it is often because she is being set up for disaster by abusive people who are more powerful than her (mainly men but also one woman).

I wouldn’t step into these books lightly and I’m not sure reading all three back-to-back was a great idea. At one level the writing has an easy young-adult approach but “grimdark” as description doesn’t do it justice. These books aren’t like Joe Abercrombie or even GRRM, it isn’t that they are cynical about the human condition and they don’t endorse Rin or anybody’s choices. Whereas a lot of grimdark fantasy is attempting to create a sense of a pre-modern world being inherently brutal, the Poppy War is doing almost the exact opposite — it uses a fantasy setting to show us modern horrors in a way that allows us to approach them in fresh perspective.

I’ve seen criticism of the books in terms of racism, particularly whether the depiction of the Mugenese amounts to anti-Japanese racism. I think not but it is another fine line and another tension within the books. Major characters inevitably adopt dehumanising stances in the face of dehumanising beliefs. Put another way, this is a story that which is suffused with racist beliefs of powerful people that power decisions and actions that then impact whole populations. The story doesn’t unpack or excuse those beliefs but rather present them as inherently false but reinforced by circumstances. Your experience may vary though and (again) it is another confronting dimension to the books.

So where am I at the end of all that?

I wouldn’t want to read many stories like this one. I’m not going to be in a hurry to re-read it and I’m cautious even about recommending it to anybody. I also found it absolutely compelling and surprising. Yes, particularly in the first book there are word choices and phrasing that you’d expect from a debut novel. It isn’t always as well polished as it could be but I’m astounded how well Kuang pulls all of these elements together into a story that somehow keeps surprising you.

I’m not ready yet to rank my choices for Best Series but if The Poppy War wins this year then I firstly wouldn’t be surprised and secondly it would be well deserved.

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10 responses to “Hugo 2021: Best Series – The Poppy War by R F Kuang”

  1. An incredible debut trilogy for sure, and well worthy of the nomination – I reread book 1 before book 2, but didn’t reread book 2 (skimmed the final few chapters just to remember) before book 3. I don’t think its picturing of war crimes and other horrors was exploitative, but necessary to the story, which used them to show the horrors of war, colonialism, empire, and far far more, like collaboration and the aftermath of overthrowing a conquering power. Rin is just a tremendous character, and the two other major characters in the triangle, Kitay and Nezha, work really well at showing the different choices people make in these situations. And that ending wow.

    It’s far from a perfect trilogy with a few plot points not really followed up upon, and I thought the second book suffered quite a bit from “Okay, I recognize the historical parallels you’re making now, so I know what’s gotta happen here and I can’t really be shocked after all that happened in book 1”, but book three recovers a good bit from that. If you consider a finished trilogy as the type of work that should be nominated for Best Series, this is a good choice. (If you consider the award more for long running or series without clear endings, well, this won’t fit).

    I reviewed the trilogy at my blog (Book 1 here: https://garik16.blogspot.com/2018/06/scififantasy-book-review-poppy-war-by.html, Book 2 here: https://garik16.blogspot.com/2019/07/scififantasy-book-review-dragon.html, Book 3 here: https://garik16.blogspot.com/2020/11/scififantasy-book-review-burning-god-by.html)

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    • I was worried by that dropped issue in The Burning God that you mentioned in the ROT13 footnote. I don’t know if it was intentional (the story forgets about it because Rin forgets about it because she’s just that far gone) or just got lost

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  2. I haven’t been able to motivate myself to start this series yet. Everything I’ve seen written by people who’ve read it, even those who loved it, indicates that it’s relentlessly grim.

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      • This series also doesn’t work for me. Instead of finding the series compelling I found myself not caring about what would happen because I already knew it would be horrific. This isn’t Kuang’s fault necessarily – it’s a common fault with grimdark. The genre is set up so that everything will go from bad to worse and moments of hope will fail. I know many people find this ratchets up the tension, wondering when/how things will go wrong. But for me it does the opposite. I don’t feel any tension when I know the outcome is preordained. This series is ranking last on my list of the series I’ve read so far.

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  3. Excellent review and a good series.
    BTW I think you have a typo: “…. becomes a little thing and blurry….’ should it be ‘thin’ rather than thing?

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  4. I am on the opinion that ASOIAF is not really grimdark.
    This is one case where I ask myself, do I force myself to read the second book or is it okay to just declare I hate the series (even if I see the talent of R. F. Kuang and the craft).
    The first book did not start completly grim. There are some grim scenes in it, but until the war started there was (at last for me) the hope that it would get so bad.Then the war starts and all goes to more hell, than you could imagine.
    The problem is that before the end of the first book the protagonist does somethink that made me stopp caring about her. (A sentiment echoed by a character in the book) and this is the difference to characters of other works that are dark but not that dark. In this your comparison is not acurate. Fitz is still (to the end) a character who a reader can rout for, I was sad, when I read the last book. (Also I had the strong impresion that he found happiness for some times and did chance the lives of people for the better)
    My reaction to the first book, was I know it was beatiful written, I am glad it is over, I will never read it again, would never recomend it to a friend and thankfully don’t have to read the sequel, that I have now on my ereader and I need somethink to read next that isn’t so dark (Catfishing on CatNet was my choice over Jen Lyons novel, that I didn’t know anythink about at that time).
    So my question would be, why should I torture myself in reading the second book? (And yes this is probably the work that I reacted strongly towards last year).

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  5. I have read the first 2 volumes and agree that Kuang’s writing is remarkable for a new writer. I intend to attempt the 3rd after I finish ‘The Monster Baru Cormorant’, which I have persuaded our local library to obtain. Though maybe that is too much grimdark all at once.

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  6. The whole trilogy blew me away. It has its flaws but on the whole I found it to be exceptional, especially given that it’s a debut effort. You can see her writing and confidence increasing throughout the three books as well. It scratches an itch for me that most European-style fantasy doesn’t really touch upon. I only just finished it last night so I haven’t really processed the whole thing yet but I may or may not have more thoughts to spew out later on.

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