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.