R. F. Kuang – The Poppy War


The Poppy War is set in the Nikara empire shortly after the second poppy war with the island federation of Mugen. It tells the story of Fang Runin, a war orphan living in the southern Rooster Province. We learn that her childhood isn’t a particularly happy one as she has to slave away in a grocery store for a drug trafficking foster family. Her only prospect in life is marrying a wealthy merchant thrice her age or acing what is known as the Keju. The Keju is an exam conducted yearly in all Nikaran provinces, barring access to the most prestigious academies in the empire. One of those is Sinegard, a military boarding school educating the brightest minds for prominent militia positions. Fang Runin, better known as Rin, knows this academy is her only way out of an otherwise mundane and subservient life. 

Complete summary (spoilers included)

To prepare for the Keju, Rin has to study every free hour available to her. As those aren’t many, Rin has to inflict self-harm in order for her to stay alert and awake. After completing the Keju, Rin learns she scored in the top 1%, granting her access to the prestigious Sinegard academy.

After arriving at Sinegard, Rin quickly learns it isn’t all she had hoped for. Rooster province is one of the poorest in all of Nikara and its inhabitants tend to have a darker skin color and prominent southern accents. This makes Rin stand out immediately, leading to condescension from classmates as well as teachers. Especially from fellow student Nezha, son of the Dragon Warlord, who quickly turns into her nemesis. 

During her five years of education Rin tends to seclude herself from her classmates, often hiding out in a rooftop garden. Here Rin runs into fabled lore professor Jiang. After being expelled from martial arts class Rin is trying to learn fighting techniques based on a book by Sun Tsu. This amuses Jiang and he offers to teach her as he admires her persistence and stubborn attitude. Lessons culminate in a fighting tournament which Rin enters and unexpectedly wins. This however is not only because of Jiangs teachings. During the final round, Rin faces her nemesis Nezha. His continuous slander and abuse has angered her to such an extent that she unleashes a power unbeknownst to her. Afterwards Jiang is the only one able to tell her what happened; Rin has access to godly powers making her a shaman. 

In the following years Jiang continues to teach Rin in shamanism and helps her navigate the dream world of the Gods. We find out Rin isn’t Jiangs first shaman student. Several others have gone before her, most notably Altan Trengsin. A Sinegardian legend, he is known for his aptitude in just about every subject, especially his fighting prowess. This is attributed to him being a Speerly. Speerlies used to inhabit the island of Speer, they were a shamanistic people connected to the destructive god of fire; the Phoenix. 

During the previous poppy wars Nikara recruited Speerly warriors to fight the Federation. They were extremely effective as they were able to call the Phoenix and gain access to his fire-y power. To eliminate the Speerly threat, the Federation attacked Speer during the second Poppy War, decimating the island and killing its entire population. This was possible because the island was left unprotected by the Nikara, making its people easy prey. For a long time Altan was the only known survivor and the last living Speerly. The ignition of Rins powers and her connection to the Phoenix however, mark her as a fellow Speerly. 

Nearing the end of her education at Sinegard, the Nikara Empire is once again at war with the Federation. When the attackers reach Sinegard, Rin is forced to put all her training to the test to defend the city and the academy. As she teams up with former nemesis Nezha, they are able to fight off a large enemy force but when their general arrives all hope seems lost. However, fear and anger seem to help Rin connect to the Phoenix and she destroys the army with her (uncontrolled) fire power.

After the victory at Sinegard, Rin is placed in the Cike, a special army division for shaman led by former academy student Altan Trengsin. They take up a post in Khurdalain, a coastal city under siege by Federation troops. Together the Cike are a phenomenal fighting force comprised of shamans that have access to the powers of their various gods. They operate strategically, taking out entire enemy squadrons with a handful of Cike. However, the enemy has much greater numbers and the Empire appears to be losing the war. 

In order to gain more control over the Phoenix’s powers, Rin calls on the help of a fellow Cike named Chaghan. He is a so called Seeer and is able to travel the world of dreams more easily than any other human. Together they find out that the siege at Khurdalain is only a distraction and the true battle is going to take place in Golyn Niis, the wartime capital. After conveying this to Altan the Cike travel to the capital as fast as possible, but find the city defeated. Its inhabitants are all dead, most of them tortured and mutilated. 

After witnessing these atrocities, Rin and Altan decide to avenge their people at all costs. Altan devices a plan to free all shaman enclosed in the Chuluu Korikh mountain. Here all shaman who have lost their minds to their gods are imprisoned by the Cike. However, once they reach the mountain they are ambushed and captured by the Federation. They are taken to a laboratory where they are told that their own empress, Su Daji, betrayed their location. We also find out that Altan was held prisoner in this laboratory when he was a child and thus survived the destruction of Speer. A battle ensues and Rin and Altan are able to escape. While Rin wants them both to flee, Altan decides to remain and destroy the laboratory, a supposed suicide mission. Rin swims from the mainland to the island of Speer were she summons the Phoenix in its ancestral temple. Here, the Phoenix asks her if she chooses to be his conduit granting her the power to destroy all of Mugen in one blow. Even though this is large scale genocide, Rin complies as she is overcome with despair, rage and vengeance. Her fury combined with the power of the Phoenix detonates a dormant volcano on Mugen, killing all inhabitants and destroying the island. At the end of the novel, Rin learns that all shaman are responsible for their own choices and the gods simply grant them their power. With this in mind, Rin chooses the path of vengeance once more, vowing to kill Su Daji, the empress that betrayed her people and the Cike. 

Character Analysis

Fang Runin is characterized by two main personality traits; disinhibition and antagonism. Individuals with disinhibited personalities are often unable to suppress inappropriate or unwanted behavior. Irresponsibility, impulsivity, perfectionism, distractability and risk taking behavior are attributed to them. Rin displays these traits on several occasions. Her perfectionism drives her to automutilate, burning herself in order to stay awake while studying for the Keju. Futhermore, impulsiveness and irresponsibility are evident in punching Nezha shortly after arriving at Sinegard knowing fighting is forbidden and might lead to expulsion from the academy. Risk taking behavior is present throughout the story, for example when fighting the chimei by herself or deciding to free the shaman at the Chuluu Korikh.

Antagonistic individuals have a tendency to disregard the needs of others and to be self-focused, deceitful, manipulative, callous, grandiose and attention-seeking. Some of these characteristics arise when Rin bribes tutor Freyik with stolen opium, fueling his addiction. Grandiosity becomes apparent when Rin muses about the gods, thinking they have no power except for what she gives them and calling them her tools. Lastly, Rins antagonism becomes clear when discussing the destruction of Mugen with Kitay and experiencing or expressing no remorse for committing genocide. Her feelings actually appear to be the opposite, Rin is proud, wanting others to know what she is capable of.    

Historical Context

The story told in the Poppy War is loosely based on the second Sino-Japanese War between the Republic of China (Nikara) and the Empire of Japan (Mugen). This war was the result of Japanese imperialism and the desire to expand their territory and gain access to raw materials, resources and man-power. The Siege of Khurdalain shares similarities with the Battle of Shanghai. Both battles lasted for about three months resulting in a Chinese (Nikaran) defeat. Both in real life and in the PW, the duration of the battle upsets the Japanese/Mugenese soldiers as they were indoctrinated with their cultural and martial superiority, thus expecting a quick victory. As the war ensues, the next big battle takes place in Nanjing or Golyn Niss in the book. The Mugenese military atrocities are relayed explicitly in the book, detailing the rape, torture and murder of thousands of surrendered soldiers and civilians. A lot of research is done on what makes soldiers react with such brutality. Some of the main reasons include feelings of revenge, indoctrination, extreme nationalism and the dehumanization of the enemy. In the book a Federation delegate describes the Nikara as sniveling cowards. He proclaims expansion into the continent as a divine right of the Federation, detailing that the demise of the Nikara Empire is inevitable, their isolation has set them behind technologically and governmentally while the rest of the world developed. This indicates his nationalism as well as his contempt for the Nikara. As the book comes to a close, Rin sets of a dormant volcano on the island of Mugen, killing all its inhabitants. This shows some similarities with the actual ending of the S-J War; the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

The story diverges from real life in one main aspect; the position of women in society. While there aren’t a lot of women at Sinegard, it is not forbidden for women to be educated. They are also not excluded from the militia and are even allowed positions of power. The most remarkable example is the Empress Su Daji. After seizing control of the state during the Second Poppy War, she became the sole sovereign of the Empire. In real life, China never had a female ruler. Another example is the pirate queen Moag, leader of the bandit-smuggler town Ankhiluun. 

The Poppy War is the first novel in the Poppy War trilogy, set in the fictional Nikara empire. Loosely based on Chinese history, influenced by Asian mythology and complemented by fantastical elements R.F. Kuang tells a unique story. It’s main protagonist, Rin, is a war orphan fighting to survive numerous foes ranging from her abusive foster mother, a biased society and ultimately a foreign enemy.

2 thoughts on “R. F. Kuang – The Poppy War”

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