I’ve already written a review of The Poppy War, which can be found here, but I feel this work deserves a deeper critical examination. When I write reviews my main goal is to express why you should pick up a book, what about makes it worth spending your time on, without any spoilers or an intense analysis. Mostly that’s due to time and energy. Not having much of either I tend to be parsimonious with both, and hold them for my own fiction writing. However, The Poppy War has struck a cord with me and I’m going to do my first Deep Dive on it. Who knows, this may become a regular feature.
CW: Spoilers and discussion of sexual assault/excessive violence.
The core idea of The Poppy War is violence and the trauma it inflicts, with a focus on violence against women. A major part of the book is the destruction of Golyn Niis, a take on the Rape of Nanjing. R.F. Kuang has declared as much in this blog post. The parallels are plain to see to anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of Chinese history or has spent any time focused on the Pacific Theater of WW2.
However, the obliteration of Golyn Niis is not the inciting incident of the book. Rather, it’s Rin, the main character, passing the Keju, a government-run examination to recruit and place young people in the appropriate schools, that first introduces how systemic violence actually is in the empire Rin occupies. Never mind that the level of self-harm Rin must perform to ace the Keju, the reward for her excellence isn’t admission to the fantasy equivalent of Harvard, or more appropriately a job as minister in a pastiche Chinese bureaucracy, but admission to the equivalent of West Point, Sinegard.
Yes, the reward for being a good student is to get sent to military school where she will be further brutalized before, ultimately voluntarily mutilating herself in order to compete in a system that’s stacked against her before being thrust into a military conflict that will push her to embrace a fiery spirit of pure destruction.
If that was all this book did that would be enough to make it worth reading. What interests me and prompted this deep dive was how The Poppy War deals with colonialism in its world-building.
The fantasy counterpart China and Japan are there without an equivalent European colonial power involved. Yes, it could be argued that Hesperia stands in for Europe or the United States, but it doesn’t fit the role as a colonial power. In fact, in The Poppy War the true colonial power is the Japan equivalent, the Mugen Federation.
This intrigues me because it can be questioned in actual history if Japan would have been a colonial power without the influence of Europe and the United States. The isolationist policy under the Tokugawa was forcibly ended by the intervention of colonial powers, but even before then Japan had a history of foreign adventures, such as the invasion of Korea in the 1590’s.
In the end, The Poppy War is fiction, even if it is steeped heavily in historical events. It’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder how East Asian history would have shaken out without the influence of Western colonial powers, and R.F. Kuang has crafted an intriguing tale. I reiterate my recommendation that you should read this book and I hope this deep dive has provided some points to consider while you do.