TITLE: The Poppy War
AUTHOR: R.F. Kuang
GENRE: Fantasy, Grimdark
PUBLISHED: May 1, 2018
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
Some novels are mistaken for YA even if they're very much do not belong in that category, which is the case with R.F. Kuang's, The Poppy War. The novel follows the tale of a young woman named Rin: war-orphan and peasant who managed to pass the notoriously difficult Keju test to get into Sinegard Academy, the Nikara Empire’s top educational institution, where the military leaders of the future are made. No one expected her to make it as far as she did, but either way Rin is not about to let this opportunity go. Sinegard is her way out of her dead-end life, and she is going to do whatever it takes to get out.
But getting into Sinegard does not mean the end of her difficulties. There, she must confront prejudice from student and teacher alike because of her dark skin and her peasant background. And that’s hard enough, but then she has to deal with the fact that she might be capable of wielding power only seen in stories: the power of shamanism. Once more she thinks this power is her ticket out of the difficulties of her life, but when war descends upon Nikara, she realises that her gifts can do two things: save everything she loves and destroy everything she loves. The problem is, in order to do the former, she might still wind up doing the latter.
Given the above summary as well as the blurbs on various websites, it is easy to assume that The Poppy War, with its teenaged protagonist and fantasy school setting, is a YA novel. So many other novels in the category, after all, follow the same premise - even the inclusion of a nation-spanning war as a central plot point does not exclude the novel from the YA category since many novels in the YA category do tend to feature wars on some level or other as a central plot point.
But there are a few notable things about The Poppy War that distinguish it from the rest of the YA horde and, indeed, show that it is patently not a YA novel. The first and most obvious one is the level of violence that is portrayed in this novel. While it might seem unusual to talk about violence as a distinguisher between YA and not-YA, especially given how the types of media teenagers tend to consume can also be inherently violent (consider the violence portrayed in movies, video games, and TV shows, for example), the fact remains that there are certain levels of blood, gore, and violent death that are simply not depicted to the same level of detail in YA novels. Certainly, they do not go into as much detail as the following excerpt (warning: triggering content):
… Close to the city square, the [corpses were] arrayed in states of incredible desecration, grotesque positions that defied human imagination. Corpses nailed to boards. Corpses hung by their tongues from hooks. Corpses dismembered in every possible way; headless, limbless, displaying mutilations that must have been performed while the victim was still alive. Fingers removed, then stacked in a small pile beside stubby hands. An entire line of castrated men, severed penises placed delicately on their slack-jawed mouths.
There were so many beheadings. Heads stacked up in neat little piles, not yet so rotted that they had become skulls, but no longer resembling human faces. Whatever heads retained enough flesh to form expressions wore identical looks of terrible dullness, as if they had never been alive.
…each corner they turned revealed another instance in the string of horrors, barbarian savagery matched only by inventiveness. A family, arms still around each other, impaled upon the same spear. Babies lying at the bottoms of vats, their skin a horrible shade of crimson, floating in the water in which they’d been boiled to death.
The above snippet is just a part of a much longer list of atrocities, each equally or more horrific than the last. And while there are some terrible things that have been done to various characters in YA novels, they are never described with as much detail as the above. This novel is not YA; it is grimdark.
At the same time, though, calling the novel “grimdark” might do the author a disservice, in that calling it so implies that it’s all the work of the author’s imagination - which it is, to some degree, but also it is patently not. A quick look at the author’s background via the biography at the end of the novel will show that she is a student of modern Chinese history; a period that most certainly includes the Sino-Japanese Wars, with the first fought from 1894-1895, and then the second being fought just before and throughout the Second World War, from 1937 to 1945. And anyone with a passing familiarity with what happened in Asia during World War II is likely familiar with the atrocity called variously “The Rape of Nanking” or “The Rape of Nanjing”.
I will not go into the details of the Rape of Nanking; there is a wealth of books out there, many written by excellent and credible historians and memoirists, that will give the reader answers should he or she want to learn more. But for readers who are familiar with that particular atrocity, then the excerpt presented above, along with the many other similar scenes portrayed in the novel, will likely ring more than a few bells.
That particular part of the novel is also intriguing. Part of it is because so much of YA talks about wars and genocides, but does not portray them to the same level of devastation that I know occurs in real-life wars and genocides. To be sure, quite a few YA novels can and do reference the Jewish genocide under the Nazis, but that is perhaps the most-discussed genocide, likely because of its familiarity and maybe relevance to a white audience. It is almost a comfortable (if such a thing as genocide can be considered “comfortable”) touchstone for authors trying to portray an image of utter and heart-wrenching devastation; a kind of shorthand for total and utter depravity.
But if we are talking about portrayals of the kinds of depraved things humans can and will do to their fellow humans, then the Jewish genocide is one facet of it. This is not to say that the Jewish genocide is somehow less of an atrocity: the massive death toll that the Nazis created in pursuit of their abhorrent “Final Solution” is rightfully horrific, and the things the Nazis did to their captives in the concentration camps and elsewhere is as terrible as anything that has been done and is still being done in genocides past and present. But there is more than one way to conduct a genocide, and they are not always as “tidy” as the gas chambers: like the Congolese genocide that occurred when the Congo Free State was under the personal rule of King Leopold II of Belgium, or the East Timor genocide perpetrated by the Indonesian government - or, as in the case of this novel, the Rape of Nanking.
There are a few reasons why more graphic depictions of war and genocide do not seem to exist in YA. I suspect it mostly has to do with the publishers filtering for “appropriate content” (set in quotation marks because what is considered “appropriate content” can vary wildly and considerably from reader to reader), since the audience for YA novels is extremely broad and can include the more precocious middle-grade readers, whose parents may find graphic depictions of genocide are far too violent for them to read about. That, in my opinion, would make a great deal of sense, given how frequently YA books are challenged, even if the handling of the content is not graphically violent or the content itself is completely inoffensive (as is the case with books about LGBTQIA characters and related experiences).
Another reason why this novel cannot be considered YA is because of the ambiguity surrounding some of the themes. Some things are obviously clearly wrong (this novel makes no bones about just how terrible war and genocide are, for example), but the decisions that individual characters make are far less clear in terms of their moral certainty. For example, Rin’s drive to acquire power at whatever cost is shown to be borne of the oppression she experienced in life, and is tied to the equally powerful drive to protect what and who she values. Every time she reaches out for that power, a price is paid. The thing is, though, it’s not always Rin who does the paying; often, it is precisely the people she cares for the most that pay in her stead. Yet still, Rin continues to reach for power, despite knowing what it will do to her and despite knowing what it will do to those around her.
Is this a good or a bad thing? That is uncertain - even I cannot say for sure if I approve or disapprove of what Rin has done and will likely do in the upcoming books of this series. But that uncertainty is a feature, not a bug of this story. Rin is incredibly flawed, which means her decisions and moral compass are incredibly flawed too - flawed in ways that an adult reader will readily appreciate, perhaps even relate to.
But Rin’s ambiguous morals are simply not the sort of thing readers of YA encounter or likely even want in their novels - or at least, not their protagonists. More leeway may be given for an antagonist or even a supporting character, but certainly not for a protagonist. Again, this is not to say that teenagers cannot handle reading about a protagonist with ambiguous motivations, as I am sure more than a few individuals out there can and might even appreciate such a character, but for the most part YA protagonists are not as morally ambiguous as Rin or a few of the other characters in this novel.
This is especially true towards the end of the novel when Rin commits an incredible atrocity in the name of vengeance. That part of the novel asks some interesting questions in the vein of whether or not the old “eye for an eye” adage is indeed justifiable in certain circumstances, if it really is all right to answer atrocity with equal atrocity - if the oppressed are justified in replicating the horrors done on them by their oppressors, upon said oppressors. This is a complicated moral and ethical tangle to be sure, one that people in the real world are themselves trying to address and having a hard time doing so. It is also usually not the sort of thing that readers of YA run into in their preferred genre, or if so, it is not tackled in the same manner or to the same depth as it is in this novel. To say that it results in some rather discomfiting thoughts is something of an understatement.
As for the setting, that also contributes to the confusion regarding whether or not this novel is YA. Though the school setting of the first half is a popular setting for YA and is treated a little lightly in the novel itself, it is, in fact, important for setting up everything that comes later. Not only does the school setting allow the reader to really get acquainted with Rin and the other characters, it also gives said characters a “safe” space to grow into the people who will, in their own way, shape the course of the rest of the story once war arrives. It is also vitally important to world-building since the school setting allows the author to lay down the groundwork for some crucial foreshadowing that comes later in the novel. it also allows the reader the necessary space to get acquainted with this new world - especially important when dealing with fantasy novels, where setting can be a character in its own right and needs to be developed carefully.
Overall, The Poppy War is about as far from YA fantasy as a reader can get. Despite a cast of teenaged characters and a magical school setting in the first half of the novel, the novel’s second half makes it abundantly clear that this is not YA, especially given the very high levels of gore and violence described in the story's second half. Readers with triggers had best beware, but readers who are either not triggered too badly or are willing to brave their triggers for a good story will find a fascinating world completely different from the bog-standard Western Europe With Dragons setting so common in fantasy; a cast of characters whose motivations are nuanced and complex; and a plot that takes a while to develop but soon careens through some unpredictable (sometimes terrifyingly so) twists. The ending is not too bad of a cliffhanger, but will certainly leave readers eager for the next novel in the series.