R. F. Kuang: The Poppy War (Hardcover, 2018, Harper Voyager) 4 stars

A brilliantly imaginative talent makes her exciting debut with this epic historical military fantasy, inspired …

Review of 'The Poppy War' on 'Goodreads'

5 stars

This started out as asian and suddenly turned very western. There are a lot of concepts in this book that give tons of room for analyzing.

I think it's the first asian cultured book that tackles real swelling conflicts that made it big in the western world. The negative reviews stem in my opinion from missing knowledge about asian story telling and history.

It starts with people being baffled by Asian writing methods, which originated from a different folklore and developing into the Wuxia genre (which was dominant in the first part), it continued through the blatantly missing knowledge of the sino Japanese war and the Nanjing massacre. And basically ended with ignorance of today's diplomatic relationship between china and Japan. While at the same time using western christian eyes to decipher a story that is written with a chinese philosophy (i.e. Sunzi, interpretation of Rin's character)

This book seems to me as an attempt of a girl of chinese descendant to approach the national trauma, her country has suffered from. She tried to give all those suffering a form. It starts with the cultural history told through Rin growing up in the Academy and branches out through the massacres and the wars which then led to the rise of horrible atrocities in the Republic china. I guess this will be covered in the second book.

Choosing a fantasy story to do this, is in my eyes very smart. Writing and fiction stories are a form of art. You can write in metaphors and symbols. Opinions can be expressed and reflectivly examined. It can also be interpreted. This book is not a book meant for enjoyment. It's grim dark. It is meant to be used as a mirror. No one enjoys death and horror, war and genocides. But through a book we get the chance to box those horrible things into a fictional context and look at it from outside. Trying to give an objective in a conflict in which your normally choose a side.

I think Kuang was very daring to publish this book on a western market. The last time the conflict escalated between Japan and China/Korea was in 2013. That was not so long ago. Neither China nor Japan reflect well on their respective histories and the suffering people had to get through. And Asians really don't like to talk about problems. They rather shut you up and brush it under the carpet.

The stark contrast between the beginning of the book and the end also seems to allow for a different interpretation. Nikan (the china equivalent) was still living by their old ways. They used swords, regular bombs, went by their rules and laws of the empire dynasty. Still communicated with the gods. There is not technical advance. The academy still taught what students got taught since the red emporer.
However Mugen (Japan) embraced the industrial advance. They changed their concepts. They brainwashed their people since they were kids (what you do in facist countries). And they adapted these methods from the west. Ultimately it can seem, that this western technology was the fault that Mugen turned corrupted. The Asian way of life, the proud history of centuries got lost and eaten up by modern warfare. Nikan wouldn't have been so powerless after all if they also would have embraced western warfare. However Kuang answers that in the end, by letting Chinese folklore win the war. In the end Nikan still stands, because they kept true to their history. I think this is a very interesting perspective to analyse the book.

I did not even go into detail, looking at the characters, build up, the fantasy elements and the symbolism. I wanted to explain why this is not just any fantasy book, but how much this book is a piece of art and that things were done with a lot of thought. And I think people reading this book should know this beforehand. This is a philosophical journey to embark on. Not a book to read because you are bored.

That's why I think it's pretty hard to rate this book based on the enjoyment and entertainment value of it. Because this book is a testament of a young intelligent chinese woman who tries to interpret the history of her country and culture and make it possible for western eyes to take a look. This deserves a lot of respect.