The Poppy War is one of the most impressive dark fantasy debuts I have ever read. From the outset, Kuang introduces us to a morally complex character-Fang Runin, known simply as Rin. What initially begins as a stereotypical novel of covering well-known tropes including the: chosen one, being ‘different’, arch-enemy, and an insane teacher, are interestingly subverted in unexpected ways which serve an elaborate wider narrative arc.
As Rin’s story unfolds, Kuang exposes the reader to discriminatory prejudice, including colourism, racism and class, in a subtly nuanced way that only deepens Rin’s character and elicits the reader’s empathy as we observe Rin overcome these issues and set her eyes on victory. Being set in ancient China, we encounter a range of allusions to real historical events, through the frame of grimdark fiction, as it is largely rooted in the culture and politics of the Second Sino-Japanese War.
At its centre, this novel is military fantasy in which Rin confronts ethical dilemmas like genocide devised in a patriotic manner, condoning the sacrifice of an entire race in order to create allies in a war. We watch as Rin is forced to make difficult decisions, some that come as a complete shock to us. With undertones of nationalism, patriotism, and revenge embedded throughout this novel we begin to question the virtue of the initially determined protagonist as she is consumed by her own hubris.