cover image The Poppy War

The Poppy War

R.F. Kuang. Harper Voyager, $26.99 (544p) ISBN 978-0-06-266256-9

Debut novelist Kuang creates an ambitious fantasy reimagining of Asian history populated by martial artists, philosopher-generals, and gods. War orphan Fang Runin (“Rin”) escapes abusive foster parents by gaining admission to the Nikara Empire’s prestigious military academy. Though stigmatized because of her peasant background, she earns top grades and wins the annual martial arts tournament. But she refuses a typical apprenticeship and instead goes to study with the academy’s disreputable Lore Master Jiang, who despairs of reviving the discredited shaman traditions. Finding her way to the home of the gods, Rin is forced to choose between obeying her master’s warnings against abuse of power and unleashing divine retribution when the island nation of Mugen, armed with chemical and biological weapons, invades and massacres civilians. Kuang highlights the horrors of war, especially the moral and emotional toll on combatants who employ scorched-earth strategies. Heroic responses pale in view of the collateral damage that they trigger, and the novel does not allow its characters to slough off their culpability for channeling godly powers. Readers may empathize with Rin’s desire for vengeance, but any thrill at her success is matched by horror at its costs. This is a strong and dramatic launch to Kuang’s career. (May)