Review – Kuang, “The Poppy War”

R.F. Kuang, “The Poppy War” (2018) (read aloud by Emily Woo Zeller) – Man… this is just discouraging. I don’t really have a lot to say about this that I didn’t have to say about the similarly wildly-hyped “Black Sun,” except, if anything, this is even weaker and more rote. Once again, we’re promised a new take on fantasy, inspired by a global setting, not the usual post-Tolkien Europe-based world-building, and changes in perspective that come with both that and from authorship by a woman of color. Once again, we get paint by numbers cliches borrowed from Harry Potter, shonen anime, and the maybe, what… five? Six? Other strains that go in to contemporary big ticket narrative entertainment media. And once again, the speculative fiction industry has piled honors and money at the author’s feet.

The idea here is that the main character, Rin, a put-upon foster child in a rural province of a secondary world society based on China during its pre-1949 century of humiliation, studies real hard and gets to go to hogwarts I MEAN battle school I MEAN, the academy, whatever it’s called, for special military children. People are mean to her because she’s poor. The instructors are harsh beyond what seems necessary or advisable even for a military academy. But, lo and behold, Rin is the special child, the only one who can do the kind of shamanism that can keep the kind-of-Japanese at bay when they attack again. Presumably, in the sequels, she battles going crazy (shaman magic makes you crazy) and the stand-in westerners. 

Look. I shouldn’t have to keep repeating this, but I will. I would love to see a big fantasy epic based on Chinese history. Same with Mesoamerican history, same with African or Polynesian history- really, anywhere. If these epics were written by women of color or other people historically marginalized within publishing, so much the better (Kuang belongs to other demographics, like Georgetown and Oxbridge graduates, that aren’t so marginalized, and it’d maybe be nice to get some diversity on that axis, too, but the point stands). The reason I would like to see these things is because I think that good writing can accomplish that double-miracle- the exploration of difference, many-fold ways of thinking and living, alongside the recognition of human concordance across differences. Sometimes, a triple miracle- those things, plus entertainment! 

“The Poppy War” fails on all these counts. The closest thing for a justification for its existence, outside of the balance sheets of its publisher, is what I think of as the Clayton Powell principle. Asked about the illegal small-time numbers gambling game that was everywhere in his Harlem district (and was beginning to be violently taken over by Italian and Jewish gangsters, after generations of being run reasonably peaceably by black and Hispanic operators, often women), Congressman Adam Clayton Powell said, “I’m against the numbers in any form, but until the numbers are eradicated from Harlem, I want the black man to have the same chance to run the numbers as the Italian.” So, yeah- if we’re doing this chintzy, bloated, overrated, same-same hero’s journey bullshit over and over again, then yes, women of color like Kuang, Rebecca Roanhorse, and N.K. Jemisin deserve the same chance to see their work wildly overblown as boring white dude hacks like Patrick Rothfuss have. 

But what a missed opportunity! Rothfuss didn’t promise as much, or more to the point, waste as much as the supposed deliverers of the field from “white farm boys going on quests” have. A fantasy novel based on the dynamics of Chinese history is a really fucking good idea! I was looking forward to this! I had some forewarning it was a little trite from people I trust, but other people I trust (a little less if I’m being honest) spoke quite highly of “The Poppy War.” 

But what’s the goddamned point of it’s the same old shit, with somewhat different personal names and aesthetic details in the scenery? Especially when those aesthetic differences are indifferently conveyed and aren’t in an audiovisual medium to begin with? It’s like someone slapped a reskin on a well-known video game and declared it not just a whole new game, but a subversion of all previous games in the genre, a step forward both for game design and, in some way, social justice. And it works, over and over again! People fall for it!

“The Poppy War” in particular was possibly the most predictable single book I ever read. Every character is who they seem to be, if not to the other characters — they can’t see that Rin is special, generally, or that the crazy old herbal medicine teacher actually knows shamanism — but to any reader over the age of eight. Every turn of the story you can see coming well ahead of time, including the setups for the inevitable bloated sequels. 

This would be less of a problem if the premise delivered more, if Kuang successfully immersed us in another world, a world dissimilar to those in which we usually find ourselves as readers. Fantasy plots don’t need to be scintillatingly original. But the world and atmosphere of “The Poppy War” was so familiar it felt like going to the office (honestly, NBC-The-Office worship is a disease, but it feels like less like going to work and probably has more real world-building than most Hugo candidates for best novel in the last five years). You can’t just have everyone eating rice flour dumplings instead of beef stew and call it a subversion of Eurocentric genre tropes. Put upon decaying kingdom, sure. Long-dead magic arises despite skepticism of decadent ruling elite, you bet. And always, always, the magic one proving themselves. No one thinks different, no one talks different, nothing is really arranged, socially, politically, economically, all that different than in the “white boy” Tolkien-deriviative fantasies with which this book shares shelf space. 

A friend of mine likes to say that a lot of the problems in contemporary genre fiction stem from meritocrats – and most contemporary big name writers come, at the very least, from decent universities, and often enroll in highly competitive and expensive workshops to hone their craft and make industry connections – staging endless vindications for versions of themselves, the lonely striver revealed as being as special as authors generally imagine themselves to be. My addendum: a really different world, and certainly the different consciousness you would see in a genuinely different world, like those built by Tolkien, Le Guin, Butler, Herbert, et al, would interfere with the clarity of this vision… to say nothing of taking much more time and effort, if nothing else reading weird old shit when a tired grad student would rather be streaming (speaking as a grad student whose career failures probably had something to do with preferring reading weird old shit, I know whereof I speak). To the extent smart people I know like this book, it seems they like it for a somewhat depressing reason: they’ve enlisted in an online war with SFF enthusiasts who embrace what a friend calls “toxic-posi vibes,” “hopepunk” types who smilingly try to ruin the careers of anyone less posi than themselves. That means that “The Poppy War,” which is unrelentingly grim, humorless, free of the quips, squee moments, and familial sentimentality we’ve picked up from Joss Whedon et al, is on their side in the pointless series of cafeteria brawls that is speculative fiction social media. 

A dispiriting spectacle all around! Somewhere in the stacks, or online, there’s probably someone who’s written actually good, new scifi or fantasy based on historical China. I feel confused by the situation we see in contemporary SFF, even though the basic dynamics are as clear and sleazy as in any of our decaying institutions, and I guess the confusion stems from that. Good writing doesn’t cost that much more than bad. So why don’t they take a good writer out of their slush pile and elevate them? That probably comes down to some kind of sleazy bullshit surrounding workshops and who you know, too. Still! **

Review – Kuang, “The Poppy War”

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