What kind of a role should physical and military violence play in fiction? It’s a question I’ve been grappling with in my reading and writing the last couple of years as conversations about colonialism, imperialism and structural oppression move further into the SFF mainstream. Where is the line between what’s justified in order to tell the truth and what’s gratuitous and exploitative? When and how should one write about rape, about genocide, about graphic murder and torture?
R.F. Kuang’s 2018 debut The Poppy War features all of these things, and more besides. Inspired by Chinese history both recent and ancient, it follows protagonist Rin, a poor orphan who beats the odds – not to mention endemic classism – to test into the elite military training academy Sinegard. Her country, the Nikara Empire, is at war with the neighbouring Japan-analogue Mugen Federation for historical reasons, and when Mugen invades Nikara Rin and her classmates are called up to defend it. Rin, however, is assigned not to a regular fighting regiment but to a division of shamans called the Cike, thanks to her ability to call upon the power of a bloodthirsty god called the Phoenix – an ability she shares with a group of people called the Speerlies, powerful warriors massacred by Mugenese forces in an earlier conflict.
The Poppy War is, as I’ve indicated, a violent novel, depicting the full horror of everything humans do to each other in war in fairly graphic detail. In particular, Mugenese atrocities such as the genocide of the Speerlies are used by Rin and her compatriots to justify their own ugly tactics, and to dehumanise the Mugenese forces. This process culminates in Rin calling on the power of the Phoenix to murder hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilians, in retaliation for the destruction of Nikara cities. During the course of the novel we also see Mugenese doctors experimenting on Nikara troops, Cike commanders imprisoning rogue shamans, and carriage drivers killing injured children. It’s frankly a lot: there is, it seems, no form of violence that Kuang will shrink from depicting.
And yet its effect in the text is strangely muted – especially given the fact that much of what Kuang writes about is based on real events. In this interview for BookRiot, Kuang talks about her interest in “how people become murderers or perpetrators of genocide”, but her character work in The Poppy War is neither particularly convincing nor especially revealing: Rin could be the heroine of any grimdark fantasy for all the originality of her motives. There is, too, relatively little nuance in the way she depicts military violence and its effects: where is the Mugenese viewpoint, or, more importantly, the civilian viewpoint on either side? This latter for me cuts to the core of what makes depictions of extreme violence effective (and to some extent ethical) in fiction: it needs to be set off by something that is positive or peaceful or hopeful, even if the overall tone of the text is bleak. I don’t think Kuang achieves that here.
None of this is to say that Kuang is gratuitous in her use of violence: we find each atrocity and war crime deeply horrifying; they’re not there merely to titillate or to shock, as they are in texts like A Game of Thrones and its successors. But, by the same token, I think the novel’s lack of nuance prevents it from delivering the gut-punch that it should. The Poppy War is attempting something interesting and important with Chinese history; I’m not sure that it entirely succeeds.