R. F. Kuang deftly combines history and fantasy in her epic The Poppy War, set in an alternative Asia. Based primarily in the China-inspired country of Nikan, it follows the ascendance of young military student Fang Runin, known as Rin. She’s an orphan living in a poor, rural province. And her only chance at advancement is scoring near-perfectly on a daunting nationwide aptitude test.

But Rin is determined to get out of her tiny village and away from her abusive foster parents. She dreams of a military career, even though she knows the risks involved. Nikan has already fought two “poppy wars” with the Republic of Mugen (modeled on Japan). As Rin embarks on her schooling, there’s no indication of impending war. And yet, there’s no formal peace between the countries either.

When Rin arrives in SInegard to study, she finds everything exponentially harder than she expected. She’s a country bumpkin studying alongside the children of warlords. The instructors resent her naive ways. But she finds a few friends and starts to make a name for herself.

Fundamentally, this first book in the trilogy is both a coming-of-age story and the first stage in an epic. Kuang divides it into three parts, based on Rin’s particular focus. And she creates detailed settings with intriguing characters.

My conclusions

Sometimes the fantasy tropes of the young orphan or country child going to the big bad city are tiresome. But Kuang makes Rin both likable and extremely smart. If she starts out not understanding a cultural tradition or someone’s personality, Rin catches on quickly. Her quick mind keeps the story moving. It also develops her character as a strong young woman with plenty of perspicacity.

What sets The Poppy War apart from a wholly imagined fantasy world is the way Kuang bases events on real-life 20th-century history. Nikan has many parallels to China in its people, ideas, and history. On the other hand, Kuang adds fantastical elements that enhance the story. Rin and her compatriots have even more life complications because of these fantasy elements. But connecting them to Chinese culture and myth grounds the whole story. Kuang delicately balances these two aspects of the story.

The Poppy War is a bit long and drags in the middle section. Still, I knew persistence would pay off as the story shifted gears into the more active last section. Kuang left me with no choice but to continue the trilogy, which I’ll do after catching up on a few reading obligations.

I recommend this if you love epic fantasy with a distinctly Asian twist. Beware that there are some graphic scenes, which I found particularly disturbing. However, if you can manage that, you’ll love this plucky character and her world.

Pair with Gail Tsukiyama’s historical fiction duo set in real-life 20th century China, Women of the Silk.