Far-East-based fantasy novels are quite rare, and as such they are worthy of notice for the difference in background from the usual Middle-Age European-ish setting one usually encounters in the genre: that’s why I’m always intrigued when finding this kind of scenery, and my past experiences – with Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet and the more recent Jade City by Fonda Lee – have been quite positive. I was therefore looking forward to what I would discover in this debut novel, and I was certainly not disappointed, since I found myself engaged by the story even beyond my expectations. The Poppy War is set in what looks like an alternate version of China in the period between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, and draws much of its background from the real events of the constant strife between China and Japan in that era, a period I felt compelled to learn more about thanks to this book.
The story starts with what looks like a classic tale of escape from day to day drudgery through the discovery of unexpected talents, but after a while it turns into something quite different. Young Rin, the protagonist, is a war orphan who’s been turned into a sort of indentured slave to a family of shopkeepers whose main source of income comes from a flourishing opium smuggling operation. Informed on her fourteenth birthday that she’s been promised in marriage to a rich merchant who could be her grandfather, Rin is desperate to avoid a fate that threatens to be even worse than the actual situation, and gambles everything on the Keju, a test that could grant her access to the prestigious Sinegard military academy. Scoring the highest marks of her province proves to be only the first, tiny step in a long and hard road: once she gets to Sinegard, Rin finds herself among the sons and daughters of the most influential families of the Empire, her dark skin and peasant origins a blemish no one is inclined to forget or forgive.
Rin’s fierce determination to succeed is fueled by the awareness that this is the only course open to her, the single-minded focus she is able to apply to any challenge is born out of desperation as much as ambition, and it’s because of that unwavering willpower that she gains the attention of the most unusual, most scorned Sinegard teacher, who guides her toward the practice of shamanism – the almost forgotten art of communing with the gods and drawing on their powers – something she has a natural talent for. As the young woman progresses in her studies, the winds of war between the Nikan Empire and the Mugen Federation, never truly extinguished, flare up once more throwing the two nations into a new, bloody conflict that will put to the test Rin’s newly explored powers and her need for recognition.
It’s with the onset of war that Rin’s journey diverges from its archetypal path of enlightenment through trials and moves instead toward an intriguing character study and an exploration of the meaning of power, of what it can do to the human soul and how it can affect one’s perception of right and wrong. Rin has been powerless for most of her life, and once she takes her destiny into her own hands she finds it increasingly difficult to separate her need to accomplish the goals she’s set for herself and the need to show the world how good she is, how much she was underestimated. It does not help, either, that straight out of Sinegard she is assigned to the Cike, the empress’ elite corps of assassins, all of them able to access some form of shamanic power and all of them doomed to succumb to madness because of it: once more Rin feels excluded, relegated among the unwanted and the despised.
At some point her not-so-subtle desire for retribution against life’s injustices becomes enmeshed with the equally strong desire for revenge against the horrors perpetrated by the Mugen Federation on her people, creating a dangerous mix fueled by the destructive power she can tap through shamanism.
Witnessing the bloody massacre of a whole city by the Mugen soldiers finally seems to break something inside her, probably the last thread of the bond tethering Rin to her humanity: the desire for vengeance against the brutality of the enemy turns her into a force for destruction, one that unleashes the tide of power stored within her and turns into a terrible weapon. If the description of the gleeful brutality visited on the doomed city by the Mugen Federation had me reeling in horror (compounded by the knowledge that it was modeled on the all too real Nanking Massacre perpetrated by Japanese troops), what Rin unleashes when she gives her powers free rein is equally horrific and leaves no sense of justice in its wake, but only the awareness of an unbroken chain of savagery.
Rin is a deeply flawed character, and yet there is something in her that drives you to compassion, even as she becomes a mirror of the monsters she wants to fight: I think it’s because of the tragic quality of her being, of the sense of doom always hanging over her even in the moments of triumph. We are transported right there, seeing events through her eyes in what feels like close up and personal detail, and that form of empathy never stops: as she discovers the truth about herself, her past and origins, and of the path she seems destined for, we come to realize that there might be no redemption at the end of the road, and we feel for her with incredible intensity.
By comparison, the other characters (and there are many intriguing ones in the book) feel somewhat less substantial, less defined: Rin is indeed a flame that burns too hot (and I’m not using the comparison lightly….) throwing the other figures into shadows, blinding us to their finer details. It’s the only complaint I have about The Poppy War, that I would have liked to know more about them, to see them as something more than props on the scene of her journey. Still, this was an extremely satisfying read, and in the end I marveled at how much the author seems to have crammed into a relatively small number of pages, and how she managed to touch with a light hand some difficult subjects like racism, social injustice and sheer human brutality: there is a great deal at stake here since, as I’ve read, this is only the first volume in a series, one that created enormous expectations and will require a great deal of skill to live up to them. And I can hardly wait….