April 23, 2019
Hugo Reading 2019: "The Poppy War," by R.F. Kuang
(Note: R.F. Kuang has been nominated for the John Campbell Award for Best New Writer. This is famously "not a Hugo," but it will be presented at the awards ceremony.)
I've heard a lot about this book. It's been nominated for several other awards, and even won a few. I've heard how intense it is, and how the author pulls no punches when it comes to her depiction of war, and how many content warnings it needs (all of them)...and I'm here to say that all of that is true.
But damn, this is one of the best books you'll read this year.
First and foremost, this is a story about war, and yes, it is bloody and gory and not for the squeamish. (Just as one example, if you want to know exactly what happens when you thrust your sword under someone's chin, the author will provide a detailed description.) But more than the physical aspects of war, this book tackles the psychological aspects. Specifically, how war slowly but surely drains away one's humanity, and makes a soldier into someone who sees the enemy not as a fellow human being who is fighting for the same reasons you are, but as an animal to be hated and destroyed, and finally, simply, as a number in your way to be subtracted. The protagonist, Fang Runin, undergoes this journey, and emerges as (as she says at the book's end):
I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible.
Was she now a goddess or a monster?
Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.
This book breaks down what leads Runin (or Rin) to this place. It's a result of war, a reaction to the Federation invading her country of Nikan, but it also comes about due to her desire for power and revenge. She has a great deal to want revenge for, as it turns out. The depiction of the Federation destruction of a Nikara city and the wholesale slaughter of its entire population is a harrowing, sickening moment that I will warn you requires a lot of spoons to read. Multiple spoons. An entire drawerful of spoons. Even so, I wouldn't blame you if you set the book aside once you get to that point and never pick it up again. But Rin pushes on, and does something even worse in return, invoking the power of the supernatural entities she learns to partner with and control during the course of the book. It's a hideous game of one-upmanship, and the ending promises it will not stop there.
But because the author so convincingly strips Rin down to nothing but her hatred and obsession, it's as dark and compelling a character study as I've ever seen, and this is what kept me reading. There is no way out for these people, and their choices only make things worse. If you can't handle that kind of thing, it's best you don't even start this book. Because as bleak and relentlessly grimdark as it is from beginning to end, the author writes it with such skill you can't put it down. And dammitall, I'm going to pick up the sequel as soon as it comes out.