67 pages 2 hours read

R. F. Kuang

The Poppy War

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


The Poppy War is a 2018 military high fantasy novel by R. F. Kuang. It draws inspiration from Song Dynasty China, the Opium Wars, and the Second Sino-Japanese War. It also draws aspects of its mythology from Chinese literature, Taoism, Buddhism, and Hongshan culture. Kuang was born in Guangzhou, China, and immigrated to the United States with her parents as a young child. She majored in history at Georgetown University. She received a master’s in philosophy in Chinese studies at the University of Cambridge and a master’s in science in contemporary Chinese studies from the University of Oxford. In 2020, she began a PhD in East Asian languages and literature at Yale University.

Kuang began writing The Poppy War at 19 while teaching debate in China. She has stated that Rin is based on Mao Zedong and that The Poppy War trilogy explores the question, “what makes a monster?” (Yu, Alan. “In The Poppy War Series, R. F. Kuang Asks: ‘What If Mao Was a Teenage Girl?‘“ NPR Book News & Features. 24 November 2020). The Poppy War is followed by The Dragon Republic (2019) and The Burning God (2020).

The book follows Fang Runin, a peasant girl who is accepted to Sinegard Academy. She discovers a mysterious power and trains to become a shaman to the vengeful god, the Phoenix. When war breaks out between her home country of Nikan and the Federation of Mugen, Rin must quickly become a hardened soldier. The book deals with themes such as the price of war and the loss of humanity. It is a two-time Goodreads Choice Award winner, a Nebula and Locus Award finalist, and a Stabby, Crawford, and Compton Crook Award winner.

This study guide refers to the 2018 HarperCollins Publisher print edition.

Content Warnings: This book contains self-harm, recreational drug use and drug addiction, racism, classism, colorism, physical abuse, mental abuse, explicit wartime violence, explicit sexual violence, sexual assault, human experimentation, suicide, and genocide.

Plot Summary

Fang Runin, or Rin, is a war orphan from Tikany, in Nikan’s Rooster Province. At 14, Rin is desperate to find a way out of an arranged marriage with a much older man. She bribes a tutor named Feyrik with stolen opium for his help studying for a national exam called the Keju. Without money for tuition, Rin must test into the most elite school in Nikan: the military academy at Sinegard, which is free. After two years of studying, she achieves the highest Keju score in Rooster Province.

Rin quickly finds that Sinegardians have deep prejudices against the lower classes, southerners, and people with dark skin—all three apply to Rin. Leading her peers against her are Yin Nezha, the Dragon Warlord’s son, and Sring Venka, who follows Nezha’s lead. Her only ally is a Sinegardian boy named Chen Kitay. In class, Rin’s education is deemed “peasant superstition” and her combat training is nonexistent. The Lore Master, Jiang Ziya, never shows up to teach class.

One night, Rin sees an older student named Altan Trengsin fight. He is a Speerly—the last known descendent of an island tributary that was wiped out in the Second Poppy War by the Federation of Mugen. The students idolize Altan, and they learn about Speer in history class; Rin suspects that Nikan sacrificed Speer so that the western country Hesperia would intervene and end the war.

Rin and Nezha get into several fights and the Combat Master, Jun, expels Rin from his class. This jeopardizes her future at Sinegard, so Rin finds books on ancient combat techniques and begins practicing alone in the empty Lore garden. Jiang catches her, and he agrees to help her pass the year-end battle tournament. He trains her and is excited about her potential, claiming he can make her a shaman. Rin and Nezha face off in the tournament; Rin wins, but she grows so enraged that she is overtaken by heat. She runs to Jiang, who dispels the power. He agrees to help her understand her power, and she pledges to study Lore.

At the Summer Festival, Rin and Kitay watch a puppet show about how the Trifecta—the Gatekeeper, the Warrior, and the Vipress, who is the now-Empress—saved Nikan in the Second Poppy War. She sees Empress Su Daji for the first time at the festival’s parade and feels unnaturally strong adoration.

Through her second year, Jiang teaches Rin about shamanism and how well-trained individuals can use psychedelic drugs to carefully commune with the gods. After extensive training, Rin meditates for weeks in a mountain cave, until she sees a vision of a Speerly woman and the patron god of Speer, the Phoenix.

Part 2 opens with Tyr, the commander of a group of shamanistic assassins called the Cike. Tensions with Mugen have been escalating and Tyr is spying aboard a Federation ship. Daji boards the ship and kills Tyr. In midsummer, Mugen and Nikan go to war. Sinegardian nobles are evacuated to Golyn Niis, and Sinegard Academy becomes a fortress. When the Federation attacks, Nezha saves Rin and the two fight in harmony. When they’re cornered by a Mugenese general, Jiang appears and opens a portal to the gods’ menagerie, revealing that he is the lost Gatekeeper. After, Jiang vanishes, Nezha is impaled, and Rin calls the Phoenix, burning everything around her and ending the battle. When she wakes, she is confined by her allies, who fear her power. Rin learns she is a Speerly.

She is assigned to the Cike, now commanded by Altan, and stationed at the port city Khurdalain. She meets the other Cike members, mostly shamans who are losing their minds to their gods. Altan teaches her how to hone the Phoenix’s power, but Rin, remembering Jiang’s teachings, remains cautious. As the war progresses, Khurdalain is increasingly lost to the Federation. Nezha’s new division arrives and he and Rin grow closer. Cike member Qara’s brother, a Seer named Chaghan, arrives; he is the only one who can stand against Altan’s increasingly desperate, ruthless ideas.

The Federation abducts Nezha during a poison gas attack. Rin is furious at Altan for allowing it to happen and calls the Phoenix for the second time in her rage. She asks Chaghan for help expelling the Speerly woman from her mind; he does so, then learns through his abilities that the Federation is attacking Golyn Niis.

In Part 3, the Cike rush to Golyn Niis and find a city of tortured, mutilated corpses. Kitay and Venka are among the few survivors; Venka makes Rin promise to burn all Mugenese. Altan, who also seeks revenge, wants to raise an army of shamans. He and Rin go to Chuluu Korikh, the stone mountain where shamans are interred when they are inevitably overtaken by their gods. They try to free Jiang, who interred himself after the Sinegard attack. Jiang warns them that their plan will lead to ruin and refuses to join them. Altan then releases Feylen, a former Cike. Feylen, who is possessed by his god, escapes.

Outside the mountain, the Federation captures Rin and Altan. They are brought to a lab: the very place Altan was experimented on as a child. Shiro, the same doctor from Altan’s childhood, reveals that Daji gave away their location. Rin and Altan manage to escape and Altan self-immolates to destroy the lab. Alone, Rin swims to Speer and calls the Phoenix to destroy the Federation. She becomes a conduit for its power, which triggers an explosion on Mugen, killing millions.

The Cike and Kitay find Rin. Kitay is furious that Rin feels no remorse for committing genocide. Rin begins to get high on opium. She tells Chaghan about Daji’s betrayal, and they both vow revenge.

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