R.F. Kuang Stuns With Her Debut Fantasy Novel, The Poppy War

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Fantasy fans looking for a refreshing and exciting story can find their newest obsession with military fantasy The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. In a world inspired by twentieth century China, Rin is an orphan of the last Poppy War, left to survive as a shopgirl for an opium smuggler. Not content with her future in an arranged marriage, she studies day and night for the Keju, a state-sponsored test that will make her eligible for the most prestigious military academy in the country: Sinegard. After passing, she realizes her hard work is not done ... and the academy isn't as idealic as she thought. While training, she learns she has unnatural, untapped power from the gods — and whispers of war infiltrate the school's grounds.
With such an amazing groundwork for an epic fantasy, we had to grab R.F. Kuang and pick her mind! Read her answers below.
RT: Congratulations on your debut novel! What sparked the inspiration for The Poppy War?
R.F. Kuang: The Poppy War grew out of a lot of childhood influences — Ender's Game, Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA), and way too many Chinese wuxia TV dramas. I'd always wanted to write a story that mixed the kind of geopolitical and psychological drama of Ender's Game (and the Shadow sequels, which are objectively better than the Speaker sequels) with Chinese mythology and magic. But I didn't have a story in mind until I started seriously studying Chinese history and delved into the horrors of China's twentieth century wars. Historian Rana Mitter published this groundbreaking book in 2013 about China's role in World War II titled Forgotten Ally — forgotten, in part, because Western curriculums rarely discuss the Chinese theater in WWII curriculums. Every high schooler in the US has heard of the Invasion of Normandy. How many of them know about the Battle of Shanghai? So I chose to write a fantasy reinterpretation of China's twentieth century, because that was the kind of story I wasn't finding on bookshelves.
Also, I've always thought ATLA would be way better if Azula were the main character. You can read The Poppy War roughly as precisely that.
Knowing how modern Chinese history influenced The Poppy War, was there additional research you had to do outside of your studies in Chinese military strategy? What are some of the most interesting things you learned?
Outside of military history, I also did a ton of research on Daoist mythology and Asian shamanism. Everything about psychedelics and entheogens in the book has its root in real Eastern religious practices. I also spent many hours talking to my grandparents about their experiences during World War II, and many of those details wound up in the narrative. My grandfather fought in Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist army and had a pretty crazy time. And you can still see the bullet holes left by Japanese soldiers in the walls of my grandparents' old home.
Rin is definitely a unique heroine — her anger and pride lets her stand out among her classmates, as well as other heroines of this genre. Was it important for you to portray a woman like Rin?
I don't like Chosen One stories. I don't like that trope where the heroes just luck into things — they're the best warrior in the land just because, romantic interests are drawn to them for no good reason, they inherit magic that can save the kingdom, etc. I think a defining character trait for Rin is that she has no heroic destiny. Life has dealt her a nasty. She isn't born into royalty, she has no money and no connections, and by rights she has no business altering the fabric of the universe. She claws her way into everything she gets with terrible consequences, and she has a massive chip on her shoulder because she's always had this sense that she doesn't belong. The only thing she has that's truly hers is her pride, so of course she's going to defend it. Rin was also written as a direct parallel to a certain figure pivotal to Chinese history, and she borrows many of his personality traits. I don't know if it's a spoiler to specify who it is. Guess!
A lot of time is covered throughout this book, allowing readers to follow Rin as she grows and changes. How did you choose what to include in the story, and are there any moments that had to be left out that you would have wanted to explore more?
We (my editor, agent, and I) actually did many rounds of edits for pacing. It's a rather long book, and the excitement really starts once you get to the battlefield, but you can't make sense of Rin as a soldier until you understand her past as a war orphan and a student. I would have loved to dither around in the first half of the book a bit more. I think there are a lot of adventures I could have written about Rin at Sinegard and I'm still a little heartbroken over what we had to cut. For instance, there are these adorable scenes between Rin and Kitay during that very brief summer break they spend at Kitay's estate that I thought beautifully illustrated their relationship. There are also some conversations between Rin and Altan didn't make it, because by that part of the book we are in a war zone and it slowed the action down too much. Maybe if I ever get on Patreon, I'll post those deleted scenes online.
Writing action can definitely be difficult, and The Poppy War is rife with battles. Do you have any tips for aspiring authors when it comes to writing fight scenes?
I had a hard time with the fight scenes too! I think writers have trouble with them because the only experience most of us have with real fights is through watching movies, which doesn't work so well because it makes your fight scenes rather over the top and cinematographic. An instructor at the Odyssey workshop told me my fight scenes were too "ludicrously blockbustery," and that was one of the best critiques I've ever received. (It stung, though.) When you don't have personal experience, you have to research, so I ended up reading a lot of military strategy manuals and martial arts handbooks. I guess my tip would be to read about how to fight from actual fighters. Don't settle for Hollywood images.
The worldbuilding in The Poppy War is rich — from the provinces to the gods to the history. How did you keep it all organized? Where did you start when you created this world?
I don't do all my worldbuilding from scratch before I start writing. (I've heard some writers do that. I admire their patience.) I started by using the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) as a template. If I had a transportation infrastructure, military technology, or economic question, I'd just consult some history books about the Song. That made it significantly easier for me to focus on coming up with the cool stuff, like, face-stealing demons.
After reading such an epic, I know I’m definitely excited for more! Do you have any more projects on the horizon you can talk about?
The Poppy War is part of a trilogy, so there will be two more installments over the next two years. I'm halfway through drafting Book 3 right. When I'm finished with these books, I have a standalone novel idea about student revolutions that I want to start writing so badly that it's distracting. But I once read a good piece of advice that you shouldn't tease a project until you've actually sold it, and I'm not even close to the point where we can even start pitching it anywhere, so that's all I'll say about it.
We're eager to see what's next — but first, pre-order your copy of The Poppy War from one of these retailers: Amazon | B&N | iBooks | Kobo | Indiebound
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