More so than its young adult science fiction fantasy contemporaries, R.F. Kuang’s “The Poppy War” subscribes to a ‘grimdark’ trend in adult science fantasy fiction. As a sub-genre, ‘grimdark’ works to highlight the gritty underbelly of fictional worlds. But YA fiction and true ‘grimdark’ rarely coincide. The two genres are, by definition and by construction, incompatible.
While YA can flirt with darker themes, the kind of gritty soullessness that characterizes grimdark novels doesn’t appeal to publishers trying to push books for younger readers. However, with adult fiction, almost anything goes.
Unlike online spaces, there are no trigger warnings on books. An author can surprise readers with a 40-page graphic narration of sexual assault without having to justify the dark, excessive inclusion within their plot. As a result, ‘grimdark’ novels can often be gratuitous and over-the-top, childishly including “taboo” topics in the hopes of making a grittier, more edgy novel. But dark content does not make a good novel.
The stricter content constraints that YA novelists work with create genre guardrails. While ‘censor’ has a pejorative definition, the creation of the YA genre addresses adult fiction’s quality problem. Because of YA’s stricter rules, the writing is often less muddled and gratuitous. If a YA writer wanted to include a gruesome sexual assault, they have to narratively justify it, getting it past both their editor and publisher. Adult fiction lacks those shock value quality filters. YA novels give people a safe space to engage in complex narratives and an implicit promise that the novel they pick up will not traumatize or inherently harm them.
Thus, googling ‘grimdark YA’ leads to a mixed bag of content. Usually, what gets put on such lists is not actually grimdark. Sarah J. Maas’s “Throne of Glass” series, beleaguered by Maas’s unending fascination of her main character, touches upon darker images, like an extended torture scene. However, despite the mature topics included, Maas maintains a glossy, sexy fantasy world incompatible with ‘grimdark’ adult fiction.
In contrast, R.F. Kuang’s trilogy “The Poppy War” forcibly combines YA and grimdark fiction to synthesize a cohesive, morally challenging treatise. Her world is dangerous and grounded in Sino-Japanese history.
Kuang begins the book by writing from a fourteen-year-old girl’s perspective and then enrolls her main character into a “magic military school.” But Kuang’s novel soon diverges from the traditional YA trilogy plot, eschewing the usual pacing and throwing her characters into a warzone in the second half of her first novel.
By having her initially light YA novel take a hard left turn, Kuang successfully reframes fictionalized war as an all-encompassing, gritty and amoral endeavor. She has characters make horrible, irreconcilable choices and then actually makes her characters contend with them.
YA fiction has a tendency to absolve its characters of guilt, often concluding novels with a couple getting together rather than facing their actions. In contrast, in the novel, Kuang’s protagonist obliterates her enemy with her magical powers, committing a war-crime and winning a major victory for her people. But there are no moral absolutes in “The Poppy War” trilogy, no righteous war against the forces of evil. By engaging in warfare, one loses the moral high ground, and some situations can only be solved by armed conflict. Kuang forces Rin, one of her characters, to accept responsibility when committing terrible actions.
More so than the casual shows of violence, Kuang establishes “The Poppy War” as a proper grimdark by leveraging consequences, encouraging readers to re-evaluate their own views on war, militarism and nationalism.
Kuang is not here to play around. She will not engage in Sarah J. Maas’s self-indulgent style of storytelling. With an incredibly tightly-plotted novel, she touches upon complex issues like colorism in East Asia and genocide. She talks about hate and the evils that come when one race is encouraged to dehumanize another. She talks about Western powers and their place in Eastern politics.
This series is raw and harmful. This series will hurt you. But “The Poppy War” trilogy is also cerebral, capable of keeping you up thinking weeks after you close the book.
Trigger warnings for excessive violence and sexual assault. Kuang does not pull her punches. Before you read the book, please look up the Rape of Nanking to gauge if you should read the book. There is a fictionalized (but still brutal) version of Nanking in the novel.
Daily Book Review Editor Elizabeth Yoon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.