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Why So Many Fantasy Novels Are Obsessed With Academia

The best fantasy debut of 2018 has a problem. It was also the best fantasy debut of 2009. And 2007. And 1997, 1985, 1982, and 1968.

Authors change; the story stays the same. In the darkness a child is born. The child suffers, but he has mysterious power. Posthaste, destiny leads the child to the same place it herds all the courageous orphan-protagonists of speculative fiction: a storied and exclusive institution of magical learning, where he unnerves the faculty, demonstrates arrogance, and forms lasting friendships on his way to vanquishing evil.

1968: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Ged, a motherless boy, apprentices to the mage Orion, who sends him to a school for wizards. There, he unleashes a terrible shadow.

J.K. Rowling did not invent the boy-wizard trope, but she did expand, enrobe, and embellish it—so magnificently that her millions of readers would have gladly returned their high school diplomas for a do-over at Hogwarts. (I was one. At my bar mitzvah, my dad announced to the congregation that, while I would probably not be matriculating at the legendary school of witchcraft and wizardry, I was still a wizard to him.) When Harry Potter stepped off that train 20-odd years ago, his stomach swirling with nerves and enchanted chocolate frog, he not only changed his life but also affirmed for all time the universal appeal of back-to-school, pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword-and-sorcery fantasy. More Hogwartses would follow, though none of such splendor or shifting staircases.

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This year’s Potter, though it pulls from a number of related sources, is The Poppy War, the first of a planned trilogy set in the Empire of Nikan, an evocation of 20th-century China in everything from geography and mythology to military history. Written by the scarily proficient newcomer R.F. Kuang—she was 19 and a student at Georgetown University when she sold it—the book adds to a recent wave of East Asian fantasy with a sad, gifted orphan of its own.

1982: Magician, by Raymond E. Feist. Pug, an orphan boy, trains in a tower on Kelewan to become a mighty spellcaster.

So many orphans. The word, from the Greek for bereaved, functions in fantasy as shorthand; this child knows loss. The hero of The Poppy War falls into the particularly depressing subcategory of war orphan, violent beginnings erasing both birthplace and ancestry. But Fang Runin, known as Rin, is not, for once, an orphan boy. Rin’s a teenage girl—no birth certificate, naturally, but she’s 15 or so—in the foster care of the Fangs, small-time opium runners who treat her badly and scheme to marry her off. (That, too, is written: Guardians must be ugly people and generally suck.)

1985: Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a young boy uncharacteristically en famille, is sent away to Battle School, where he outperforms everyone on every test and wins the war against the alien invaders.

Rin is raised in Rooster Province, a poorer area to the south whose working-class citizens are dismissed as illiterate farmers by their wealthier, lighter-skinned northern counterparts. Not to be underestimated, she shocks the Empire by scoring high enough on a national placement test to gain admission to Nikan’s finest school, the military academy of Sinegard, formed in response to on-and-off wars with the invading Federation soldiers from the island nation of Mugen.

1997: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling. Brave orphan boy with lightning scar may not be book-smart but has amazing hand-eye on the Quidditch field.

Rin’s hand-eye in the combat ring outpaces even that of the snobby classmates who’ve been training their whole lives. She eventually beats them all.

2007: The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. Kvothe, an orphan boy who’s good at everything, makes his way to the University, whose chancellor is the Master Linguist. Kvothe studies with the campus kook, Elodin.

The grand master of Sinegard, Rin’s academy, is Jima, a master linguist. Rin studies with the campus kook, Jiang.

2009: The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. Quentin Coldwater, who’s depressed, finds himself at a school of magic called Brakebills, a postmodern pastiche of Narnia and Harry Potter.

At no point does Kuang’s storytelling suggest self-awareness. Time and again, in ways both specific and general, The Poppy War programmatically hits the notes. It’s frustrating, even annoying, but something feels different. Not the Chinese shadow puppets or the drug-loving Jiang, though those are fun. It’s a tingling pre-awareness of a drop-off, a sense of building toward … what? Sure enough, at the halfway point, a devastating miracle: Out of nowhere, the Federation forces invade, and Sinegard—a version of the same institution we’ve seen so many times before in fantasy literature—is destroyed.

Burn! Break! Perish! As the pagodas come crashing down the mountain, Kuang jolts you out of 50 years of complacency. You discern the distant crumbling not just of the Hogwartses and Brakebillses and Battle Schools but also of every other capital-A academy ever imagined by writers in the genre, from Oomza University in Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti novellas to N.K. Jemisin’s Fulcrum to Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children. Children of fantasy, so gifted and peculiar and wayward, scream free!

From there, Kuang rebuilds her story from the ground up. It becomes a terrifying acid trip, with Rin and her new gang of disturbed shamans ingesting psychedelics in the heat of battle to rain mystical fury on their enemies. They fail more than they succeed. The Federation soldiers are ruthless. Some of the atrocities, echoing Chinese massacres, startle the senses. The line between the terrestrial plane and the pantheon of the gods blurs, and then breaks.

This isn’t revolution; The Poppy War is still firmly rooted in a crusty tradition. Nonetheless, Kuang manages to pierce through. Unlike Ender et al., the boys of modern fantasy, Rin, the odd girl out, does not become some enlightened, noble soul through adequate schooling. She ends up caustic, disobedient, selfish, vengeful, more dark than light. Most of her classmates and teachers die.

Thank the gods for that. For generations, a significant portion of fantasy has been stuck in a prolonged adolescence, its most popular practitioners spinning and re-spinning childhoods in which loners and misfits are tapped on bony shoulders and told they’re special. And then these authors wonder why literary snobs dismiss the genre as infantilizing and diversionary. Children are fine subjects, but fantasy needn’t require fantasizing. Middle school, high school: These were not incredible times. Instead of reliving better versions of them through fantasy, question their merits, suggest their deficiencies, then blow them up—as Kuang does.

2018: The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang. Rin, an orphan girl, lights herself on fire and watches her school burn. The world is not saved.


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