R.F. Kuang’s 2018 debut, a military fantasy that upends a familiar school narrative with blood, terror and drugs that give her protagonist god-like abilities, is at times unflinchingly dark—though no more so than the events that inspired it. Kuang, who at 24 already has two post-graduate degrees in Chinese studies, threads her knowledge of the region’s history, including the Second Sino-Japanese War, throughout the fictional Nikara Empire. There, Rin, an orphan escaping an arranged marriage, earns a spot at an elite military academy where she and her peers prepare to defend Nikara, should they ever be called upon. That day comes before they can graduate, leaving chaos and rubble in its wake and setting Rin and her newly unleashed shamanic powers on a path toward further destruction. Despite the book’s supernatural elements, Kuang’s powerful depictions of trauma and the horrors of war, informed by her academic background, feel real. —Cate Matthews

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