Whether drawn from faiths in the real world or completely constructed by an author, divinities of all sorts are a useful way to explain the source of a character’s power. The ways in which these characters are positioned in relation to their presiding deity allows for different kinds of conflicts. In novels like R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy war the gods are distant and must be channeled through a person in order to operate in the real world. This model stands in opposition to that of series like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books where the power is innate to the character and cannot be revoked even if they should displease their patron (or in the case of the Percy Jackson books, their parent). The world and relationships enabled by these systems have very different feels and both Kuang and Riordan are able to use them to great effect.
The use of the Greek gods and goddesses in the Percy Jackson books gives a ready-made sense of scope to the series. Readers bring with them a history of those gods and the powers the provide which the author is able to expand into the context of his story without having to explicitly address all the history that came before. Riordan does an admirable job in his adjustments to the Greek canon so that the stories are neither to complex for a young audience or unrecognizable to older ones. The Greek gods feel a part of his world without be completely separated from the history that appears in textbooks. In contrast, Kuang has to construct this kind of backstory from scratch and where a pre-existing pantheon can feel well rounded by its reliance on existing mythology, she is only able to develop the backstory of a singular god. Especially since The Poppy Wars is quite short in the context of many fantasy epics, the sense of history sometimes feel flat and lacks the emotional impact that a more established mythology may have provided. However, this novel makes every effort to pull focus to the current events of the plot rather than an exploration of history by emphasizing the tensions made possible by invented deities.
Where Percy Jackson’s water manipulating abilities are fixed and guaranteed by the mythology of demigods the abilities of Rin in the Poppy Wars exist at the whims of her patron. The deities of The Poppy Wars are distant from the human world and must operate through human vessels with each party fighting to further their own interests. Not only must Rin consider that her god may not answer when she calls but she also must grapple with the knowledge that he is working at a cross purpose. This is a true two-sided relationship where both parties require the other in way that is not true of the way the demigods of Percy Jackson relate to their parents. This adds additional tension to the more geopolitical narrative at the centre of the Poppy Wars as Rin must balance her own goal for her country against the potentially cataclysmic intentions of the god is pulling into her world. There is a sense that the gods are an adversary not just for Rin but for humanity in general while also being the source of the major magical powers of the world.
Whether using existing mythologies or a newly constructed one the use of divinities as the source of magical power brings a very particular weakness because deities tend towards being one dimensional characters. This is often a limitation of world building where there isn’t time or space to go through the entire mythology of a particular figure. However, the result in the story is that deities often feel dominated by a singular characteristic that lacks depth or development. They may work with the protagonist, or they may oppose the protagonist but usually within the singular characteristic that defines them. This could be a result of reader or author expectations, because the more a divine character is rounded out the more they tend to feel like an over powered human rather than a god. Both Riordan and Kuang stick to the more one-dimensional figures and avoid their gods feeling like humans but the balance between character depth and reader interpretation is a key consideration of how deities should be implemented.
Divinities are an effective way of not only explaining the source of a character’s power but adding tension to existing plots. The Percy Jackson books demonstrate the ways in which familiar pantheons can be used as a framework for contemporary stories while also giving a sense of the past. However, by moving away from that model The Poppy Wars is able to cast doubt on the abilities of the hero which always feel in jeopardy even when the character is seemingly successful. Fantasy worlds benefit from the kind of precarity of the later system and for the more adult audience of The Poppy Wars the depth added by the adversarial gods can become the defining feature of the book. If deities are the source of a character’s power, they are also the balancing point on which the construction of the magic system rests. Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy Wars are successful but I would suggest that this a result of careful authorial thought rather than happenstance.