REVIEW: The Dragon Republic (Poppy War #2) – R.F. Kuang

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Author: R.F. Kuang (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Harper Voyager

Genre: Fantasy, historical fiction (ish)

See Also: The Poppy War

Rin is on the run…

Haunted by the atrocity she committed to save her people, addicted to opium, and driven by the murderous commands of Phoenix, the vengeful god who has blessed Rin with her fearsome power.

Rin’s only reason for living is to get revenge on the traitorous Empress who sold her homeland, Nikan, to her enemies.

With no other options, Rin joins forces with the powerful Dragon Warlord, who has a plan to conquer Nikan, unseat the Empress, and create a new Republic. She throws herself into his war.

After all, making war is all she knows how to do…

I read The Poppy War last summer and it absolutely blew me away. I blitzed through it in what felt like no time, and then feeling strangely bereft and shell-shocked once I had finished it. When I heard the sequel was out this year I actually spent months periodically checking Netgalley to see if it had been made available because I needed it. How did you even follow on from that ending? Where was there left to go?

The answer is: Trauma. Lots and lots of trauma. This book, as with book one, is full of very triggering content, including drug addiction, self harm, sexual assault and gosh probably a million other things which I wouldn’t pick up on. I love these books, but I would advise reading with caution if you are aware that certain topics will trigger you.

The events of the previous book have left their mark on every single character, generally for the worse. Rin is in the grip of an opium addiction, as the only way to control her anger, the phoenix raging inside her mind, and the traumatic memories of her torture and Altan’s death. She’s become disconnected, volatile, and driven only by her goal of revenge. She wants to kill the Empress, no matter what it takes, or who else gets harmed. I was pleased that Rin’s addiction was handled in a brutal sort of rehab quite early on – I had worried about watching her self-destruct through drugs as the narrative continued, and found the prospect unsatisfying. Instead, while the threat of relapse is always there, we see Rin largely with a clear mind.

One of the things I loved about the first book was how hard Rin was allowed to be. She was driven, unforgiving, and entirely free of maternal impulses despite having been a caregiver for most of her childhood. This continues in The Dragon Republic, but it’s almost amplified by her trauma. She has seen horrific things, done horrific things. So, now, there seems to be almost a disconnect between her and the human side of her actions. She starts thinking in abstract terms, of numbers, instead of remembering that each number is a life. Whenever she is reminded of it, it seems to come as a shock. The only things which seem to break through that, which strike past this disassociation, are rapes, or things which remind her of Altan’s death and her torture at the hands of the Federation. These are clear trigger points, and Kuang writes this sympathetically and beautifully. Flashbacks, panic, incapacitation – Rin is not healthy, she is not recovered, and her psychological wounds are constantly being reopened and abused, often by people around her as a way to control her.

Where The Poppy War mostly dealt with incidents based around the Sino-Japanese war, The Dragon Republic looks at the Chinese civil war, but also with a heavy lens of how it and history before it was manipulated by Western powers. In book one we heard a lot about the Hesperians as a strange civilisation in the west, who may or may not intervene. In this we see them arrive as a force manipulating the regimes they want to see, controlling through threats and promises, and trying to convert the “savages” to their true religion. It’s been so easy, historically, for the world to romanticise the British Empire, and similar campaigns, although in recent years people are starting to realise the impact these “interventions” had on the societies which were subject to them. As with the chapter based around the Rape of Nanking in book one, Kuang has pulled no punches in the way the west treated the people they subjugated, the way they were viewed. In some ways book two is less viscerally brutal than book one, however it is just as raw and unflinching in the honest depictions of warfare, of violence, and of the personal and political ramifications on both a micro and macro scale.

Kuang is clearly an expert in her field, and her knowledge of historical warfare, both combat and the larger practicalities, the physical and psychological impacts, is so clearly woven into the story. The narrative feels so real and tangible, despite being a second world, despite being a fantasy novel. It’s concrete and detailed. It could easily be very dense but her writing style is so accessible and fluent, I found it required very little work to read and absorb. Her voice is very clear and Rin is an empathic narrator, even when she’s being awful, even when she’s at her worst it all feels understandable based on the story we’ve read. All the characters are fantastic, and the development of relationships and character growth is fascinating. Things which were hinted at in book one are developed fully in book two, whilst new hints are dropped for how things might change in book three based on the new experiences and trials they have been through.

One thing I enjoyed about book one was the change in Rin and Nezha’s relationship from antagonists in school to comrades before things were brought to an abrupt halt. Things pick up again here, but it’s slightly different, slightly more tense. I loved seeing Kitay flourish as well, it seems after the events of book one he’s become even less concerned about protecting hurt feelings when he’s speaking his thoughts – he’s the smartest person in any room, and refuses to feel ashamed of it. The Poppy War was a fantastic example of a huge period of time told with varying pacing to keep the story moving whilst dealing with a span of literally years. It never felt slow. By contrast, The Dragon Republic covers a comparatively short period of time – less than a year. But it never feels rushed. Kuang has a real knack for pacing and drama and giving everything the time and consideration it deserves, but she doesn’t become ponderous over things which could be tedious. It means that a book which is more than 600 pages long felt like quite an easy read, and I was done in a week.

If the next book is the final book (which is likely), I cannot wait to see how she brings this to a close as I am certain it will be done deftly. It will also be a spectacle, as she continues to raise the stakes and the tension with each book.

Briefly:

  • A fantastic continuation of an incredible debut, it deals with a shorter time period but feels perfectly formed. It’s less deeply brutal than book one (the Rape chapter in particular), but still doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors and the human cost of war.
  • I love Rin even when I am frustrated by her. I love how she is rarely soft, and her experiences and traumas have fashioned her into an unbreakable juggernaut who is absolutely terrible at being a civilian, and having normal conversations. It’s understandable and frustrating and relatable.
  • The twists and turns in this were excruciating and heartbreaking in the best way. I came out the end of it feeling like I’d been through the wringer. I think it’s fair play to expect heartbreak from Kuang.

Rating: 5/5 – I loved it. I loved it as much as the first one, and as much as I’m sure I will love the third one.

6 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Dragon Republic (Poppy War #2) – R.F. Kuang

    • Claire says:

      Yes, Kuang does such a great job of showing how people you hated at school can become people you get on with as an adult when the circumstances around you change. She’s an excellent writer!

      Like

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