In the aftermath of the Third Poppy War, shaman and warrior Rin is on the run: haunted by the atrocity she committed to end the war, addicted to opium, and hiding from the murderous commands of her vengeful god, the fiery Phoenix. Her only reason for living is to get revenge on the traitorous Empress who sold out Nikan to their 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. Rin throws herself into his war. After all, making war is all she knows how to do.
But the Empress is a more powerful foe than she appears, and the Dragon Warlord’s motivations are not as democratic as they seem. The more Rin learns, the more she fears her love for Nikan will drive her away from every ally and lead her to rely more and more on the Phoenix’s deadly power. Because there is nothing she won’t sacrifice for her country and her vengeance.
Trigger warnings: gore, violence, sexual violence and rape, racism, classism, drug abuse / addiction
My honest reaction when I finished this book, no this incredible tome, was awe, coupled with a pretty hefty dose of what the fuck as well as heartbreak because of that decision (redacted) made at the end. In all seriousness, I had such high hopes for this novel as I absolutely loved The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic totally lived up to it and I thoroughly enjoyed reading where R.F Kuang took the story and characters in this brilliant sequel.
One of the major draws for this series are the deeply complex and morally gray characters and I loved how well written they are. Sometimes with a sequel or follow ups, there can be a disconnect from book to book but I loved how the characters still felt like themselves but also go through so much and develop through the course of events. Not one character is left unchanged or less developed and this is not an easy thing to accomplish so I have so much admiration for Kuang, she is such a talented writer.
I absolutely loved the journey Rin went through – we begin in the aftermath of her choice to raze Mugen to the ground following the loss of Altan and the betrayal of the Empress Su Daji, which has left her traumatised, full of guilt and uncontrollable rage. This deeply rooted rage and trauma results in her growing dependent on Opium and taking refuge in the escape the drug provides. Things seemed pretty hopeless and grim for Rin at the start of the novel, but over the course of the story she becomes stronger mentally and really comes into her own. There were plenty of moments where Rin was at rock bottom and she makes some pretty questionable decisions and reacts poorly but this was so realistic and human.
There’s a moment quite a ways in to the novel, where she is forced to deal and reconcile with her trauma and her past, and it was so satisfying to read as she overcomes it and comes out the other side. The power she has is rooted in rage and hate, in feeding on the worst of her humanity but she learns to channel it from a different place, no longer allowing it to control her. If you read it like an allegory or metaphor for anger or trauma, it’s just as powerful.
As well as Rins journey in the novel, I loved the secondary characters who brought so much to the story in their own right. I would die for Kitay and that’s on that. Kitays arc is so painful but so good, at the start he is deeply traumatised because of the atrocities he witnessed at Golyn Niis, leaving him angry at the entire world, including Rin. The events in The Dragon Republic force him to reevaluate his loyalty to the Empress and the code of honour he has stuck by so firmly, he has to abandon his past self and come face to face with the ugliness of war and the bid for power.
The bond between Kitay and Rin is one of my absolute favourites because it’s strictly platonic but also deeply loving. They have the type of friendship where they can be at their absolute worst, screaming the odds but it will be forgiven because they have such a deep understanding of the other person and know who each other are at their core. It’s not often you read a m/f pairing where it’s just friendship and no love triangle or romantic tension, so their relationship is super refreshing to read and adds a necessary lightness amidst so much darkness.
I also liked the other members of the Cike and how we got to learn so much more about Chaghan and Qara, every character has such an intricate history and place in the novel which just blows my mind. This is the type of novel where you love a character even when you hate their choices and this is especially true in the end, when a certain character makes a choice which will reverberate well into the next book…
As well as the characters, I adored how vast and intricate the plot was. Kuang takes us to a completely different place in this novel, with the stakes being so much higher and every moment feeling so full of tension and danger. Rin and the Cike are backed in to a corner following the events of the first novel, which forces them to join forces with The Dragon Warlord, who has a dream for a new democratic republic. The interweaving of politics, war and magic here was incredible. At no point did I feel bored or like anything was redundant, every moment feels necessary and builds up to the heart wrenching ending we got.
I feel like the constant battle of morals and trying to figure out what the lesser of two evils is, of not knowing who to trust creates so much atmosphere and pathos. Rin has to come to terms with her position in this story: is she seen as a powerful person or is she just another pawn to be manipulated? Who does she trust? What is the underlying truth of this world? There are so many vital questions in the novel, which can be applied to real life conflict, another way in which Kuang succeeds in crafting this narrative which is firmly based on history and mythology.
Kuang also makes comments about racism and classism, through the introduction of the Hesperians, a western nation who consider themselves racially, culturally and genetically superior than the citizens and rulers of Nikan. This definitely brings to mind moments in history; the impact of Colonialism specifically and the mindset behind this disturbing and dark period of history, the effects of which are still being felt today. I appreciate that Kuang doesn’t shy away from these charged conversations and chooses to delves into them, which not only enriches the world of the novel but is a reminder of real life events. Usually military or grimmer fantasies aren’t my thing but Kuang does it so well and with such searing insight, I can’t help but enjoy it.
Overall, The Dragon Republic was an incredible follow up to The Poppy War , and I’m so excited to read the final instalment in the trilogy sometime this year. I’m sure it will be every bit the epic and heart wrenching finale I’m expecting and more.
Until next time,