Raising the Stakes and Breaking My Heart: R. F. Kuang – The Dragon Republic

It’s hard not to be impressed by the skill with which Rebecca Kuang came onto the SFF scene. With her debut novel, one could have still thought it was a mixture of luck, enugh time to polish the book, or whatever else. But this second book of hers – the difficult middle book of a trilogy, no less – seals Kuang’s place as one of the most exciting and best SFF writers of our time.
Also, she’s really good at breaking readers’ hearts.

SPOILERS FOR THE POPPY WAR BELOW!!!

THE DRAGON REPUBLIC
by R. F. Kuang

Published: Harper Voyager, 2019
eBook:
675 pages
Series:
The Poppy War #2
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: “Come on,” Mingzha begged. “Please, I want to see.” Nezha seized his brother by his chubby wrist and pulled him back from the shallows.

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

The sequel to R.F. Kuang’s acclaimed debut THE POPPY WAR, THE DRAGON REPUBLIC combines the history of 20th-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters, to devastating effect.

The war is over yet the war continues. While Rin is dealing with her guilt over having committed genocide and getting more and more dependent on the opium that keeps her Phoenix god quiet, the world hasn’t stood still. Nikan is devastated from the Third Poppy War, the Empress is still sitting on the throne and doing her best to hunt down and kill Rin and the Cike. But Rin manages to team up with the only force that stands a chance against the Nikara Military – the Dragon Warlord, none other than Nezha’s father, who wishes to turn their Empire into a Republic. Even if that means waging more war before, finally, peace can come.

In tone, this book is similar to its predecessor, except where we got at least a short period of relative peace when Rin was being trained at Sinegard, this time it’s war and doom from the get go. Rin and the Cike are in a bad place, her relationship to Kitay is fraught, to put it mildly, and Rin is still reeling from losing Altan.
The fact that Yin Vaisra, Dragon Warlord, picks her up and intends to use her as his own personal weapon in the war against the Empress, comes just right for her. A girl who has never learned how to do anything other than make war, she doesn’t even care that she’s making herself a pawn in someone else’s game. She just wants to kill Daji, avenge Altan, and forget the atrocious things she’s done.

This book, just like The Poppy War, was an event. I literally shook my head in amazement in every chapter at how brilliantly Kuang depicts her characters and their complex, complicated emotions. It’s also quite astonishing that we can still sympathize with Rin who has, let’s face it, killed an entire people all by herself!
But The Dragon Republic isn’t only more battles, a different kind of war (Nikara against Nikara), and Rin drowning her sorrows in opium. Kuang introduces new conflicts, shows us many new aspects of this world, and so manages to fill the almost 700 pages of this book without ever dragging the plot. I don’t quite understand how she managed it but there isn’t a scene in this chonker of a book that I think could be cut without making the book ever so slightly worse.

As a character-focused reader, I particularly enjoyed seeing the relationships betweent he characters evolve and change. Don’t get me wrong, this world is still damn dark and not everyone suddenly turns into friends just because they’re fighting on the same side of this war. But I’m a sucker for Rin and Kitay’s friendship, strained as it may be, and I never thought it would happen, but I am totally behind Rin and Nezha becoming friends (or maybe even more). Even Venka, who wasn’t exactly the most multi-layered person, grew on me up to the point where I’m rooting for her. And I think it’s because Kuang manages to make all her characters, villains and “good” people alike, so complex and real that it hurts all the more when one of them dies, that their betrayals are felt so much deeper, that their sacrifices touch our hearts more. In case you haven’t guessed yet, this book made me cry again. On several occasions.

The world of Nikan and its pantheon also has more to offer than we first thought. Not only does Rin learn more about her gods and where her own powers come from, we also meet people from different places and cultures and it made the whole world of this book richer. On the one hand, there are the Ketreyids from up north, Chaghan and Qara’s people, about whom I won’t say much because spoilers.
On the other hand, the Dragon Warlors has invited the Hesperians to follow along on his war campaign in the hopes of gaining their help. They promise a fleet of ships but only if the Nikara can prove they are “civilized” enough to merit Hesperian help. Oh, and of course they’d like to study Rin and her superpowers. The Hesperians’ presence was super sinister throughout the entire book and I can only imagine that things will get even worse before they get better (if they do get better).

The ending was once more this culmination of events that put my emotions through the meat grinder. Between big battles, strategic decisions, dangerous missions, betrayal, sacrifice, almost-deaths and actual deaths, I had barely time to breathe. The final chapters of this book left me half-angry, half-sobbing and mostly convinced that this series as a whole will not end well. If you don’t mind feeling like shit because the characters you’ve grown to love live through horrible, horrible things, then by god, pick up this series! I’ve reluctantly started the final volume and I both desperately want to know what happens but also don’t want it to end. It’s that kind of trilogy and no matter how things turn out, it’s not one I’ll easily forget.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

3 thoughts on “Raising the Stakes and Breaking My Heart: R. F. Kuang – The Dragon Republic

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