BOOK REVIEW: The Dragon Republic by R.F Kuang

Summary:

  • published by:  HarperVoyager
  • genres: fantasy, high fantasy, military fantasy, adult fantasy
  • content warnings: rape scenes, battle/death scenes, child death, torture, getting drunk, execution, body horror, drug use, addiction
  • Book one (The Poppy War) review

Synopsis:

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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.

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        🚨🚨 SPOILER WARNING FOR BOOK ONE, THE POPPY WAR 🚨 🚨

 

The Dragon Republic was one of my most (if not my most) highly anticipated releases of the year. I loved The Poppy War so much and happily called it one of my favourite books of 2018. I fell in love with the world, the characters, and also the author who I follow on twitter. I reread The Poppy War before this came out, preordered The Dragon Republic on audible and started reading it the second it hit my account. Needless to say, I was incredibly excited about this one.

In many ways, The Dragon Republic is a much quieter book than The Poppy War. Whereas The Poppy War burst onto the scene, boasting military fantasy, shamanism and a high-stakes action-filled plot – the Dragon Republic is, in my opinion, a lot less flashy. Instead, Kuang takes her time to more fully flesh out the characters and the world. The stakes are perhaps not as high, the problems not as immediate, but the scope is much larger. The Dragon Republic focusses on drawing out the politics of the world and setting up the tone and the central issues of the final book, coming sometime in 2020.

  “Between us, we have the fire and the water,” she said quietly. “I’m quite sure that together, we can take on the wind.”

That isn’t to say this book isn’t tense or doesn’t have high stakes. Just like it’s predecessor, The Dragon Republic boasts intense action scenes, including edge your seat battle sequences, and Kuang isn’t afraid to kill off a major character or two where necessary. There’s a distinctive feeling no one is safe in the final book – and I love that.

But for me, the majority of the tension emerges in the fraught relationships between the characters and Rin’s personal internal struggles that play out through the majority of the book. Rin struggles with her identity and her past a lot in this book. I thought Kuang did a lot to develop Rin and explore her psyche in this book. Rin’s personal battles, whether they were with her past actions, with her addiction, with her inability to escape cycles of abuse, or with her struggle to lead the Cike and live up to Altan’s example were, for me, extremely interesting to read about. She went through enormous character development, which I didn’t find tedious. She was struggling with a lot, and I think Kuang did well to represent processing that as a lengthy and drawn out affair.

“She had a weapon now. She wasn’t defenseless against him. She’d never been defenseless. She had just never thought to look.”

The relationship work, however, was definitely the highlight of this book for me. Rin’s fraught relationships and the way these relationships impact Rin’s vision of herself and her identity was central to the plot.

Her strained relationship with Kitay and her tentative relationship with Nezha were both highlights for me. I particularly enjoyed her interactions with Nezha. As a character, Nezha was given tremendous character development that really pulled him out of the ‘mean rich bully’ stereotype. I LOVED his relationship with Rin and I’ll say this …. anyone who hasn’t read this book… isn’t ready for some of this Nezrin content. ESPECIALLY AT THE END. (If you’ve read it, pls suffer with me)

“Fire and water looked so lovely together. It was a pity they destroyed each other by nature.”

But thematically and artistically, for me the exploration of Rin’s ties to Altan and the nature of their relationship was the most well executed exploration of relationship. Kuang really delves into the abusive and toxic aspects of their relationship, and unpacks the impact the affect that both Altan and Rin being caught in a cycle of abuse had on them individually and together. This is explored with deftness; Kuang is able to draw out the strains in their relationship and expose them to the reader, whilst simultaneously allowing you to understand how Rin’s psyche and position prevents her from seeing those toxic elements herself.

I made this same praise reading The Poppy War. Kuang really knows how to write the dicohotomy between the characters innner perceptions of themselves, and the exterior perception they show to other characters. There’s also the third layer of the perception of the character we get as the reader. I think in The Dragon Republic especially, Kuang really showed all the different versions of Rin, and played them off eachother so well. Similarly to the first book, you absolutely understand Rin’s motivations and emotions and intentions throughout the book. Even if you don’t necessarily agree with her, she’s so compelling you have to root for her. In this book particularly, Kuang really pushed me to rally for Rin’s cause even though I wasn’t sure if she was on the ‘right’ side.

“This was not a world of men. It was a world of gods, a time of great powers. It was the era of divinity walking in man, of wind and water and fire. And in warfare, she who held the power asymmetry was the inevitable victor.”

On that, one thing I think stood out The Dragon Republic in terms of writers craft is Kuang’s ability to distort the truth. Reading this with Rin is like walking through a fog. You don’t know if you’re heading in the right direction or doing the right thing – and you can’t see where everyone else is going. So you just keep forging ahead and hoping for the best. Kuang was able to build up the tension throughout this entire book. Delivering and exposing little tidbits as she went to murky the waters further. It was clever writing to hold all the tension until that explosive end. You never know where you stand in this book, and that feeling of constantly being on your toes is one of my favourite things about this series.

Finally, I want to give a nod to the worldbuilding and the research that has gone into this series. A lot of the events that happened are rooted in history. I know this is Kuang’s area of study, but she translated it so well into the book and managed to blend fantasy and historical elements so seamlessly. In terms of worldbuilding, the Dragon Republic gives this world so much breadth. We’re introduced to the Hesparian’s from across the sea, and Kuang delves much deeper into the foundations of this world and their politics. I really liked how Kuang turned fantasy tropes on their head – making the Hesperian’s (who are essentially the British) the ‘exotic other’ rather than the East Asian’s. Simiarly, this book is critical of Christianity and the moral norms it reinforces, whereas most Western fantasies are embedded in those morals. Overall, I thought the worldbuilding was excellent and clear thought had been put into exposing and twisting common fantasy tropes through the construction of the world.

The Dragon Republic is a book that had a lot to live up to. The Poppy War was not only a personal favourite of mine, but also a book that was incredibly well received critically. The Dragon Republic isn’t like The Poppy War in many ways. It’s quieter, more introspective, less flashy. It focusses on building character and world and slowly draws out tension rather than throwing us into high-stakes situations. But I think all this worked completely to this books favour. The tensions between characters, and within the characters themselves, were expertly teased out. It was thematically sharp, exploring abuse, cycles of power and the carelessness of the state. It delved deep into the character to create an overwhelming, and entirely bleak, depiction of a world on the cusp of total destruction, where staying moral and weilding power is a murky affair. Kuang brought the complexity and the excellent writing I was expecting, while giving me so much character development to chew on. I could not recommend this series to fantays fans enough.

If you love fantasy and haven’t picked up The Poppy War yet – all I can say is, congratulations, you played yourself.

until next time

sign off

 

 

 


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