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.
I finished The Dragon Republic a week ago, but I wasn’t ready to talk about it because that shit hurted. I went into this book thinking I was ready for whatever it had in store, but the lie detector determined that was a lie. I wasn’t ready and I’m a clown for thinking that. It feels like Rebecca F. Kuang came into my home, shared a few laughs with me, lulled me into a false sense of security and then unexpectedly shoved me out a window, which I’m sure would hurt less. She literally said “fuck your feelings” with this sequel and she’s probably somewhere reveling in my tears.
The Dragon Republic picks up few months after The Poppy War (review). Rin is guilt-ridden, battling PTSD and opium addiction, struggling to control her powers, and on the run from the empire. Saying that she has a lot going on is an understatement of the century. She’s still the determined and resilient character I fell in love with in The Poppy War, but she is ANGRY and at her worst in this book. Her rage throughout this book is so palpable that it was kind of suffocating to read about at times. Rin is still on brand and makes a lot of questionable decisions because she has no impulse control and there were times I was infuriated with her, but Kuang’s writing shines as she strips Rin to her core that I couldn’t help but root for her. Rin’s arc in the first half is painful, but the payoff is worth it.
In the first book, it was easy to identify the enemy, but it’s not that easy in this book because The Dragon Republic ups the ante with the geopolitical maneuverings of the warlords and imperialism. Kuang’s depiction of white colonizers was so eerie and historically accurate that I had to set the book down a few times because I was frightened and anxious. Those scenes were a reminder that white people are the worst. My reaction to those scenes is a testament to how great Kuang is at her craft and the wonderful job she did expanding her world beyond the Nikara empire with the Hesperians.
Kuang not only expanded the world geographically, but she also added elements of naval warfare, a refugee crisis, Makerism (Christianity parallel), additional pantheon gods, deepened the magic system, and introduced an indigenous group to this story. In the hands of someone else this book may have felt clunky or too much of an undertaking, but that wasn’t the case here because Kuang is a remarkable writer. Everything came together cohesively. The new elements were revealed naturally and the naval battle scenes were gruesome, but also engrossing and slightly euphoric. Even though I’m not familiar with the high seas or warfare, I wasn’t bored with the naval tactics and strategizing because the book is well crafted, introspective and imaginative.
What I love most about this series and this book, in particular, is the way Kuang masterfully blends history, mythology, and military strategy into an exhilarating and harrowing tale about the horrors of war. I was really impressed with the way she handled Rin’s rage, grief and PTSD in this book. The care and accuracy she used is unprecedented in this genre and I loved that Kuang didn’t quickly (and conveniently) resolve her characters issues for the sake of the plot. There’s no escaping consequences in this book.
Despite the dread and brutal content, The Dragon Republic has a few moments of levity. There were some heart-warming interactions between the characters that I absolutely adored and chemistry between a few characters that I was totally onboard for. Speaking of adorable, I was very happy to have my child Kitay back in this installment. His arc is quite heartbreaking and he’s changed a lot since the war, but he is still one of my favorite characters in this series. Unfortunately, the Sike faded into the background in this book. We get to know them a little bit more, but overall they were an afterthought for both Rin and Kuang.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that part I made me extremely nervous. The writing in those early chapters didn’t hook me quite like The Poppy War. The slow pacing in part I made me think the book would’ve benefitted from an additional POV. However, once The Dragon Republic hits its stride in part II that thought quickly faded because it didn’t take its foot off my neck.
The Dragon Republic is an exceptionally satisfying follow-up that continues to explore war, loss and morality with historical accuracy. I originally set out to only read 5 chapters a day, but breezed through it in a few days because it was unputdownable. I predicted a few twists, but overall R.F. Kuang does a wonderful job of moving the plot forward while also setting up the pieces for the next book. I can’t talk about how much the ending rocked me because I don’t want to spoil anything. However, I will say that if you’re invested in this story, you’re not ready. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year and I can’t wait for the final installment. If you loved The Poppy War, you will love this sequel.
Content warning: PTSD, murder, violence, rape, torture, imperialism, racism, war crimes, self-harm, drug use
ARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review