Review: The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War #2) by R.F. Kuang


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.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

I’ve been waiting—like an ember for air—to read this book and see how things will play out after The Poppy War had spiraled down into tight claustrophobic tragedy, and it was like bracing yourself for a punch to the throat only to get struck in the kidney instead.

Kuang continues to prove me wrong each time I believed myself gone beyond shock. This book is a whole new level of shock. My chest is still a riot of emotions, not all of them identifiable. But, oh, God, what a bright stab in my heart at the echo of the ending. It left me speechless, as if my tongue had been torn from my mouth. It almost seemed then as if such shattering revelations should create a sound—but my room remained silent, and I sat there stricken and sleepless, my thoughts running along such dark, pessimistic faultlines, thinking, “how the fuck am I supposed to function until the next book comes out?”

In order to talk about this book, I need to spoil The Poppy War, so for those lucky souls who have not yet been initiated into this series, avert your eyes—but do so knowing that there’s never a bad time to get started.

“The only thing permanent about this Empire is war.” […] The more she thought about it, the more she realized that the only permanent thing about her might be war.

Atlan is gone, and where his fire had once blazed only an ember remained.

Rin clung to her vengeance with a fierce Pavlovian tenacity, partly through habit and more than partly because she had nothing with which to replace it.

Besieged by nightmares whenever she closes her eyes, the illicit opium she uses to silence the apocalypse thing that lived inside her—that throat-scouring, head-filling roar of endless rage and wrathful guilt—still shuddering through her veins, The Dragon Warlord, Yin Vaisra, appears to Rin out of nowhere with a bewitching offer to free their people from this last vestige of their long torment, to crack the uncrackable empire, and capture Su Daji, the gold yolk within. For her dream of revenge to be anything more than a pleasant fantasy, Rin joins the Dragon army—however much she hated Vaisra’s querulous voice snapping orders at her unceasing. But she hated it less than the watchful—judgmental—eyes of the Hesperians who not only managed to radiate power, but something worse than power: a malicious zealotry that was its own law and covenant.

Lost in Vaisra’s wily double meanings, the Hesperians’ lies and their games of power, Rin was cognizant of what she had agreed to do, days before she began to comprehend the magnitude of it. Reality soon dawns, however: this was but the opening gambit of a longer game and they were all clutching straws against death and time. The grudges of gods are as deathless as their flesh, and men with everything at stake are dangerous. Was revenge worth the price Rin paid for it? And how long will Rin continue sacrificing the hope of the living for the comfort of the dead?

The Dragon Republic is a fireworks display from a very talented author that you will be willing to follow to any destination.

Kuang has proved herself capable of orchestrating walloping storylines in The Poppy War. But The Dragon Republic remarkably lays down even more potential. The author digs with dark glee into this sequel, and from page one, she doesn’t let up. The result is a sprawling—yet dynamic—novel that twists history, geography, mythology and fantasy into a resonant tale that underscores just how fragmented our own realities can be during periods of fear, unrest, and inequality—and an aching reminder that retaking what has been lost isn’t always the answer.

With understated skill, Kuang carries this book with the same taut vision and exacting precision that made its predecessor so winning. Moving like liquid, like a fish through the waves, the author unspools the novel’s plot slowly, never passing up a chance to make things tenser and tenser. It becomes head-spinning how all expectations are upended—hope and despair flared and died in me by turns, and each turn of the page was like the held-breath interlude between when a button gets pushed and the bomb either detonates or is defused. It’s exhilarating.

The author succeeds admirably on all fronts, creating a rich tapestry of wonders as well as brutality and oppression. The action is ferocious, bloody, and unrelenting—but Kuang renders that violence extremely well, and its physical and psychological effects are believable and lasting. The monsters of this novel are eerily familiar—the series, after all, contains a bright shard of China’s living past, the writing loathsomeness of humanity’s crimes against itself on full display. But for its all bloodcurdling, heart-lurching spectacle, The Dragon Republic isn’t all grim: the author knows exactly when to dole out the humor—there’s always a second for the reader to breathe, and for the protagonists to enjoy a merry quip, a smarting rejoinder, or a philosophical discursion.

It’s the ending, though, that makes The Dragon Republic an absolute knock-out. It strikes like a thunderstroke: electric, sizzling, and minutely delivered. I felt its rattle through me: a wash of panic rising up your throat, just a slap of feeling that makes you jerk to a halt, then shake your head, as though motion could dispel memory.

“You will be the spear that brings this empire down.” 

But even more than all of that, for me the novel’s driving force was its rich cast of characters—driven by passion, duty and humanizing, terrifying flaws, they are rendered as fully realized as ever. In many senses, The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic are two tales of two different times, and two very different people: the first, young, dauntless and full of hope, and the person she became in the wake of tragedy.

The epigenetic legacy of war, Altan and Rin have grown up with blades in their hearts. The first book is a bitter tale of how that war began, how it went back before the two of them, how they inherited it, with all else that they inherited. Inside Altan was a ruin, a funeral pyre, and the chaos of his mind amplified in Rin’s. Rage and grief, guilt and shame: these were emotions they both knew too well. Forgiveness, or even love, those were foreign countries to them, which had to be learned stone by stone.

In this sequel, the memories stack layer upon layer until they reach their inevitable conclusion: Rin had snatched hungrily at Altan’s words and loved him with her frightened eyes, thought him perfect—but “Altan was no hero,” and he wasn’t perfect, he could be selfish and remote and often cruel and still she followed him, in spite of, because. In his absence, however, Rin must come face to face with who she was—what’s she’s done—and decide what kind of person she wants to be. Rin can’t undo the damage her power has already wrought on the world, but perhaps she can seal the wound, stanch the bleeding. When it becomes clear that this is only feasible if Rin expunges Altan from her mind (“That boy is a disease on your mind. Forget him.”), and let his memory fade to a mothlike flicker, filching any remaining warmth—the task seems too excruciating to bear. Altan’s ghost was ineradicable, and in unguarded moments, the thought of him was like a wire brush on rubbed-raw skin (not only for Rin, but frankly myself as well). This is not the only way in which the author tightens the vice on Rin’s character. Rin hits many bumps, and is thrown many times, as though marked off with a cosmic kick me sign pinned to her back. I just hope, Kuang has planned several intensive therapy sessions for her at the end of *gestures vaguely* all this.

“Maybe you’re right. But eventually, you’ll have to ask yourself precisely what you’re fighting for. And you’ll have to find a reason to live past vengeance. Altan never managed that.”

That said, The Dragon Republic’s depth of character doesn’t just begin and end with Rin. There are characters who now have complex, multidimensional narratives, and others who fade to the back, to make room for their compatriots.

Kitay’s arc, in particular, still claws at me. He is no longer the lighthearted kid from the first book—soft, naive, undamaged—but a tempered, burdened and hardened version of himself. Kitay and Rin were both trapped by the same horrific day, but while Rin had always worn her feelings like a cloak, Kitay had kept his quiet and close. The flesh-tearing pain of loss and fury left splinters in him that silently festered, and it disturbs me still to think of the change Kitay has undergone, particularly when I feel that there’s something about his character still kept at something like arm’s length. This was a new worry I had not considered, since truthfully, I hadn’t thought of Kitay at all until I read this book, and, by his second reappearance, I’ve already drawn the adoption papers, ready to go full on fucking Mother Hulk upon anyone who dares lay a finger on him.

New revelations about other characters I’ve thought I knew also left my mind churning in circles. They were suddenly redefined, brought into sharper focus, clear as glass, and my perspective of them grievously altered. It made a scattering of my thoughts, even as I was in awe of Kuang’s unerring ability to craft characters that leap off the page and follow you off the book.

The Dragon Republic should doubtless prove to be a sizzling success. I’m really looking forward to the next installment (but with a sense of opulent gloom and indeterminate anxiety).

3 thoughts on “Review: The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War #2) by R.F. Kuang

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s