The Dragon Republic
Harper Voyager, 2019
There are some books that, while not perfect, just make you feel very strongly. I was on tenterhooks the whole time I was reading The Dragon Republic. I was so heavily invested in the characters and their relationships with one another that I really didn’t care about anything else in the book, so I easily overlooked the minor issues with pacing that may have bogged down another novel.
In The Dragon Republic, Rin finds her self dealing with the fallout of her actions at the end of The Poppy War. What this means, practically speaking, is that she is dealing guilt, or rather guilt at her lack of guilt, opium addiction, PTSD, and a a nation overrun with bitter Mugenese soldiers who have no home to return to. Then Yin Vaisra, the Dragon Warlord and Nezha’s father, strides into this mess and declares his intent to transform Nikan into a democracy, so he essentially begins to wage war against the Empress, Su Daji. Since Rin is intent on killing Su Daji, she allies herself with Vaisra.
The bulk of this book is essentially a protracted military campaign. In such a long book, I anticipated I’d struggle with the pacing, given that I don’t particularly like military fantasy or military strategy, but Kuang’s writing remains as compelling as ever; I couldn’t put this book down, and when I did put it down all I could think about was wanting to pick it back up again. I read it in exactly two sittings. Even if you’re not a fan of military strategy, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the sheer scope of Kuang’s knowledge, and her implementation of that knowledge into an exciting, propulsive narrative.
Though ostensibly the military campaign is the overarching focus of the plot, for me the beauty of this book lay in the characters and their dynamics with one another. Vaisra is an incredible addition, a wily and manipulative figure, yet one whom Rin can’t help but grow attached to. Kitay undergoes some incredible character development; his trauma, rage, and disillusionment have transformed him into a hardened version of himself. Venka returns as well, and we get to see how she is dealing with her own trauma, which was a relief; in the first book Venka felt somewhat like a plot device, but here she emerges more fully into her own character with her own agency. I still think Rin is an incredible character to follow. She has (1) single brain cell, which means she is incredibly rash and very single-minded. She has so much passion but doesn’t know where to direct it, and that means she willingly lets herself be used and manipulated, because she is desperate for a purpose. She is the epitome of that John Mulaney bit where he’s like, “Oh, well, thank you for asking. Well, you know how I’m filled with rage?” Rin just. Has so much rage. All the time. At herself. At the world. At her friends. At her enemies. She’s just bitter and angry and lost and desperate for love and maybe peace, but also all she knows is war, and she doesn’t know that she’s good for anything else.
There is such a staggering amount of angst and yearning in this book, in particular when it comes to Rin and Nezha. They have so many incredible moments together scattered throughout this book – banter, fights, yearning, friendship, love, lust, anger, resentment, fear – all smashed together into a complex and tangled mess that is impossible to look away from (basically…I ship them…SO MUCH). Same goes for Rin’s memory of Altan: The Dragon Republic does not simply move on from Altan but digs even deeper into his character and tragedy. Rin is struggling to reconcile who Altan really was from who she wanted him to be. She loved him, she feared him, she wanted to be him. Kuang is so deft at portraying how messy and mangled their relationship truly was, and as Rin struggles to cope with survivor’s guilt and PTSD, her memories of Altan alternate between being a boon and being a torture. It is such a delicate balance to craft, but Kuang does it astonishingly well.
The worldbuilding becomes more intricate as well. We learn more about both the Hinterlanders and the Hesperians. The former have intriguing ties to the Trifecta and shamanism that help to explicate the history of the Second Poppy War as well as the concept of shamanism itself. The Hesperians are a direct parallel to Western imperialists, and they are terrifying in their self-righteousness. They have brought with them technological prowess (dirigibles and muskets!), an absolutist interpretation of the world, fanatic missionaries with a penchant for scientific experimentation, Social Darwinism, and an entrenched belief in their own superiority over the Nikara. With this expansion of worldbuilding and the plot heavy on political and military scheming, Kuang is able to explore a smorgasbord of complex issues such as imperialism, class struggle, the viability of democracy, war ethics, nationalism, and so much more.
Finally, I am in awe of Kuang’s ability to make her characters suffer. There are so many moments throughout this book where terrible things happen because, well, life just sucks sometimes and shit happens, and it’s incredibly heartbreaking how bleak everything is sometimes. But that’s grimdark fantasy for you. Kuang pulls no punches: this book is a grim, realistic look at the brutality of war. Nobody is safe. Nobody is morally or ideologically pure.
Anyway, the third and final book in this series going to break me and I’m okay with that.