The Dragon Republic

Book cover: The Dragon Republic - R F Kuang (pencil illustration, a winged person leaping)The Mugenese have been shattered by the Phoenix’s terrible power, but Rin still hungers to destroy Nikan’s treacherous Empress. Before she can defeat her enemies, Rin must face her demons – and learn to control the god within…

I left it long enough between reading The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic that I had to read The Poppy War all over again (I have no regrets); and I’ve left it long enough to write this review that you’d think I’d know where I stand on the sequel. And I do, kind of. I remain in awe of what Kuang set out to achieve with this series, and of the manner in which she goes about – but this is very much outside my comfort zone, so my praise comes with the subtext of but it’s not a lot of fun, is it. That may be true – in spite of Ramsa’s best efforts – but damn, The Dragon Republic is compelling.

We rejoin Rin struggling with addiction and guilt-fuelled rage, despised by the long-suffering Cike and living only for vengeance against the Empress. Kuang rapidly put to rest my concerns that I wouldn’t be able to engage with a character who committed genocide. This is not a sequel that softens or defends Rin’s actions – absolutely nobody is taking any of her self-pitying shit and everybody is judging her, hard.

We’re done killing civilians

Chaghan is pulling no punches

Well, almost everybody.

When they’re captured by the Dragon Warlord, he’s unexpectedly supportive. As eager as Rin is to have a commander – “if she wasn’t making the decisions, then nothing could be her fault” – he’s just as keen to harness her unspeakable power to help him depose the Empress and introduce democracy. It sounds too good to be true. After all, this is Nezha’s father, the bluest of blue bloods, the most ambitious of Warlords. He’s going to trust the commonfolk with democracy?

Yin Vaisra is exactly the sort of unreliable ally I adore. He’s manipulative, ruthless, and his brand of tough love is exactly what Rin needs. He is willing to give her the approval she craves – yes, even for what she did to the Mugenese – and he appears to be offering her exactly what she wants: no more responsibility (no more guilt), and Su Daji’s head on a spike.

The question of whether Vaisra and his Hesperian allies would deliver would have kept me gripped, but The Dragon Republic also gives us the Empress Su Daji in person. She, too, is my kind of monster: utterly convincing and relentlessly seductive. If she seems a more obvious liar than Vaisra, she’s quick to point out that Vaisra is selling the country out to a foreign power as surely as she did. And as the only shaman whose god hasn’t driven her mad, she has a lot to offer – if Rin can swallow her hatred.

I found the first act tough going – Kuang takes time to put her pieces in place – but this clash of political titans and self-serving interests was more than enough reward to glue me to the page for the next. It’s difficult to discuss why I appreciate what follows without spoilers, but I’ll give it my best shot.

Where The Poppy War depicted a teen elite force-grown by the horrors of a brutal invasion, The Dragon Republic dumps them into the cauldron of civil war and shows them how much of themselves they still have left to lose.

It was easier when only the Federation was evil

Chen Kitay was meant for better times

I’ve said it before and I’ll no doubt say it again: I don’t really enjoy military narratives. Slogging through the mud and blood to kill your own people is an even tougher sell. Still, I never tuned out of The Dragon Republic – while it felt slow at times, it was never dull; there was always a hook to pull me through the slack waters of campaign planning and predictably poor decisions from generals under pressure.

But the ebb and flow of a devastating war does leave The Dragon Republic feeling like the middle book that it is. There’s plenty going on – fragile alliances, new threats, political backstabbing, class tensions, sexual tensions, the horror of facing fellow citizens and former classmates as enemies, Rin’s ongoing quest to cling on to her sanity – but the overall arc is one of glacial character growth, paid for in lives.

If Vaisra and Su Daji are characters I loved to hate (I love them, who am I kidding), Vaisra’s Hesperian allies are simply the worst, who I could hate with abandon: a biting reflection of post-WWII Western diplomacy, racist pseudoscience and no redeeming features whatsoever. They hang over Rin’s head for most of the novel; access to study her – and perhaps destroy her – part of the cost of access to their superior weaponry.

But Rin is in many ways the monster they fear she is. Ignoring the Phoenix and what it longs to do through her, she is a toxic mess of guilt driven by an unacknowledged horror of what she has done and a desperate need to be useful. As hard as she is on herself, she’s just as hard on others: her reflexive response to any form of weakness is assault. There’s no room in her for forgiveness or compassion. She’s a horrible human being who – never forget – committed genocide, with all the evidence indicating she would do it again.

I should loathe her, but she’s undeniably compelling and possibly Kuang’s greatest success here is wringing sympathy for her out of even my hard heart.

In many respects, Rin is a Chosen One – the last secret scion of a murdered race, the avatar of the Phoenix – but Kuang has made being a Speerly a curse. Rin is an heir to horror, chosen of chaos. The idea that her destructive rage can be used to save her country is absurd. A key arc in The Dragon Republic is whether Rin can learn to control her god – and if so, at what cost. Another is whether Rin can ever (bear to) recognise that following orders doesn’t make you less culpable. It’s a fascinating – if often unpleasant – character study.

Female characters – hell, women – are rarely granted the freedom to be angry. I’m so used to seeing women bottle their rage, that there’s a real thrill in reading a series that literally lets them set the world on fire instead. And it’s not just Rin – Venka gets a cameo in The Dragon Republic, unexpectedly becoming perhaps my favourite character in a few brief pages. Venka is all bared teeth and a thirst for vengeance; the perfect ally – or the worst enabler? – for Rin.

Venka is also the rarest thing in The Dragon Republic: a female character who isn’t an antagonist. It’s easy to say everyone hates Rin (almost everyone does), but positive female relationships is perhaps where this series is weakest so far. I think this is intentional, reflecting Rin’s toxic attitudes towards other women, but fantasy has a history of only allowing women a seat at the table if they fight amongst themselves, so it sits badly with me and I hope to see it rebalanced with Venka’s return in The Burning God.

Still, there is room for friendship in The Dragon Republic. The most wholesome parts of the book are the deep bond between Rin and Chen Kitay (a cinnamon roll and also a ruthless military strategist) and her turbulent connection with Yin Nezha. I appreciate that Rin acknowledges her feelings for each of them as love without it being romantic, although there’s certain a frisson with Nezha. The will-they/won’t-they kiss or kill each other dynamic is always entertaining; and it’s fascinating to see their charged relationship deepen given where they started out at Sinegard… and to lay bets on where it will end (badly, I reckon).

If you’d asked, I wouldn’t have suggested a reimagining of the rise to power of the Communist party in China to be the obvious gap in the grimdark fantasy market. But Kuang has spun it into a brilliant fantasy epic: unpleasant, uncompromising, confrontational and – I’m going to use that word again – utterly compelling. I’m utterly intrigued to see how events play out in the final book.

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest (if awfully late, sorry) review.