THE DRAGON REPUBLIC by R.F. Kuang (Book Review)
The Good: Doubles as a weapon – both physically (it’s a big book) and mentally (will require counselling after reading). Also: one of the most powerful and accessible portrayal of war and all that it entails I have ever read.
The Bad: I like big books but I can not lie, as a reader I can’t deny, that when this book shows up with its itty pretty art, and thicc spine in your face, you get… I dunno, hopefully not put off by the size? But seriously, this is a big book, and it has ups and downs in pacing.
The Ugly Truth: The Dragon Republic is straight up incredible. I don’t have the snappy words for an ‘ugly truth’ this time around. It’s big, bold, beautiful, and badass. With it, Kuang leaves in her wake the broken hearts of readers near and far, though they will continue to follow the story of Rin until the end, because it’s just too good not to.
The Review: The Dragon Republic is the second instalment in R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War series, published by Harper Voyager. It continues after the events of The Poppy War, which was nominated for the 2019 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.
As this is a continuation of the series, I’m going to try and keep this review high level so as not to spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t read the first book.
The Dragon Republic is incredible.
That’s what I felt like while reading it. There’s this slow-burn build up, and then suddenly everything is on fire, and no-one is safe, and then its all over, and you’re left looking at the remains of everything that burned down, asking yourself ‘WHAT JUST HAPPENED?’
Ahem. Right, let me compose myself.
Oh, Rin. She scares me in the very best of ways. She’s the type of character you want to take home to meet your friends, knowing full well that something will go up in flames (literally) but that doesn’t matter. Though the time jump between books isn’t huge, Rin is more mature in The Dragon Republic. Loss has aged her, as it ages us all in ways we cannot always see. And beneath the surface, there is a hurt that has taken a much deeper toll, leading to addiction. Though she is old at heart, she is still young and fiery (excuse the pun), and at times there is an almost teenage angst between her and another character (redacted – spoilers).
Adding all of this up, Rin is one of the most complex and compelling characters in modern fantasy, whose own internal journey is far greater than the march across the war zone she finds herself in. Faced with a problem, Rin is as likely to go around, over, or beneath it, as she is to burn a hole right through it and deal with the consequences later when she is on the other side.
I’m not overly keen on tags, or pigeonholing a book based on a few trending key words. Heck, even shelving something by sub-genre makes me nervous (note to self: don’t say grimdark, don’t say grimdark, don’t say grimdark), because I wouldn’t want to upset anyone. The Poppy War made waves last year because some readers/reviewers called it YA. There’s a clear difference between a young adult story and a young adult protagonist, but let me go on the record (as much as I hate to classify something): these books aren’t YA.
That being said, I do want to highlight one thing. The Dragon Republic is a war story. It’s a story of and about war. But not just fighting. Politics, planning, strategy, logistics, troop movements, travel – The Dragon Republic covers pretty much all of the bases of a military operation at wartime. Which I found EXCELLENT, as I have an interest in these things. But, for some readers, I can see this being a stalemate before the real action kicks off. After the first few chapters, the pace does let up as the plot lets up on the pedal, to allow the pieces on the board to come into play.
This means that the 10%-40% or so of the book covers the ‘macro’ war effort within the story, just as much as the ‘micro’ events at ‘boots on the ground level’. Kuang juggles this nicely, and I for one thoroughly enjoyed the change of covering a conflict at large, as well as the personal battles from the POV character perspective.
The Poppy War is often likened to Avatar: The Last Airbender, and this is true also for The Dragon Republic. There are scenes where you can picture the characters in the anime, either mid-fight or fooling around on their downtime.
On the note of the anime, the book does read as episodic. Certain sections/chapters feel like an episode as opposed to a ‘part’ in a typical beginning > middle > end story structure. Then again, with a book of this size, that’s not surprising. I won’t go on about this, as I feel I have already covered my thoughts on this earlier, but be warned: this is a chonky boi, and it doesn’t read like a typical book (in terms of structure), let alone a typical book two in a fantasy series.
Which, if anything, is the greatest praise I can think of. The Dragon Republic is a story that defies convention, and the expectations that its own predecessor set. It plots its own course, and just when you think you know how it’s going to play out, Kuang screws up the map and merrily drags you along a different path not by the hand, but by your heart.
And I for one wouldn’t want it any other way.