The Dragon Republic
In the first book in The Poppy War saga we met Fang Runin – typically referred to as Rin – a young militant mage blessed/cursed with a link to the Phoenix, a fire god who has gifted Rin with the rare ability to level armies by calling fire from heaven down upon them. In The Dragon Republic we join Rin as she tries to right the wrongs of the past and battles the god within her, who seeks to control her and use her to burn the world to ash.
As with most fantasy series, you need to read this one in order. Nothing in this story will make sense unless you’ve read the first novel, The Poppy War. This review contains spoilers for that book.
For the rest of Nikan, the third Poppy War has ended and the time of rebuilding has come, but for soldier Rin, this moment of peace is actually a prelude to vengeance. At the end of the first novel, her superior officer/friend/mentor and possible love interest died due to the machinations of the Empress Su Daji, the powerful magical leader of their land. His death places Rin in command of the shaman-warrior unit known as the Cike, a small band of powerful commandos who literally wield the power of the gods. On top of killing their leader, the Empress also labeled them traitors and placed a price on the head of every fighter in their group. They are in desperate need of allies if they are to avenge their friend and depose their wicked ruler, which leads them to make some poor decisions.
One of those poor decisions is partnering with the Pirate Queen Moag, the ruthless boss-lady of Ankiliuun. She has promised them aid in defeating the Empress in exchange for the heads of thirty of her business rivals. The team has delivered twenty-nine of them to her and are on their last – and most difficult – cranial acquisition when they find themselves in a city celebrating an Imperial visit. Determined not to waste this unexpected opportunity to kill the Empress, Rin hastily makes an assassination attempt and almost immediately loses control of her god-gift, burning nearly everything around her and thus alerting Su Daji to her presence, which enables the Empress to escape . After severely wounding one of her own men, Rin is drugged by the detachment’s medic and the team flees, sans any vengeance and minus the head they had been sent to collect.
Once Rin awakens, and they return to Ankiliuun, Rin seeks out Moag, looking for a second chance to achieve the Cike’s end of the bargain. She is given a new target, and she and her cohorts dutifully board ship and seek out their mark. Only they’ve been betrayed. Their quarry knows exactly who they are and how to countermand the deadly gods-given abilities they use in battle. Within moments they are all captured, prisoners of the Dragon Warlord, one of the Empress’s most formidable leaders. Only rather than the execution they expect, he makes a proposition. Like them, he is a traitor to the crown and wants to help them kill the Empress, using his perfect plan to achieve that end.
Military fantasy novels are epic in scope, compromising a huge cast of characters, numerous locations and an ever shifting political landscape that involves alliances that can turn to enmity from one page to the next. They also involve a great many battles, often described at length with gusto and detail. If you’re not a fan of that sub-genre, this book will definitely not be for you. I am a fan and am happy to report that R.F. Kuang does that style of writing credit. She diligently works through all the typical tropes of this category, deftly delivering exactly what I have come to expect from such a book. While that is an absolute positive, it’s also a bit of a negative; because the author is following familiar ground so faithfully, the story feels somewhat predictable.
The whole book is like that, a mix of strong points nudged downward by minor weaknesses. For example, I was completely delighted that Rin was able to tackle her increasing dependence on drugs and go back to being the fierce physical fighter we met at the start of The Poppy War. I was frustrated however by her inability to read the people around her. One particular problem she runs into towards the end of the novel due to trusting the wrong person was something I had seen coming throughout the whole book. I was also pleased Rin found a way to resolve her issues with her god-gift but I was a bit frustrated at how many people suffered while she worked it out. I’m happy that she is learning how to lead, but many times was angered by the human price she was willing to pay to achieve her ends. I vacillated a lot between pleasure and frustration while reading.
One aspect that was wholly good was the juxtaposition between science and magic. Rin, the other Cike, and many of the people around them are products of the old world, a world where technology barely exists and the scarce number of mages and sorcerers who channel the local gods are revered. The Dragon Warlord, with the help of an ally, is ushering in an era of machines and learning that may make that world obsolete. The author deftly portrays both sides of that struggle – the fight to keep a cultural identity while embracing something alien and new – and how difficult it is for those who will likely be most affected by the changes.
Fans will be glad to know we encounter several of Rin’s old school friends during the course of the narrative. The author does an excellent job of updating us on how they fared in the last war and showing the changes that conflict wrought on their personalities.
The Dragon Republic is not without its problems, but it’s still an enjoyable book. If you’re a fan of dark, battle driven tales of magic and mayhem, I would strongly recommend the series to you. The first book is a wonderful military fantasy and the author changing the setting from the typical medieval European one and locating it in a re-imagined ancient China adds a refreshing diversity to this standard trope. While this middle book in the series was not quite as strong as the first, I was satisfied with it and am eagerly anticipating book three.