[Review] The Dragon Republic, by R.F. Kuang

An ebook showing the black and white stylized Chinese culture-influenced cover of The Dragon Republic lays flat on a wooden table. A big black bowl of tan tan mien, or spicy pork and sesame noodles, is in the background.

(Buy it on Bookshop here.)

I spent the first quarter of this Poppy War sequel trying to remember why I liked the first book. Main character Rin is probably the most despicable hero I’ve ever encountered. Sure, she’s a fire-wielding martially-trained shaman-powered genius badass who singlehandedly won a war. She’s also a genocidal maniac.(If you’ve read the first book, you know she was created to answer the author’s question “What if Mao Zedong was a teenage girl?”) On top of that, she’s a sellout who turns her back on her roots in order to chase after the favor of her empire’s elites–this book primarily deals with her work to assist her school rival’s father, an esteemed general, bring the beginnings of democracy to the Nikan Empire in the aftermath of war. The motley crew of shamans, warriors and strategists that follow her to the front lines of this new war are really not any better–sometimes, they’re worse.(There’s ONE glaring exception, and if you’ve read these you’ll know that if there was ever a character who deserved a better book it’s Chen Kitay).

But a curious thing happened as I got closer to the halfway mark, where I promised I’d quit if I was still disgusted. Despite how hateful I found all of the characters, I still got invested in their vicious, brutal war and all of the political manipulations involved. Some truly horrible things happen in this book–any content warning you can think of probably applies– but they moved the action of the war and brought home just how high the stakes of the battle for The Dragon Republic are. Rin is truly awful, but the narrative doesn’t avoid making her face the consequences of her choices and asking very hard questions about what it means to wield great power within the limits set by a vengeful human heart. By the time I got to the end, the inevitable betrayals hurt a little and the resulting deaths made me a little sad.

Basically, I started this book thinking there was no way in hell I’d read the third installment and ended knowing that I will.

It’s not perfect–the attempt at a romance was ridiculous IMO and in case I haven’t been clear enough — IT’S MEAN. IT’S GROSS. IT’S UGLY. But it’s also really good writing that drew me in despite all of that.

4 stars and a vomit bag to The Dragon Republic

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