The Dragon Republic: For fans of grimdark

The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsAs a rule, I don’t like grimdark, and I don’t read grimdark. R.F. Kuang’s debut novel The Poppy War was an exception. It impressed me, mostly for the way she wove the historical wars between China and Japan into her fully fleshed-out fantasy world. Based on my liking of the first book, I read 2019’s The Dragon Republic, Book Two in THE POPPY WAR series. Sadly, with the second book I was reminded of why I don’t like grimdark.

So why did I read it? See above: Because the first one lured me in.

In Book One, we met Fang Runin, who goes by Rin. Rin is an orphan, a woman, darker-skinned than the aristocratic northerners, and raised in the south, the poorer part of the Nikara Empire. Rin is unvalued and dismissed, but through determination and sheer stubbornness, she aces the test to Sinegard, the Empire’s military academy. Soon, Rin becomes the channel for a god called The Phoenix, and she can summon fire.

When the Mugenese Federation from a nearby island nation attack, Rin and her classmates go to war. Rin is suddenly valued — as a weapon. Rin commits an act of genocide, then learns that the Empress Daji has betrayed her own nation to the Federation. Book Ones ends with Rin vowing revenge against the Empress.

As Book Two opens, Rin has other problems to contend with. The Empire is searching for her, and she’s not the only person in town who can channel a powerful, destructive god. Feylen, a shaman once of the 13th Regiment, Rin’s regiment, opened himself to the god of winds. His humanity was subsumed by the god. He is a threat to everyone. Meanwhile, Rin struggles with her own power, rage, and addiction issues.

The warlord of the Dragon Province, Jin Vaisra, kidnaps Rin and her school friend Kitay, but he isn’t holding them prisoner — he wants an alliance. The Dragon Warlord plans to overthrow Empress Daji, eliminate the monarchy, and set up a republic. He has a secret weapon, besides Rin, the help of the Hesperians, technologically advanced people from another continent, who will provide ships and a new weapon called a harquebus, if Warlord Jin can prove he’s worthy of their backing.

So much of The Dragon Republic is good. Kuang’s prose is fluent, easy to follow even with a large cast of characters and a broad geographical canvas. While I might think the pacing lags a bit due to descriptions, this is military grimdark, and strategic landscape descriptions are part of the sub-genre. The backstory of the Empress and the Trifecta is intriguing, heartbreaking and infuriating, as it’s meant to be. In particular, a long riverine naval campaign waged by Vaisra’s eldest son is excellently written, and kept me mesmerized.The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

The pale-skinned Hesperians with their lone god, fixation on order, and their high technology are excellent colonial villains.

Where I floundered was in the character of Rin. Her rage and impulsivity may be fueled in part by the Phoenix, but her naivete and indecisiveness in other areas made her a difficult character to engage with. While Rin is incredibly, murderously decisive on the battlefield (mostly variations of, “Let me go burn stuff!”) in other areas she reads as even younger than her stated years—and she is young. Specifically, Rin seems to believe in the Dragon Warlord’s Republic, at least at first. I could understand a beleaguered, isolated Rin consciously throwing in with the Jin clan as a last resort, but I can’t accept that anybody could think the Dragon Warlord wants an actual republic. In the later parts of the book, Rin has accepted that he only wants conquest, and will sacrifice anything, including her, to achieve it, but she still craves his approval and surrenders her autonomy to him.

The combination of slow inexorable death and betrayal, mostly of or by characters I liked (it’s grimdark!), the descriptions of death, suffering, and complete loss of any humanity or decency (it’s grimdark!), and the arrogance and stupidity of all the aristocratic warlords (it’s grimdark!), made this read far less satisfying that the first book.

Let me stress, fans of grimdark will probably love this series, but I wasn’t the right reader for it. The world-building is solid, with the military strategy a highlight. The Dragon Republic was released in 2019; The final book, The Burning God, came out in November, 2020.

Published in 2019. Rin’s story continues in this acclaimed sequel to The Poppy War—an epic fantasy combining the history of twentieth-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters. The war is over. The war has just begun. Three times throughout its history, Nikan has fought for its survival in the bloody Poppy Wars. Though the third battle has just ended, shaman and warrior Rin cannot forget the atrocity she committed to save her people. Now she is on the run from her guilt, the opium addiction that holds her like a vice, and the murderous commands of the fiery Phoenix — the vengeful god who has blessed Rin with her fearsome power. Though she does not want to live, she refuses to die until she avenges the traitorous Empress who betrayed Rin’s homeland to its enemies. Her only hope is to join forces with the powerful Dragon Warlord, who plots to conquer Nikan, unseat the Empress, and create a new republic. But neither the Empress nor the Dragon Warlord are what they seem. The more Rin witnesses, the more she fears her love for Nikan will force her to use the Phoenix’s deadly power once more. Because there is nothing Rin won’t sacrifice to save her country . . . and exact her vengeance.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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2 comments

  1. I’m with you, Marion. I read the first one not realizing it would be as grim and dark as it was, and I have no interest in reading the second.

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