The Dragon Republic is the sequel to R.F. Kuang’s much-acclaimed The Poppy War. The latter was one of our top ten novels of 2018, and so anticipation for the sequel has been rather high, to say the least.
Happily, I can report that it’s been worth the wait. The Dragon Republic is a fierce, searing and powerful story, filled with politics, brutal, bloody conflict, and complicated characters, many of whom are trying their hardest to kill each other. It’s also a story which isn’t afraid to explore the larger issues behind the curtain: colonialism, the morality of assassination, the difficulty of ascertaining what price is worth paying, if a goal is worth achieving. That extra layer of complexity is the crocodile in the reeds of each thrown knife, each smart-mouthed aside, each key player struggling with their doubts.
Don’t get me wrong, the story works on its own terms. If you want to watch Rin kick everyone’s arse (including her own), trying to set the world to rights – there’s something here for you. But there’s always things bubbling under the surface or, returning to the crocodile metaphor, waiting until you’re distracted to bite your metaphorical leg off.
At its heart, this is a personal story – Rin’s story. Rin is in something of a bad way as the story opens.
She’s managed to get everything she wanted – won a war, punished those who broke her people. But the cost has been very high, and she’s done some (to put it mildly) extremely questionable things to get to where she is now. Rin is struggling with the consequences of what she’s done – to herself, and to everyone around her. While the latter is highlighted in interactions, the wider cost noted, it’s the inner struggle I’d like to highlight. The depression, the conflict, the spiral of shame, the poor decision-making. It’s an excruciating, razor-sharp portrayal of someone on the edge of an emotional precipice. Rin teeters, each decision or lack of decision a choice putting her nearer or further from the edge. It’s tough to read, and that’s a credit to the emotional honesty of the narrative, which isn’t afraid to shine lights in dark corners. It’s grim, that emotional landscape, a mire which both we and Rin may have trouble escaping – but it’s one which has a raw intensity, and a truth about it. Rin’s struggle with herself is heady stuff, if not entirely pleasant.
While she’s working out what to do with herself, as someone perhaps best described as a living weapon (and there’s something of the child-soldier here, too), the world has to work out what to do with itself. The Empire that ended the Poppy War may not survive its conclusion. I won’t go into details here, for the sake of spoilers. But I will say this: you’ll see parts of the Empire with fresh eyes.
The question of how to guide it, and how, is one that is hotly debated, to put it mildly. There are calm words here, and individuals struggling to implement what may be seen as different visions for a country which may not have a place for any of them. But it does, again, ask interesting questions. Do we accept ruthless methods in the service of laudable goals? Do we accept friendship in the guise of treachery, or treachery in the guise of friendship? In the battle of ideas, in the struggle to identify and have the power to choose the path for a nation – who decides which path is stepped down first? And what compromises will they take too get there?
Of course, the answer to more than one of those questions is answerable in carmine. In sharp knives in the dark. In betrayals and sudden reversals. It’s also answerable in magic, in walls of flame, and in the screaming torture and unutterable power which comes with making onself an avatar of the gods of a nation. The price, again, is high. But the battles are sweeping grand affairs whilst at the same time being unafraid of taking us into the fire and muck and blood. The stakes involved will get your blood pumping, but the vicious immediacy of the conflicts will keep your eyes on the page, determined to see what happens next, to see if the game is worth the cost.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying that The Dragon Republic is a great sequel, and a fantastic book in its own right. If you followed Rin this far, you should pick it up, and see where her story takes her next. The journey Rin’s on will seize your attention like a knife in the ribs; this part of her story is furious, compelling, terrifying, fantastic stuff, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.