Book Review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Book 2 of The Poppy War
Publisher: Harper Voyager (August 8, 2019)
Length: 560 pages
4 stars for The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang, and just barely. This was a good book, but considering how unreservedly I adored The Poppy War, it’s hard not to see this as a slight downgrade. I had a harder time getting into this sequel, for a couple of reasons. First, I think it suffers from a touch of second-book syndrome, and second, perhaps most disappointing of all was that the main character felt like a shadow of herself compared to the previous novel.
But before we start, this review assumes the reader has completed The Poppy War, so beware of possible spoilers for the first book if you are not yet caught up. The Dragon Republic picks up almost immediately following the events at the end of book one, and Rin is barely holding herself together in the aftermath of all the destruction. She also has to come to terms with her devastating power as a shaman of the Phoenix, and the fact that in the light of Alton’s demise, she is now the last Speerly. Drowning the grief and trauma of her losses with the numbing effects of opium, Rin becomes addicted to the drug, and it is severely impacting her ability to lead the Cike, the special squadron of god-touched magic-using individuals placed under her command.
Before long, the Cike are captured by the Dragon Warlord, who presses Rin into his service and orders her to put an end to the traitorous Empress’ rule and help him unite the Nikan empire under one republic. Hungering for vengeance, Rin goes along with the assassination plot, but filled with rage and destabilized by the poppy, she struggles to control the power of the Phoenix. Her growing disillusionment is further complicated by the Warlords’ tactics, and upon witnessing the suffering of Nikara, Rin begins to question her purpose. What is she fighting for, if not to improve the lives of the people?
Yes, Rin has it rough in The Dragon Republic. She’s seen things, done things that have messed her up. Her mind is not all together hers these days, because of the addiction. She’s also angry, confused, full of guilt and resentment. In fact, not one chapter goes by without something to remind us all what a great big ball of angst she is. And let me tell you, it was exasperating as hell. I went from rooting for Rin all the way in The Poppy War to wanting to beat the living shit out of her in this sequel. I get it; our hero had to hit rock bottom in order to gain the insight she needs to rise again, to truly appreciate where she could be and what was possible and all that jazz. I didn’t mind that part. What I did mind, however, was how Rin became a wholly unlikeable brat in this book, completely ruled by her selfish, emotional, and downright violent impulses.
Ironically, The Dragon Republic contains darker and more mature themes, but the overall tone of the book feels more juvenile and childish because of the callow behaviors of its protagonist. Also, for a dead guy, Alton sure seemed to get a lot of page time. While Rin’s admiration and fondness for him was understandable, the story’s constant dwelling on his life and legacy grew tiresome after a while. Ultimately, this bizarre fixation with Alton did nothing to develop Rin’s character, and in fact it did quite the opposite, anchoring her to the past and prolonging the whininess and self-pity.
Thank goodness the second half of the book saved the first half, and that’s no exaggeration. Once Rin started getting her act together, that was when the story finally felt like it was going somewhere. Until that point, we were spinning our wheels, watching her direct her anger at everyone and everything. The character was adrift, which I guess was part of the point, but in turn, that frustration and lack of power also sent the plot into a directionless tailspin type of tedium. But the moment Rin started to care about something more than her problems, everything changed. Even though the disillusionment is still there and as strong as ever, at least our protagonist’s realizations gave her (and the story) a more discernable roadmap.
Other commendable aspects include the development of the supporting cast, when they’re not there just to be abused by Rin. Thing is, the protagonist is so cantankerous in this book that even her foes are sometimes more enjoyable to read about, including the wily Vaisra. Aside from familiar faces like the members of the Cike, Kuang also introduces a few new players and factions. As vile as they are, the appearance of the Hesperians adds an intriguing element to the mix, which is just one of many examples of the author beefing up her world-building. In addition to expanding the history, lore, and cultures of the various nations and their peoples, development also occurs at the character level, with some getting more detailed backstories and important roles. Speaking of which, I loved Kitay. And Nezha? Nezha damn near broke my heart.
At the end of the day, I enjoyed The Dragon Republic, but it didn’t even come close to capturing my attention, imagination and heart the way The Poppy War did. Chalk it up to a slight case of middle book syndrome, or the fact that the protagonist was just too unbearably annoying in this sequel, but overall I have to say the magic was lacking this time around. Still, I have high hopes for the next book. This one was good, but fingers crossed that the next installment will once more elevate this series to fabulously amazing again.
More on The BiblioSanctum:
Review of The Poppy War (Book 1)