ARC provided by the publisher—Harper Voyager—in exchange for an honest review.
The newest rising queen of fantasy is back with her newest book, The Dragon Republic, and it managed to live up to my super high expectations.
Can we first appreciate just how damn gorgeous the cover of this book is? JungShan has created another spectacular cover-selling ink illustration and I’m confident that many readers will pick up the book/series even if they don’t know anything about it. The same situation as its predecessor, the quality of the content of the book did justice to the beautiful cover art and vice versa. I’m pretty sure practically everyone who knows me on bookish social media knows how much I loved The Poppy War. I even created a Twitter account just to wish the author a congratulatory message on her debut’s publication day. If you don’t know/remember, here’s a short snippet of what I said about the first book:
“I have no doubt this will end up being the best fantasy debut of the year… a book that will go down as one of the best grimdark/military fantasy debuts of all time. […] I have absolutely no doubt that [Kuang’s] name will be up there with the likes of Robin Hobb and N.K. Jemisin.”
Yeah… suffice to say that I highly loved the first book. Since then, The Poppy War has also garnered well-deserved praises, nominations, and awards; my high expectations towards its sequel were inevitable and I’m glad to say that after reading this book, my worry was unfounded and Kuang entranced me once again with her newest installment.
No story summary from me; if you want to know the plot, read the official synopsis of the book at your own risk. Following the catastrophic conclusion of the first book, The Dragon Republic plunges Rin and her companions into a brand new war. In the first installment, Kuang divided her storytelling clearly into two sections; a coming-of-age battle school fantasy for the first half and a grim military fantasy for the second half. Unlike other series like The Kingkiller Chronicle or Harry Potter, where the characters continue training in schools, The Dragon Republic threw away the battle school concept completely, turning the book completely into a cleverly crafted military fantasy. Full of darkness, tactics, shifting allegiances, war and death, Kuang continues her trademark of delivering a superb story that vividly explores the horrors of war. I loved Kuang’s prose in the first book, which is why I found it to be incredibly satisfying to read her stunning improvement in prose within this novel. This is a significantly bigger book than The Poppy War, it’s almost 700 pages long and yet there wasn’t any moment that felt boring or dull. The engaging narrative and prose captivated me thoroughly from cover to cover; the second half in particular—especially the last 20%, more on this later—was simply amazing and pulse-pounding. War changes everyone indiscriminately; no one came out of it unscathed mentally or physically. The escalating and harrowing effects or aftermath of war were shown expertly through the well-developed characterizations.
“You will die thinking I have abandoned you all. But I do not hesitate to say that I value the lives of my people far more than I have ever valued you.”
As with its predecessor, the narrative was told exclusively through Rin’s perspective. The events of the first book have left Rin riddled with guilt, regret, and anger. To say that Rin is angry is seriously putting it mildly. She’s angry at the world, at herself, at her friends, at everything. War has changed her and her companions, and yet they still can’t catch a break; peace remains firmly lodged out of grasp and unforgettable loss continues to happen. This is a grim book, written with more mature and refined prose; the character’s darkness and personality elicited emotional responses of all kinds from me. I mentioned in my review of the first book that that Rin is one of my favorite heroines in fantasy because I found her to be very well-written and her personality traits were really clear. That being said, something you have to know is that Rin is inspired by Mao Zedong, Rin does make questionable decisions. She has no impulse control, and she does a lot of stupid things because of her anger and what happened to her. In her path toward overcoming legacy, opium addiction, and accepting her power, Kuang deconstructs Rin’s character completely down to her core, presenting her at her worst for almost the entirety of the first half. I’ll admit that in the first half, there were moments where I wanted to slap her several times, and in my honest opinion, this period of time could’ve been shortened a bit. However, seeing her at her worst did make her the fruition of her character development in the second half stronger. This situation reminded me of Blood of Assassins by R.J. Barker, another book I really loved which involved the main character being driven heavily by darkness and rage, but came out all the better once the character was able to overcome it. I highly praise Kuang for her characterization for Rin and the side characters. Most of the side characters helped immensely in bringing moments of heartwarming and light to balance Rin’s life; their interactions were charming, compelling, and I loved reading about them.
The world-building has also moved further beyond Nikara and the Mugenese federation. The new race, Hesperian, came into play here. Hesperian is a race of Westerners, most likely an allusion Germany during World War II, and their arrival brought technologies, arquebuses, airships, and more expansion to the world-building. Not only was the world-building expanded, but Kuang also provided revelations and more in-depth lore to the history of her world.
One last thing before I close this review: I would like to applaud Kuang’s imaginative and destructive depiction of the magical battle scenes. The action sequences were simply magnificent and the last 20% of the book demonstrates Kuang’s best battle scenes and closing sequences so far. It was insanely breathtaking, by showing the power of a vermillion myth and the gods, the clash of the blazing rage and overwhelming cyclone were extremely well-executed. The actions and character’s decisions constantly delivered immense implications for future events of the series. Kuang truly ignited her skill in writing great military fantasy within the last 20% and I honestly can’t wait for more. The gripping naval warfare, aerial-combat, tension-packed elemental battle, and the unflinching infernal torrent of powers were vividly realized and felt cinematic to read.
“This was what the balance of power looked like now. People like her waved a hand and millions were crushed within the confines of some elemental disaster, flung off the chessboard of the world like irrelevant pieces.”
I don’t think I have anything else to say without spoiling any events from the series. If you loved The Poppy War, I honestly think that you have nothing to worry about. The Dragon Republic is a brilliantly unputdownable sequel that deflects the infamous middle book syndrome with brutal precision. With The Dragon Republic, Kuang has proven that her debut wasn’t a one-hit wonder, further establishing herself as the new rising queen of fantasy. The architect behind Jade City said: “Brace yourself.” Let me just add that you’ll have to find an adamantium building to hold on to. The might and rage of the Phoenix knows no limit, and Rin’s newest journey will mercilessly incinerate your heart up to the last page. Rebecca Kuang and this series is truly a treasure for Asian-inspired military fantasy and I simply can’t wait to read the conclusion of this trilogy.
The dark atmosphere in this book was truly palpable, bad things happen, a LOT. Make sure you’re in the right mood and headspace before you read this book. Also, #FireDick happened, literally.
Official release date: August 8th, 2019 (UK) and August 6th, 2019 (US)
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.