I came out of reading The Poppy War a little bit underwhelmed by the writing, but interested enough in Rin and the story to want to carry on reading the series. I definitely wanted to know how Rin was going to respond to the fall out of her mic-dropping actions at the end of that first instalment, and I was also just interested to carry on reading how R. F. Kuang continued exploring the history of 20th century China in a fantasy setting. THE DRAGON REPUBLIC begins in the aftermath of the Third Poppy War. Rin is addicted to opium, haunted by the atrocity she committed to bring that war to an end and looking for revenge against the traitor Empress for her role in the Mugenese invasion. But there’s political change on the horizon; forces are amassing around the Dragon Warlord, who plans to overthrow the Empress and establish a new republic, and in him Rin sees the opportunity for her vengeance.
I enjoyed The Dragon Republic much more than its predecessor. The characters in this book, while still very young, are noticeably changed. They were effectively still kids in The Poppy War, still going through the military academy at Sinegard and were thrust into a war and experienced traumatic events they clearly lacked the emotional maturity to deal with. The characters that have come out the other side of that are noticeably different people. Rin is torn up inside; torn up by guilt, by hate and by anger. She’s angry at herself and at the Empire she and her friends fought and died to defend. She’s angry at the republican generals she sees as inept and in hoc to foreign powers. She’s angry at everything and a great part of her character development is her resolving to use that anger and the power of the phoenix god within her to bring about change.
I think Kuang does a pretty fantastic job of exploring the history of modern China through a fantasy lens. There was always a danger that by mapping the history of very 20th century political movements like Nationalism and Communism onto a much earlier time period and stage of social development that it could come off a bit jarring, but she very skilfully adapts the language and demands of the different factions in the book so that it came across very naturally. For all that there are obviously a lot of analogous events and characters than align very closely with real life history. The war in the first book is based on the Second Sino-Japanese War and the atrocities at Golyn Niis are based on the Nanjing Massacre committed by Japanese forces. The Dragon Warlord and his republican army are evidently based on Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalist Kuomintang, who the Chinese Communists were temporarily allied with during the civil war. I don’t know much about Chiang Kai-shek as an individual but I think Kuang’s depiction of the relationship between the Dragon Warlord and the western Hesperians, with their monotheistic religion, advanced weaponry and political influence was a pretty good depiction of the Nationalists relationship with western imperialist powers that became a sticking point with Mao and the Communist Party. I’ll probs mention further on that I didn’t warm to Kitay as much as I gather some readers have, but I do think he is interesting and I was fascinated by his relationship with Rin in this book. I’ll be interested to see how he goes on to influence her further down the line, as I think he’s based on Zhou Enlai, a diplomat and political strategist in the Chinese Communist Party and Mao’s second-in-command, for want of a better term. Zhou was an immensely popular political figure and has generally been judged less harshly by history than has Mao himself, though there’s a bit of a debate about whether he was largely Mao’s hatchet man or whether he was actually a bit of a moderating influence within the Chinese Communist Party. It’ll be interesting to see which way Kuang goes with that.
Where I had some issues with the way The Poppy War was written, any issues I had here I could definitely tell were just my own personal taste. The main thing that dampened my enjoyment was the continuing harping on about Altan. Honestly I just didn’t care. I understand his legacy in Rin’s mind and can even tolerate that she developed some complicated romantic feelings for him, but I could have done without the numerous dream sequences where he appears and variously pulls on Rin’s heartstrings or titillates with the promise of a kiss. I didn’t care. But obviously that’s just me and has nothing to do with the writing. This is probably a controversial thing to say but I didn’t really find myself caring for many of the characters either and I think you’re supposed to. Maybe not Rin so much, as I think she’s never presented as the hero, rather a bit of a shitty person whose motives you can understand, if not root for. But I think a lot of the side characters are supposed to be people you start to develop feelings about, notably Kitay and Nezha who I was honestly a bit lukewarm to. Oh god, I promised myself I wouldn’t get into this quagmire but I think it’s unavoidable. There’s something about the character work that just doesn’t feel like it’s written for adults. I’m sorry, I said it. I don’t think I do come down on the side that this is a YA book (mostly because I haven’t read enough YA to know if that’s true) but, while the books are thematically very dark, the way the characters are presented just doesn’t read like my age group is the target audience. One character I did really warm to in this book though was Ramsa, the young munitions expert with the secret military unit Rin commands. I thought he was a little bit annoying in the first book, but I think that was maybe cos everyone shared his juvenile humour, even when it didn’t make sense. In this book though, the adults behave more like adults, which allows Ramsa to shine as the kid he actually is, and he brings some welcome levity to balance out some of the darker parts of the book. One of the scenes he’s in also elicited one of the few genuine pangs of emotion I felt during this book too, so he definitely a character I unexpectedly warmed to.
Overall I think The Dragon Republic is a big improvement on The Poppy War, even if it’s still probably not one of the most memorable books I’ll read this year. Most of my interest in reading the final book in the trilogy stems from my curiosity about Rin as a character, how she’ll complete her journey and how Kuang will translate the victory of Mao and the Chinese Communist Party into this fictionalised fantasy setting. Rin remains the reason to read this book and even though I’m still not as enamoured with this series as most others, I enjoyed The Dragon Republic and will def be finishing up the series with The Burning God quite soon.
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