A certain amount of pressure is placed on an author’s second novel, especially when the first novel gains the level of attention and acclaim of R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War. A second novel, whether it be the second ever or the second in a series, is expected to be better written than its predecessor. A second novel is expected to have a better understanding of plot, of its characters, and of its readers’ expectations. A second novel is expected to improve upon the first in every conceivable way. This is easier said than done for most authors, and is easier to accomplish in the beginning of a career, where there is still learning to be done. The longer an author writes, the more series, they craft, the greater the risk of sequelitis setting in. Sometimes, the second story is worse than the first. The Dragon Republic, R. F. Kuang’s second novel, is a sequel done absolutely right.
The Dragon Republic is not only Kuang’ second novel, it is her follow-up to the excellent The Poppy War from last year. Set in a fantastical world based on medieval Chinese history, The Poppy War introduced us to Fang Runin, or Rin for short, in the nation of Nikara. A teenage war orphan living in the rural southern Rooster province, she is highly intelligent and fanatically driven to escape her circumstances. This first novel follows Rin as she enrolls in the imperial military academy at Sinegard, populated by the sons and daughters of the nation’s rich and powerful. While there, Rin discovers she is actually one of the few remaining Speerlies, an ethnic group from the island of Speer known for being able to channel the power of the Phoenix, ad fiery god of destruction. The novel takes a turn around its midpoint as the fantasy equivalent of Japan, Mugen, invades Nikara and quickly establishes their dominance. Pulled into combat before she is ready, Rin joins a squad of other shamans and outcasts in the fight. The Poppy War ends with Rin beaten and broken, suffering from torture, abuse, addiction, and guilt. The world of this series is not a kind one, and there are no happy endings.
The Dragon Republic opens with Rin now in control of the squad from the first novel after the death of their previous commander, Altan, another Speerly and follower of the Phoenix. Betrayed by the empress of Nikara during the previous novel, Rin and her squad now work for a pirate queen in exchange for supplies and support in their intended insurrection. This alliance does not last long, as the pirates betray Rin after she and her team outlive their usefulness to the outlaws. Rin is then rescued by the Dragon Warlord, Vaisra, one of the most powerful warlords in Nikara and one who emerged from the last war against Mugen mostly untouched. He sees in Rin a chance to move his own rebellion forward, intending on uniting the warlords and overthrowing the Empress in order to establish a democratic republic. Their early attempt at assassinating the empress goes poorly as Rin, newly broken of her opium addiction, is unable to control her abilities. Civil war breaks out, going well for the republic at first who need to show their strength in front of the Hesperians, European equivalents waiting to throw their backing behind Vaisra and his forces until the right time. Things start to go wrong, and Rin must learn to fight without her magic, or learn to control it utterly, before victory can be possible.
Rin is a fascinating protagonist to follow. At the beginning of The Poppy War, she almost comes across as a standard YA main character as the novel initially appears like it might fall into that genre. Very quickly, she shows she is much more complicated and nuanced than most. Unlike most fantasy protagonists, Rin’s super power is not her iron will. In fact, she seems to crave control and order, gravitating towards older individuals with strong personalities, people who can direct her and tell her what to do. In The Dragon Republic, she acknowledges this for the first time, discussing her need for Vaisra’s approval and feeling more comfortable in the role of a grunt than in the role of a leader. When she is stripped of her command, she is almost glad. Some of this is Rin’s own reaction to the overwhelming power in her that she still struggles to control. It is easier to fight when you know that killing is not your decision. However, Rin has also been severely abused, physically and emotionally, since the events of the first novel, and it takes her the majority of The Dragon Republic to admit what happened to her. She is able to grow and evolve throughout this novel and, although moving past the trauma she has endured is not easy, she is finally able to take control of her own life.
Just as important as Rin are her two friends and allies, Kitay and Nezha. Although the story is told entirely from Rin’s first-person point-of-view, she spends the majority of the novel with these two people and gains tremendous insight into their personalities and motivations. Kitay was her closest friend in the military academy and one of the few people both more intelligent and more volatile than Rin. He is initially mistrustful of Rin due to her role in the previous war and her eagerness to enlist with the Republic, but events pull the two closer together, cementing their friendship. Kitay represents a new leadership for Nikara, one which values intelligence and ability over bloodlines and nepotism. Nezha, meanwhile, is the youngest son of the Dragon Warlord and one of the commanders of their army. A complicated character, Nezha keeps most of his true feelings buried down while projecting a persona of confidence. He appears to share a mutual attraction with Rin and is the voice of caution and carefulness, opposed to Kitay’s aggression. Nezha is a man torn between his love for his friends and his loyalty for his father, while also dealing with his own buried trauma, only barely touched in The Dragon Republic and sure to be explored in the as of yet untitled book three.
While The Poppy War is a good book in its own right, The Dragon Republic is a clear improvement. The novel is still violent and dark, but the gore and grimness does seem a little toned down by comparison. In the first novel, the violence felt dialed up for the purpose of shocking the audience. This is not a YA story, the novel seemed to say. Now, with book two, the audience knows what to expect from the story and there is no need to re-establish the tone. Rin’s character motivations also make more sense than they did in the first novel. In the begging of The Poppy War, Rin is motivated by self-preservation and makes for a fascinating character. Once the war breaks out with Mugen, she is suddenly a patriot, even though nothing about her character until then suggested she would feel so strongly about Nikara. In The Dragon Republic, she is driven by revenge and love for her friends and found family. The portrayal of the Mugenese in the first novel, a stand-in for the Japanese, also bordered on fairly racist, although the vitriol is understandable considering the history between China and Japan. Here, the subject is treated with much more nuance as Rin is confronted with the fact that they are human, just like her. While racist characters are still present in the novel, especially among the Hesperians, the novel itself does not share their views.
There is much more that can be written about The Dragon Republic; the novel is just shy of seven hundred pages. The novel examines magic outside of the shamans of Nikara and hints at events in the greater world. The Nikaran Empress Su Daji is revealed to be a more complex, and far from evil, character than originally thought. And the novel ends with Rin is a vastly different place than where she began. Overall, The Dragon Republic is a fantastic second novel, improving upon the first in every conceivable way and leaves with an intriguing hook for the currently untitled book three. This is a world with no truly “good” people, only differing motivations. We will just have to wait and see if Rin’s motivations win the day, or if she finds someone truly with best intentions in their heart.
The Dragon Republic can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 9 days
Next on the List: The Harp of Kings, by Juliet Marillier