How does one follow up a dark fantasy inspired by the history of the Sino-Japanese conflicts in the early twentieth century? By shifting the tragic, arresting story from an large-scale international conflict to a more insular, national one.
In The Dragon Republic, the followup to her Nebula-nominated debut The Poppy War, author R.F. Kuang firmly places her protagonist Rin at the center of a new conflict. With the Federation’s invasion stopped by a shocking display of power from Rin and the magical Phoenix, the aftermath is not a peaceful victory celebration but a brutal civil war. The Empress who betrayed her country and set the stage for the just-concluded war must be opposed, no matter the cost or the consequences.
Kuang’s talent for crafting compelling—if supremely grim—fantasy is on full display in this second volume. Both from within and without, the heart wrenching story of Rin and the tragic story of Nikara, the author’s fantastic analogue to early modern China, continues, as Kuang uses a classic technique to up the stakes: even though Rin’s ability to harness her power is suspect and unreliable, she continues to stretch herself beyond her limits. Even when she is able to use her magic effectively, the costs—a dependance akin to addiction, unintended damage to herself and others—are grave, and Kuang doesn’t shy away from examining the price of power, even wielded in pursuit of just ends. In Kuang’s world, being a Chosen One is much more of a curse than it is a benefit.
While much of the novel concerns Rin’s struggle in the face of a brewing conflict between the titular Dragon Republic and the forces loyal to the Empress, there is much more going on to fill these 700 pages. Just as the first book moved from a dark coming of age story, to a training sequence set in a military school , to a dark meditation on war in a magical world, the sequel transitions from a personal exploration of Rin’s power (particularly her feelings on once again being treated like a lab rat), to a travelogue spanning the nation of Nikara, to political machinations and the buildup to a revolution, and finally, to all-out war. Along the way, we also learn much about the world—including what’s going on with the Western Europe-analogue peoples the Hesperians, who have their own opinions about Nikara and its magic.
The novel is anchored by several fantastical, harrowing battles, including the climatic one, which takes place at the auspiciously named Red Cliffs. Kuang excels at crafting specular scenes of conflict as the forces of the Empress face off against those of the newly born Dragon Republic. In a change of pace from book one, many of the skirmished take place on the water, as the rivers of Nikara are used by both sides to move troops and vie for an advantage. Water seems to be the dominant element in this novel, if fact; several important scenes featuring the mostly independent pirate Queen Moag take place in her floating city.
Though her stories are rife with the drama of the battlefield, Kuang does not glorify war; even more so than the first, The Dragon Republic is concerned with showing its immense social costs. The plight of the refugee population, displaced by the conflict, mistreated and forced to survive in squalid conditions, feels ripped from 21st century headlines. Like all truly transcendent fantasy, this is a novel that speaks to today, even as it depicts an even darker world, once removed.
As a middle volume, The Dragon Republic succeeds not only in showing us the price of war—it also takes care to truly advance the protagonist, as Rin is shaped by her experiences in ways both good and bad. What she faced at the end of The Poppy War could break anyway, but her trials and tribulations are only beginning. She is placed into a leadership role, commanding the magic-using Cike, a challenge that lies heavily on her shoulders. She must deal with multiple reversals of fortune and the fallout from mislaid plans. She suffers emotionally and psychologically, but also grows more resolved, and it is the depth of her character that powers the narrative. Once again, the story unfolds entirely through Rin’s eyes, and even as we learn much that is new about the characters around her—some of which redefines events that occurred in the first book—I never felt I was missing a grander sense of the scope we traditionally see in a book with multiple points of view.
Like its predecessor, The Dragon Republic is a fantasy novel for readers who want to experience the story of a consequential figure in history in which that person’s actions are treated with real emotional—not just narrative—weight. Rin is a young woman, touched by divinity and in possession of nearly uncontrollable power, living in a war torn world. Her attempts to make it a better place may be justified, but that doesn’t make them easy. From the epic scale of its battles, to its intimate exploration of the thoughts and struggles of its protagonist, the second volume of the Poppy War saga is enthralling.