2019’s The Dragon Republic is the second volume in R. F. Kuang’s Poppy Wars series.
Reducing the Federation of Mugen to ashes and seared corpses has not earned Fang “Rin” Runin the accolades of her native Nikan Empire. Empress Su Daji deems Rin and the rest of her team surplus to needs. Consequence: a price on all their heads.
Luckily, the empire isn’t the only employer in town. Rin has other options.
The pirate queen Moag is happy to use Rin, even a drug-addled Rin. Rin is a handy enforcer. But silver is silver and the bounty on Rin and company is large. Moag resolves to sell out Rin.
But before the empire can get its hands on Rin, it is outbid by Vaisra, the Dragon Warlord. Vaisra is determined to overthrow the Empress … all in the service of a new and democratic Nikan republic. Or so he claims. Rin doesn’t care about that, but she’s all in on killing the empress.
Complications ensue. Rin is not fond of the Warlord’s arrogant, racist, Hesperian allies. Rin is addicted to opium. Rin’s link to the Phoenix, the god from whom her pyrotechnic powers flow, is unreliable. Indeed, that link becomes inoperable when the Empress (who has godlike powers of her own) severs Rin from the source of her power.
Without her ability to cast fire, of what use is the girl from Rooster Province?
All the reader-beware warnings that applied to The Poppy War apply to this volume as well. Kuang doesn’t portray total war as jolly good fun. Imagine an atrocity and if it doesn’t happen on the page, it’s probably referenced in passing. Years of war and genocide have traumatized Rin and her fellow soldiers.
In this volume, Kuang’s fictional gloss on the Century of National Humiliation (when Western powers and a modernizing Japan attempted to carve up or conquer China) focuses on the setting’s European analogues. Readers interested in a comforting Mighty Whitey story may wish to look elsewhere. The Dragon Warlord’s Hesperian patrons are Blue-Eyed Devils: religious fanatics and racists. All other races, they believe, are less evolved than Hesperians. Unfortunately for everyone they encounter, the Hesperians currently enjoy a technological edge. They are useful allies … in the short run. In the long run, they are nobody’s friends. .
The novel also takes a jaundiced view of the powerful. Anyone with power either got that power by stabbing other people in the back or is holding onto inherited power by stabbing other people in the back1. One wonders why anyone ever bothered trying to make deals or sign treaties.
Rin isn’t a monster, but she has been pushed into doing monstrous things. She’s a utilitarian of sorts: willing to kill a few million if it will save ten or a hundred times that number. In the long run. Which has not arrived.
Depressing but skillfully written, this bleak secondary universe fantasy is a worthy follow-up to The Poppy War.
1: Except for shamans, who get their power by cutting a deal with gods. Shamans gain a temporary ability to reshape reality but pay for it with inevitable madness. That deal sticks.