The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Poppy War was one of the best books I read this year. It was a brutal and bloody retelling of Chinese history as epic fantasy, and needed all kinds of content warnings...but it was utterly absorbing.
Now the sequel is here, and it is just as good, in a quieter, more contemplative way. Part of this comes from being the middle book of the trilogy and thus needing to set things up for the explosive finale. The pace is slower and more thoughtful, and the reason is that this book deals extensively with the consequences of the first. If I thought the protagonist Rin was broken at the end of the first book, that was nothing compared to the bottom she hits in this one.
Rin is not a likable character and never will be, but she is thoroughly compelling. Throughout much of this book, she is selfish, incompetent, nasty and cowardly, wallowing in self-pity after the loss of her mentor Altan, full of PTSD and survivor's guilt. She falls into opium addiction in an attempt to control the god she has invited inside her, and ignores the protestations of what little remains of her conscience. The loyalty of the people around her is far more than she deserves, and that is what eventually causes her to pull her head out of her ass. Unfortunately, this does not happen until she has fallen in with yet another misguided general attempting to wrest control of their country Nikara from the similarly god-infected Empress. Crippled by the memories of what she has done, Rin is eager and willing to follow Vaisra's orders. Needless to say, this does not work, and the slow rebuilding of her character (she finally comes to see Altan for the manipulative bastard he was) is one of the highlights of the book.
This is an intricate story of military strategy and hidden and conflicting loyalties, infused with several important and timely themes: the pitting of the northern privileged aristocracy against the far more numerous but downtrodden southerners, the "mud people,"; the arrival of scientifically advanced religious fanatics from another continent, who want to take the Nikaran shamans like Rin and experiment on them; and Rin's finally standing up to take control of her life.
She had thought that being a weapon might give her peace. That it might place the blame of blood-soaked decisions on someone else so that she was not responsible for the deaths at her hands. But all that had done was make her blind, stupid, and so easily manipulated.
She was so much more powerful than anyone--Altan, Vaisra--had ever let her be. She was finished taking orders. Whatever she did next would be her sole, autonomous choice.
If I'm any judge, the final book of the trilogy will be even more brutal and bloody than the first. This series probably requires more spoons than anything I have ever read, so be warned. But it is so worth it.
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