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Book Review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

Title: The Dragon Republic

Author: R.F. Kuang

Series: The Poppy War #2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: In the aftermath of the Third Poppy War, shaman and warrior Rin is on the run: haunted by the atrocity she committed to end the war, addicted toopium, and hiding from the murderous commands of her vengeful god, the fiery Phoenix. Her only reason for living is to get revenge on the traitorous Empress who sold out Nikan to their enemies. With no other options, Rin joins forces with the powerful Dragon Warlord, who has a plan to conquer Nikan, unseat the Empress, and create a new Republic. Rin throws herself into his war. After all, making war is all she knows how to do. But the Empress is a more powerful foe than she appears, and the Dragon Warlord’s motivations are not as democratic as they seem. The more Rin learns, the more she fears her love for Nikan will drive her away from every ally and lead her to rely more and more on the Phoenix’s deadly power. Because there is nothing she won’t sacrifice for her country and her vengeance. -Goodreads

The Review:

Overall The Dragon Republic was a good continuation even though it lacked a bit of the magic from the first book.

The Poppy War ended with such a bang, I kind of expected this second book to maintain that epic, large-scale momentum. Instead it kind of regressed and had more of a narrow focus on characters and their various relationships and connections. The larger conflict of the series did eventually make some good progress (in a way I really liked), but overall not a lot for the page count. I’ll admit I wasn’t in much of a hurry to pick this up after finishing the first one. The main draw of PW was the testing/schooling/training aspects and I was skeptical the author would be able to keep my interest without that huge selling point. As it turns out, I still quite enjoyed the book even though there were a few specific things that kept me from loving it.

I did not particularly like the main character’s growth arc (or lack thereof) in this novel. In the first book she was an understated badass who was willing to burn herself bloody to instigate change. Flaws aside, one thing that could always be said about her is that she knew what she wanted and fought with everything she had to get it. To have her suddenly become a pawn who just bends over at everyone else’s whims was really disappointing. I mean, this girl ::insert spoiler on what happened at the end of the first book:: clearly has the world at her fingertips but can’t stand up to a few petty rulers? It just didn’t make any sense. I know there were a few factors at play surrounding her mental health and PTSD, but it’s how easily she gave in and accepted pathetic threats and ultimatums as the only possible choices that bothered me. She was so passive! And I didn’t like how stagnant it made the story. This was not the same character. Plenty of things were happening TO her, but not a whole lot happened BECAUSE of her, and that distinction is why I rated the book sort of low.

I also got kind of tired of hearing her dwell on certain tragic events from the first book. It reminded me a bit of YA love stories where the MC’s whole world is a boy and nothing else really matters. I wouldn’t have minded it as much had it not lasted almost the entire book. Angsty. That’s the word I’m looking for. The book felt angsty.

One thing I really love about the series is the writing. Kuang is a brilliant writer who knows how convey the deep emotions of her characters in a way that makes me feel it in my gut. I can blather all day about criticisms of plot, but when it comes down to it I’ll not soon forget how this series has made me feel so far. It’s rather gut-wrenching. I also am fascinated with the overall idea for the story and can’t wait to see where she takes it in the final book. Although it has elements I’ve seen before, I’ve never read anything quite like it, and the originality is very refreshing. I’ve heard the final book is one of the better trilogy-enders out there, so I’ll definitely be reading on to see how she wraps everting up.

Recommendations: a breath of fresh air in the market, the series continued well in this second book. Not quite as strong as the first novel, it still had beautiful writing, lots of action, and a few memorable moments. I’d hand the series to fantasy fans who value originality and cultural diversity in books.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Title: The Poppy War

Author: R.F. Kuang

Series: The Poppy War #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: When Rin aced the Keju — the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies — it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard — the most elite military school in Nikan — was even more surprising. But surprises aren’t always good. Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power — an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive — and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school. -Goodreads

The Review:

What a cool book! I’d been saving this one for a rainy day. Which in hindsight wasn’t the best idea because parts of it were downright depressing, but it sure did give me a wonderful new POV to experience.

The main character was brilliantly done. She’s exceptionally talented, but deeply flawed. Obsession ruled her life and it was clear from the start she was willing to sacrifice anything needed to get where she wanted to go. There just so much nuance of psychology to her behavior. I remember hearing about some controversy over her decisions early on in the book, and while her actions triggered a bigger response from me than usual, the shock of it was far outweighed by how well I thought her choices established character and set the framework for her short-term rationalization going forward.

I also loved the book because it contained a satisfying school setting!!! With plenty of student dynamics, tests, and learning. It somehow managed to be both a grimdark tale and a delightfully fun adventure at the same time. Through most of the book, anyway.

I’ve been reading a lot of grimdark lately, and I have to say parts of this book were among the most graphically described that I’ve ever read. I skipped a paragraph or two, and I’m usually pretty numb to graphic writing. At the time, it struck me as unnecessarily vivid, perhaps taken too far for shock-value alone. After finishing the book, however, I can grudgingly see the need for its inclusion to justify all the things that came after… I just didn’t particular enjoy experiencing it in drawn-out detail. It soured my overall experience with the story just a bit. This is a personal preference thing, but I will say it has me nervous to continue on in the series (but how can I not?!). I don’t trust this author to nurture my sensibilities, but there’s kind of a masochistic thrill in that, I suppose.

Recommendations: I knew from the first chapter this was going to be an excellent fantasy novel. And it was!! Even if it contained more graphical content than I was expecting. The squeamish be warned, and everyone else hop aboard for a brilliant newcomer(ish) to the genre.

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By Niki Hawkes