This review contains spoilers for The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic.
The sequel to R.F. Kuang’s explosive first novel The Poppy War, The Dragon Republic confronts the spectre of imperialism even as it appears to de-emphasise its effects. Set in the fictional country of Nikara, a clear analogue of medieval China, it follows protagonist Rin in the aftermath of her decision to destroy the oppressive Federation of Mugen at the end of The Poppy War. Traumatised both by this decision and by the atrocities she witnessed during the Mugenese invasion, she and the shamanistic military unit she commands, the Cike, decide to join a military effort led by the warlord Vaisra to overthrow the Empress and bring democracy to Nikara. Rin hopes thereby to gain revenge on the Empress for her collaboration with the Mugenese. Vaisra, however, is being bankrolled by the Hesperians, this world’s version of white Europeans, who demand as the price of their support unrestricted access to Rin’s person, ostensibly for research purposes: the Hesperians believe that Rin’s shamanistic powers are a manifestation of Chaos, which, according to their uncompromising theology, must be stamped out in all its forms. For most of the novel the Hesperians appear to be minor, if annoying, participants in the grand political drama unfolding across Nikara, despite various indications to the contrary that crop up throughout the narrative; by the time it becomes apparent that they are behind vastly more of the novel’s political developments than anyone, including the reader, has realised, it is of course much too late.
The entire novel, then, is a lovely piece of authorial sleight-of-hand that enacts the ways in which white imperialism hides behind self-professedly noble intentions and disinterested philanthropy. Unfortunately, though, the very structure of the novel means that the Hesperians’ machinations largely take place off-page; while this does, importantly, centre Kuang’s non-Western characters, it also means that the novel’s focus lies mainly on the volatile political position Rin and the Cike find themselves in, and the military adventures they’re drawn into as they attempt to navigate it. Which, frankly, is not where my interest lies as a reader: it all feels rather grim, rather unrelentingly cynical, to me. It doesn’t help that Rin’s primary motivation throughout the novel is revenge: that cold-blooded, single-minded drive to get back at someone who has wronged you, personally, is not really an emotion I’m personally familiar with, and as a result I find it kind of hard to identify with characters whose arcs are powered by that urge.
A mismatch between book and reader, then. As I’ve said, I think the structure of The Dragon Republic is actually kind of masterful, and I’d love to have had more of that structural trickery. But, on the whole, this isn’t a novel that I’m going to feel inclined to read again.