The Dragon Republic

-Rebecca F. Kuang


One of the problems with ‘diverse’ books is that their authors often feel the urge to mouth politically-correct talking points, or feel pressured to do so, even when such points either don’t fit the narrative or openly break the reader’s trance.  The Poppy War was such a magnificent success, in all senses of the word, that PC talking points fitted so smoothly into the narrative I had no intention of questioning them.  The pointlessness of both racism and class privilege was so well demonstrated that there was no need to mention it overtly.  But, in many ways, The Dragon Republic stumbles when such points are raised.  And that is, it must be admitted, a weakness.


The deeper problem, one suffered by many other books, is that The Dragon Republic is the middle book in a (presumed) trilogy.  It advances the overall plot, but - unlike The Poppy War - it is neither complete nor conclusive in itself.  There aren’t many middle books that are, and this is quite understandable, yet it remains a problem given the sheer size of the book.  The plotline seemed to drag in places, while Rin - the heroine - seemed to regress too.  I saw the ultimate denouncement coming long before it finally arrived.


If you haven’t read The Poppy War, which I highly recommend, The Dragon Republic probably won’t make any real sense to you.  During the first book, set in a slightly-fantastical version of Imperial China during the last few years of its existence, Rin won a scholarship to a military academy, learned how to call upon the gods, fought a hopeless war against an analogy of imperial Japan, won it decisively by unleashing a holocaust on their home islands ... and found herself betrayed by the Empress and forced to go on the run.  As the story develops, she is invited to join forces with the Dragon Warlord (the father of a character who bullied her, then befriended her) to overthrow the Empress and establish a republic.  It rapidly becomes clear that the Dragon Warlord is no better than the Empress he fights, his subordinates are too aristocratic to put the common interests first and that his foreign allies are dangerously untrustworthy.    In the end, he betrays Rin (surprise, surprise) and she winds up leading a revolutionary movement against him. 


The book is very good in depicting a massive civil war, roughly akin to the final years of Imperial China and the rise of the Republicans and Communists.  Both sides make logical moves, hampered by the need to watch their backs (betrayal is a universal theme running through the book) and their low quality of their leaders.  Family is a burden in such a society, weirdly enough; the oldest son leads his forces into a trap, ignoring advice from his younger brother who cannot disagree with him publicly.  The war is on an immense scale, ranging from ‘simple’ assassinations to massive campaigns, often decided by shamanic activity and ingenuity, or sneak attacks designed to cause famine and weaken the opposing sides.  Both sides are hypocrites, using force to convince people to join them and then punishing them for changing sides when the other side applies force of its own.  This was true of pretty much every civil war in China.


It also explores the problems of outside meddling, with both sides working to secure help from foreigners ... foreign aid that might come at a price.   The book illustrates both the urgent need for help and the price, a price that might not be paid by the people who get the help (another common problem with foreign aid).  It does, however, tend to fall over itself a little.  On one hand, the ‘Europeans’ believe themselves to be more evolved than the natives (with a twist that the natives will grow more evolved as they develop); on the other hand, there is no suggest that they have shamans and therefore they’re seriously outgunned (and perhaps out-evolved).  Racism does not have to make logical sense, of course, but it’s still odd.  Historically, Europe regarded China as a mighty civilisation until the Opium Wars, when it sank in that China was rotting away from within.


The book’s weakness, however, lies in character development.  Rin seems to regress a little, alternatively mourning her lost friend (and commanding officer, who casts a long shadow over the book) and churning in circles, unsure of herself and being constantly manipulated by others.  It’s nice to see how the magic system develops, and how many long-lost secrets are unearthed (along with new ideas and concepts) but Rin keeps making mistakes and its only at the end of the book that she realises they’ve been fighting the wrong war all along.  Rin travels from place to place, learning more, but she doesn’t really seem to develop much as a character.  Others do develop a little, including a couple who managed to surprise me.  But then, given that betrayal is a theme of the book, perhaps it shouldn’t have.


Overall, though, the book does come across as a worthy successor to The Poppy War.  It pulls no punches about the grim reality of war, or the effects on civilian populations ... most of whom are trapped between one side or the other and exposed to the horrors without hope of succour.  Rin herself only really grasps this after she encounters her adopted family within a refugee camp, although she should have seen it after witnessing the aftermath of this world’s Rape of Nanking and later committing genocide herself.  And, as before, the world itself is finely realised, from the shamanic magic to the corrupt and decaying (and racial) power structure that is responsible for so much suffering.  It is slightly less gripping than The Poppy War, but The Poppy War was a masterpiece.


I recommend it.