Why You Need to Read: “The Dragon Republic”

The Poppy War: #2: The Dragon Republic

By: R.F. Kuang

Published: August 8, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Grimdark, Folklore, Military 

WARNING: The following contains minor spoilers from both The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic. You have been warned. 

            She didn’t care about anyone’s visions for the future. She’d stopped wanting to be great, to carve out her place in history, a long time ago. She’d since learned the cost, (Chapter 6).

            Books about war—whether or not it’s fiction or non-fiction—attempts to include the horrors it brings along with it. In recent years, more fiction stories have included the “realities” of war as opposed to the “glories” of it, which usually make their way into the narratives. R.F. Kuang, author of The Poppy War, re-establishes the “cost of war” and its aftermath in the sequel, The Dragon Republic.

            Runin “Rin” Fang is (still) reeling from her actions, which led to the end of the Third Poppy War and victory for the Empire. However, the victory has left Rin feeling hollow due to the deaths of her friends, her teachers, and her comrades. Everything she’d witnessed throughout the war: death, rape, starvation, mutilation, her lack of control as a shaman over a goddess, her addiction to opium, and the betrayal she and her Unit suffered towards the end of the war has left Rin in a depressive state of mind. As a soldier, Rin believes her only purpose lies in seeking revenge against those who betrayed her and the other denizens of the Empire. Lacking support, resources, and leadership skills, Rin leads the 13th Division to fight their remaining enemies. However, Rin and her soldiers are approached by Yin Vaisra—the Dragon Warlord, the Head of the House of Yin, and the father of one of her Sinegard classmates—and, he has a proposition for her: join up with him to form a “democratic” Republic amongst the now disbanded 12 Provinces and he will assist her with her vengeance. Rin—suspecting hidden motives and desiring to remain a soldier—agrees to the Dragon Warlord’s terms. As Rin works with her Unit and the Dragon Province, she is reunited with her former classmates who make their own decisions regarding the civil war that has broken out between the Empire and the Dragon Republic. This time, she has to determine her worth within this latest conflict. In order to do this, Rin develops from soldier to puppet to commander; it is a rough, but essential growth for Rin!

            Just like The Poppy WarThe Dragon Republic has three parts: the aftermath of war, the beginning of a civil war, and the fallout as a result of the civil war. Part I focuses on the Aftermath of the Third Poppy War, especially how the survivors—both military and civilian—are dealing with the damage that remains. Rin struggles with keeping her unit alive while avoiding the troops who would capture Rin in order to collect the bounty on her head. She makes a deal with the Dragon Warlord not only to achieve her goal of revenge and to have access of supplies for her troops, but also to maintain her purpose of being a soldier. All Rin knows is warfare and she doesn’t know what else to do with herself. She’s not alone in this because her friends and her comrades feel the same way. 

            Part II is the campaign launched by the Dragon Province. The mission: either to parlay, or to destroy the other 11 Provinces. The choice lies between siding with the Dragon Warlord or fighting against him. The reality of war is presented to readers again as war tactics, war strategy, and death becomes part of the plot. Decisions are the difference between life and death, and death always seems to prevail. Meanwhile, Rin is suffering from her lost abilities as a shaman and from the humiliating “testing” done to her by the Hesperians—an advanced civilization who promises to ally themselves with the Dragon Province towards the goal of a united republic with the promise of weapons as long as they: win the civil war, allow missionaries to assist with the refugees, and to “study” Rin. Rin has flashbacks to the same experiments done to her and Altan by the Mugenese and begins to wonder whether or not if more than her self-worth is on the line. At the same time, Rin learns how the Empress became so powerful and how the damage she inflicted on Rin can be skirted. For that to happen, Rin must learn more about the powers of a shaman. To do that she’ll have to learn from those who taught Jiang, her former Master of Lore. These two subplots are necessary for both the plot development, and the character development, especially Rin’s. 

            Part III unveils all of the revelations and the intentions of all of the characters. Everyone is involved with another oncoming war whether or not they want to be. The Empire and the Hinterlanders are on the brink of another civil war, and Rin and her Unit must decide who they are going to fight for when the war begins. Even Rin has intentions for this war, especially after she learns the truth about the Dragon Province, the Empress, and their “allies.” Amongst the death and the reunions Rin must determine if she is a soldier or a shaman. 

            Once again, the narrative is in 1stperson and stream-of-consciousness. With the exception of the Prologue, readers follow Rin’s experiences during the aftermath of the Third Poppy War. All of Rin’s thoughts and traumas are witnessed by both readers and other characters. It seems during the postbellum everyone sees Rin as a solder without purpose. She’s a terrible leader and her mistakes puts others in danger. Yet, she wants peace and prosperity (and revenge) just like the other survivors of the war. The scenes involving war, refugees, and previous events and memories are told in real time, so readers experience the anticipation, the suffering, and the confusion all of the characters experience. While it is long, the pacing of the narrative is appropriate for this military fantasy novel.    

            The style Kuang uses in The Dragon Republic is both similar and different from The Poppy Way. The conflict and the aftermath of war—based on the conflicts stirring in several countries before the beginning of both the Spanish Civil War and World War II—is found throughout the pages within this novel. The difference, or better yet the addition to the conflict, is the notion of imperialism. It is obvious that the Dragon Province is attempting to do this, but they are not the only ones fighting for control of a weaken empire. The mood of The Dragon Republic is death and suffering; just because (one) war is over doesn’t mean everything will get better soon. The tone in this novel is not only about the cost of war, but also about the price one is willing to pay for power. There are no innocent people left alive in this story. 

            The appeal surrounding The Dragon Republic have been positive. Fans of The Poppy War, other military fiction, and grimdark will enjoy this sequel. As the world expands, so does the world-building, which is found in the characters and the weapons, which are based on military history and Chinese culture and folklore. It must be mentioned that anyone who couldn’t finish The Poppy War and/or are triggered by real life acts of violence should NOT read this book! While not all readers are into military literature, actual events of war, such as rape, is mentioned in this novel. Otherwise, expect another well-written story by R.F. Kuang. 

            The Dragon Republic is an amazing sequel. The story picks up where The Poppy War left off and it is both creative and realistic for the type of grimdark and military fantasy the author is telling the readers. Parts of the plot and the narrative can drag on at times, but they are necessary for the story the author is telling everyone. I can’t wait for the next book, even though I must. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5)!

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Why You Need to Read: “The Poppy War”

The Poppy War Series: Book 1: The Poppy War

By: R.F. Kuang

Published: May 1, 2018

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Folklore, and Military

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains minor spoilers from this novel. You have been warned.

            “Who are the gods? Where do they reside? Why do they do what they do? These are the fundamental questions of Lore. I can teach you more than ‘ki’ manipulation. I can show you the pathway to the gods. I can make you a shaman.”

            Gods and shamans? It was often difficult to tell when Jiang was joking and when he wasn’t, but he seemed genuinely convinced that he could talk to heavenly powers. 

            She was admittedly fascinated by myths and legends, and the way Jiang made them sound real.(Chapter 6).

            This debut novel caught my attention during one of my browsing visits to Barnes & Noble. My interest in this novel piqued when I read the synopsis of the book, and that fans of Katherine Arden would enjoy it, too. The Poppy Waris often described as a fantasy folklore historical military fiction novel, but it is so much more than that. Readers are treated to a blend of Chinese culture, memorable characters, and the horrors of war. 

            The protagonist of this novel, Runin Fang, or Rin, has readers comparing her to Harry Potter; but this story is NOT about an orphan who learns of his or her heritage and is given the opportunity to attend a school. Rin is an orphan of the last Poppy War who is raised by a family of opium dealers. Rin studies for the entrance exam to Sinegard—the most elite military school in the country—in order to escape poverty and an arranged marriage. When Rin is accepted into Sinegard, we meet her classmates: Kitay, Venka, Niang, Negha, Altan, etc.; her instructors including: Jiang, a shaman; and, the members of her Division. 

            The plot of The Poppy Warhas three parts: learning about war, going off to war, and surviving a war. Part I focuses on Rin’s acceptance and placement to Sinegard. I say placement because Rin and her classmates can get expelled or killed at any given moment during their time there. Rin has to deal with the prejudice surrounding her socioeconomic status as well. When she decides to study under Jiang—the Master of Lore—to become a shaman, Rin’s true education begins and her identity is revealed to her. 

            Part II is the beginning of the Third Poppy War. The Twelve Provinces and the Empress gather their soldiers for war, and this includes the instructors and the students from Sinegard. This reflects the reality of war in that the students at the military school go off to war. As the first battle takes place, Rin and her classmates experience the horrors of war, which was NOT taught to them in their classes. During this battle, Rin loses control of her shaman abilities. To the horror of her comrades, commanders and Empress she helps secure victory of the battle. Rin’s nature and heritage are revealed to everyone else, and she is transferred to the “secret” 13thDivision, which is made up of soldiers with their own supernatural abilities.

            Part III reveals more horrors of war through the eyes of Rin’s surviving classmates, and the descriptions provide images that won’t leave the readers’ minds anytime soon. This is the point in the novel that a decision must be made as to how to end the war immediately. And, no matter what is decided, there will be consequences. Yet, it is soon realized that it isn’t that one country is bad and the other is good, or vice versa; no, each side is ruthless and will do anything to ensure survival, including betrayals. 

            The narrative is first person and stream-of-consciousness. Readers witness Rin’s education and decisions through her eyes and understand her reasons behind all of her actions, including the mistakes she makes. It is because of Rin’s mistakes that readers can view her as a reliable narrator. The narrative jumps through time so that the pivotal moments in Rin’s life are presented to the readers. For example, the scenes of Rin’s imprisonment and the siege are told in real time so that readers can comprehend and emphasize with the boredom and the impatience the protagonist and her comrades deal with. Even the scenes illustrating the battles and their aftermath will leave you nauseated and horrified. The narrative is written in a way that all readers can follow. 

            The style Kuang uses throughout the novel reflects its setting. One could argue that The Poppy Waris an allegory of the emergence of nuclear weapons at the end of World War II. The conflict of war within the novel is based on the Second Sino-Japanese War, which occurred between 1937 and 1945. This war was one of the many isolated wars that were ongoing throughout the world during the second quarter of the 20thCentury. While The Poppy Warstarts off with the protagonist wanting an education in order to have a better life, the author follows up that education with an actual war, which changes the mood rather quickly. By the end of the novel, readers understand the tone of the story as well as the decision Rin makes and why it is necessary. 

            The appeal surrounding The Poppy Waris interesting. I say interesting because while I understood both the story and its acclaim, I know readers whom either disliked it, or did not finish it. The reason usually was either “it got too slow,” or “I thought this was a story about a school like Hogwarts.” First of all, not every fantasy book is going to be similar to Harry Potterbecause a “school” is mentioned in its synopsis! Second, Harry Potteris a YA series and The Poppy Waris for adults—go back and re-read Chapter 5! Last, if anyone read either the title, or the synopsis, then you would know that a war breaks out a third of the way within the novel. Instead, think of The Poppy Waras a military fantasy with folklore elements. Both Chinese culture and folklore are explained as part of the world building and the historical context are based on real life events. The explanation of Eastern Shamanism demonstrates the differences and the consequences of having this ability. I have neither read all of the fantasy books with its own version of shamanism, nor know the beliefs of similar concepts throughout the world. But, I can say that this explanation of the Chinese Pantheon is one of the most interesting presentations I have read in a long time. The Poppy Waris nominated for several upcoming literary fantasy awards including the Nebula Award and the Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Award (the Hugo Nominations have not been made during the time of this publication). The sequel, The Dragon Republic, will be released in August 2019. This means readers and critics will be able to enjoy more of R.F. Kuang’s story. 

            The Poppy Waris one of the most critically acclaimed debut novels in the speculative fiction genre in recent years. Fans of Asian history and fiction, military, silkpunk and folklore will enjoy this novel. The Poppy Warmade My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2018, which should make you aware of how I feel about this book. It definitely deserves the hype and the award nominations, and I’m looking forward to reading more stories from R.F. Kuang. 

The criticism of the book is not deserved because there are some readers who want all of the books within a genre to be similar to one or two, and that is not fair to the authors and everyone else interested in the genre. One of the purposes of speculative fiction is for authors to tell their stories that go beyond literary fiction and what’s been done before. This allows for both the diversity and the inclusion of many stories, which allows for the expansion of the genre. Kuang is one of those authors and that is why you need to read The Poppy War.

My rating: MUST READ IT NOW! (5 out of 5)

Why You Need to Read: “The Wolf in the Whale”

By: Jordanna Max Brodsky                                                   

Published: January 29, 2019

Genre: Historical Fiction, Folklore, Fantasy

  Garbed once more as a man, I entered the blood-soaked iglu. I sawed at my hair so it brushed the tops of my ears as a man’s should. I wore a man’s knife in a sheath looped across my chest. I carried a woman’s ulu in my pack. The wolf in the whale had gone south. And so did I. (Chapter 22).

            When I first received the ARC for this book, I did not know what to expect from it; however, the description of the story caught my attention and I read it with an open mind. The Wolf in the Whaleis an interesting story about gender roles, family, survival, cultural differences, and religion. Expectations placed on the characters—and the gods—within the story drive the narrative as well. Readers will gain insight into the first inhabitants to reside in and the first travelers to North America almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci.

            The protagonist of this story is also our narrator, who is retelling the events of her life. Omat was born with her father’s spirit as a hunter and with her grandfather’s abilities as a shaman. Hence, Omat is raised and treated as a male by her aunt, her grandfather, and her tribesmen, and she is expected to become the next leader of the tribe much to her cousin’s, Kiasik, chagrin. At the same time, the gods of the world—particularly the Inuit and the Norse—fear the changes to come due to the rise of a new and powerful monotheistic god. Unbeknownst to her, the gods mark Omat as a “threat” for she is expected to bring forth Ragnarök, or the end of the world. The gods’ fear causes Omat’s family to suffer from starvation and isolation. However, anyone who is familiar with myths, legends, and prophecies know that the more anyone tries to prevent a prophecy or an event from happening, the more likely it will occur. Omat’s interaction with her family, other tribesmen, the Vikings, and the gods and the spirits shape her character as she transitions from adolescence to adult. 

            The plot of this novel is broken down into 3 parts: Omat’s bildungsroman, the gods’ fear of the end of their lifestyle and adoration, and the Viking exploration. All of these plots drive the story and provides some insight into how early settlers came to inhabit the Americas, and how the interactions—even brief ones—brought elements of cultural diffusion to Omat’s tribe. The Viking “visit” is based on historical and recorded events; yet, it is unknown as to why they did not remain in the Americas. As for the motives of the gods, anyone who is familiar with religion and myths—or, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and/or Rick Riordan’s books—know the gods depend on both the worship and the stories from the mouths of mortals and shamans for their existence. A new, single god could jeopardize the lives of the rest of the gods. Omat’s journey and growth to becoming a leader means learning from other leaders—the good, the bad, and the worst—meeting challenges from the environment and from other people. Omat manages to overcome these obstacles, but not without repercussions. At the same time, Omat does learn some things from each adversity, which ensures her survival. 

            The narrative is divided into 5 parts: Omat’s birth, family and growth into an angakkug—or shaman; Omat’s power and livelihood being threaten by a visiting tribe who only see Omat for her sex and not for her abilities regardless of her gender; Omat’s journey south in search of her cousin and meeting a Viking, and seeing other people live beyond her world; Omat’s captivity amongst the Vikings; and, Omat’s role in Ragnarök, and its aftermath. All the while, the gods are watching the events unfold and they make decisions for their interests, which do not consider the impact they will have on the mortals. Given the multiple subplots and the story, the later parts in the novel are told in real-time. While this is both appropriate and believable for the plot, it makes the story seem slow at times. Omat is retelling this story. These events already happened—she either was told, or she experienced them—and we are led to believe that this stream-of-consciousness narrative is reliable. 

            The author, Jordanna Max Brodsky, has a degree in History and Literature from Harvard University. The Wolf in the Whaleis a historical fiction fantasy and folklore novel. This story is not only about the brief “meeting” between the Inuit and the Vikings—and other early settlers—but also a look into the folklore—a body of culture, traditions, tales, religion, etc. shared by a particular group of people—with fantasy elements (i.e. gods). The descriptions of the lifestyles of both the Inuit and the Vikings make the story more immersive. The cultural diffusion added by the author’s historical knowledge make the story more believable because the exchange of knowledge amongst various groups of people have been, and continue to be, a necessity for human survival and progression. This novel is a credible story of journey, survival and growth as seen in the author’s style. These elements add to the various dangers all of the characters face from the weather to each other. The realism makes the difference and it flourishes in this novel. 

            Readers who enjoy historical fiction might enjoy The Wolf in the Whale more than those who enjoy fantasy. This is because the historical and the anthropological aspects drive the story more than the appearances of the gods and the spirits. That is not to say fantasy fans won’t enjoy this book, they might not appreciate it as much as historical fiction fans. This is the author’s first standalone novel. So, readers who are curious about the author should read this novel. Fans of the TV show, Vikings, and/or the video game, Never Alone, should find The Wolf in the Whaleto be a well-structured story with the right amount of cultural elements that makes it more believable than the “what if” concept.

            The Wolf in the Whalecaught my attention due to its description about “clashing cultures and warring gods.” I was not sure what to expect from the novel besides shamans and Vikings. Being clueless, but open-minded about the novel allowed me to read the story as it is, and not what I thought it was going to be. The topics of sex and gender roles, culture, survival, interactions between different groups of people, and family drive the story as much as the history and the fantasy within it. There were times in which, some of the real-time events dragged the story. There were times in which, I wanted more from certain characters, but realized it would have diverted from the protagonist. Overall, The Wolf in the Whaleis a speculative fiction novel that is a hybrid of fantasy, folklore, history, and anthropology. I was immersed in the story from start to finish. I recommend this novel for anyone who enjoys an eclectic mix of genres in fiction. 

My rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5)!