I was a big fan of the first book in R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War series– it ended up being very highly ranked in what was a very good year for reading– and I jumped on the sequel as fast as I could when it came out.
And … well, brace yourself. This is not one of my usual hyperbolic slobbery OMG GO READ THIS RIGHT NOW reviews. I still think you need to read it, but there’s gonna be a proviso or two, some quid pro quos … anyway, read on.
Trigger warning, for, like, everything that is bad. If you’ve ever needed a trigger warning of any kind do not read this book or this review.
The Poppy War starts out almost sorta feeling like a Harry Potter knockoff set in a China analogue, only Hogwarts is a military academy and Hermione is the main character instead of Harry. Oh, and she’s explicitly described as being an ethnic minority rather than being shoehorned into being one years later on the strength of her hair being described as curly, but that’s a whole different conversation. That conceit will last you about a third of the first book, and then Hermione, whose name is Rin in this book, burns out her fucking uterus with drugs because menstruation distracts her from her studies and then all the sudden it ain’t Harry Potter no more and it really never goes back. It goes dark and it goes violent and it goes really war-crimey and this is a book that I enjoyed reading quite a lot but it absolutely 100% is not for everyone. Rin eventually acquires the ability to produce and control fire, and … well, she doesn’t really use it to keep people warm.
I mean, they are warm, for the second or two until they burn to death, but not, like, in a good, comfy sort of way. The bad kind of warm. Where you’re screaming. And then you die. There’s lots of that. And the book honest to God ends with Rin committing what is basically genocide. Spoiler alert, I guess. That was book one, you should have read it by now.
The thing about The Dragon Republic is that it doesn’t start off with the comforting (ha, “comforting,” he called it) Harry Potter-esque maybe this is sorta YA beginning. No, the Rin in this book is already jaded as fuck and is basically a war criminal leading a gang of war criminals, and she spends the first 2/3 of the book drug-addicted, angry, depressed, suffering from massive holy shit-level fucking PTSD, and mostly unable to use her powers for various reasons. Oh, and also racism. Like entire groups of people in this book refuse to even treat Rin like she’s human. Lotsa racism.
The first book got dark. The Dragon Republic starts off dark, stays dark, and then trades that dark for a chic slightly darker dark once it gets going. And by the end of this one, we’ve completely upended everyone we’re fighting against and everyone we’re fighting against and the status quo is status gone, and everyone is miserable or dead or a refugee or all three except the ruling class, and fuck those guys anyway.
I four-starred it on Goodreads, but this is one of those books that really resists a star rating, because in many ways it’s just as good a book as the first one, and again, I really liked the first one. It’s just that it’s so fucking unrelentingly gritty that you want to wash your hands when you’re done reading it, and it’s hard to read because of that. It may end up on my end-of-year list anyway despite four-starring it, because it is what it is very, very effectively. It’s just that it’s a book where terrible things are happening all the time to main characters who are really only moderately sympathetic to begin with– saying Rin is kind of an asshole is a muted understatement– and … well, if you don’t want to read something like that, I’m not going to get mad at you. The first book Ain’t for Everybody. This book, I think, is for a slightly smaller subset of Ain’t for Everybody, because I think there will be people who read and enjoyed The Poppy War who will check out of this anyway, and again, I can’t be mad at them about it.
If you liked the first book, definitely pick this up, but if anything about this review made you think that you might be part of the Everybody that this Ain’t For, I’d gently suggest you listen to that intuition. R.F. Kuang is absolutely a writer of staggering talent, and I’m just as in for Book Three as I was for The Dragon Republic, but I just can’t recommend this book unconditionally. Enjoy, but enjoy with care.