Following up on my post about how fantasies set in non-Western cultures are becoming deservedly more popular, Rebecca F. Kuang’s The Dragon Republic has been published. Kuang studies Chinese history, and more recently Chinese literature, at Oxford and Cambridge. She sets her trilogy in a version of early twentieth century China where shamans call upon gods who give them superpowers in a literally maddening dark bargain. The Poppy War, the first book, takes place in a world much like China during the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Rape of Nanjing, and the graphic brutality of the occupying “Federation” troops (the Japanese, thinly-veiled) is grimly depicted. Protecting her people from this gives our heroine, Rin, plenty of reason to go berserker and commit abominable war crimes. Except now she regrets some of those actions.
This second novel of the series is set in a fantasy country similar to the post-WW2 era of Chinese civil war, with most coastal cities demolished by Federation troops who slaughtered and abused tens of millions. Moreover, there are still many opium addicts left over from when the “Hesperians” (i.e. the British) used military force to help introduce as many Chinese to the addiction as was profitable.
It’s the hard-to-believe details about the reality of the traumas China suffered that makes this trilogy grim and dark, not the fantasy elements, and that’s what is so interesting. Books in this sub-genre help Western readers understand other real cultures we do not usually encounter in SF/F stories. Just when you believe the opium problem must be exaggerated, you do a quick check in Wikipedia and are appalled by what the British Empire really did. No wonder the current rulers to this day don’t trust the West and its hypocritical proselytizers. Surely the cruelty of the Federation soldiers in The Poppy Wars was exaggerated you think, but study up, and it’s no wonder the Chinese still hate the Japanese and are seeking redress to this day. No wonder they relentlessly seek power now; they remember the abuse weakness brought.
In a Locus Magazine interview dated July 15, 2019, Kuang describes her inspirations and sources:
An Atypical Heroine’s Journey
In the mode of the heroine’s journey, the challenges that Rin must face and overcome are, to a great extent, interior ones. While a love interest is important but not defining of Rin, Kuang’s twist is that Rin must overcome her love and admiration for her dead commander, Altan. She must see through his deceptions to become whole again.
Although Rin is a commander of a shaman army of shape shifters and other supernaturally strong fighters known as Cike, she is an unstable, morally-flawed heroine. She is suffering from three major challenges: 1) a serious opium addiction [she needs opium to help her control the phoenix god who gives her the power to harness fire but wants to take her over,] 2) the loss of the Cike’s former commander, Altan, whom she admired and loved but who was abusive, and 3) crushing guilt over the extreme brutal tactics she and Altan used to win the fight against the Federation in the last novel. Her guilt is debilitating and opium her only crutch. She was left in charge of the Cike by Altan, and she must protect her comrades, even if at the beginning of the novel she feels morally and mentally unable to lead them.
Another important trope in the female heroic journey is the reliance of the heroine upon her allies, friends and family from whom she draws strength and support. But Kuang throws a curve here, too. Rin’s adoptive family is anything but supportive. They’re drug dealers, and she grew up delivering opium so knows exactly how debilitating an addiction it can be. In short, she should have known better and been more careful with the opium she needs (or thinks she needs) to be a shaman. She draws strength from her adoptive parents by hating them.
In contrast, the shamans under Rin’s command support her and her command, even in her deepest moments of self-doubt. Though she loses some along the way, she is driven to protect them above all else. By the middle of the book, with her superpower blocked by the Empress, Rin is secretly relieved to be following rather than giving the orders. After The Dragon Warlord forces her to overcome her opium addiction, she relishes being a simple soldier using her body to succeed in bloody battles with the enemy. Through all her ups and downs she can scarcely believe how her comrades stick with her, support her and encourage her. Too afraid to tap her power over fire, she must relearn how to rely upon the human warrior arts including sword fighting she learned while at the military school.
In this novel, Rin matures from someone who believes she is unworthy of command and acts like it, into a strong, self-confident leader. She begins motivated by vengeance—she and the Cike will destroy the Empress who let the Federation in, but she grows to understand that the Empress, who is also extremely powerful, is as trapped by external realities and bad options much as Rin herself is.
Along the way Rin will face an enemy she and Altan unleashed in the prior novel, and at first she will fail, but like any hero, she will face him again, and the final time she will use a device created for her by her science genius friend Kitay to help her overcome him. This is the “gift of the goddess” in the hero’s journey.
The Writing Has Improved in the Second Novel
Kuang’s writing has matured with this second book in the series. The character arcs are more convincing, and the plot points follow more smoothly and inevitably from prior events, and more originally, in my opinion. The Poppy War was more of a typical “abused orphan with secret superpowers wins a position in the best training school and overcomes racism, sexism, and classism to prove them all wrong at the climax where she saves the world” plot in an original and dark setting. The Dragon Warlord is a more unusual story, where the most important aspect is Rin’s overcoming her own weaknesses as her understanding of the world broadens and she becomes worthy of command.:
One of the novel’s deficits, I believe, is too much time spent on battles, naval and onshore. While Rin loves being a soldier, then leader—this is her life—and while battles are important to winnowing down her cohort and building her confidence, some battle scenes could have tightened while others were not critical turning points of either the characters’ arcs or in the plot, and could have been cut.
Kuang clearly enjoyed that aspect of her novel, however. She studies Chinese military history and became a ship trivia junkie while writing this book. Interviewer Rain of the blog Bookdragonism asked Kuang in an August interview what her favorite aspect of the book was, and she replied, “The ship porn, the ship porn! I did so much research on makes and models of all types of old chinese ships….great bulky warships, small and nimble sampans, and sleek opium skimmers…I got to take all those beautiful, beautiful ships and hurl them in chaotic battle. So fun.”
Kuang also believes practice has improved her writing:
Good advice for all of us, young or old.