A Literary Analysis of ‘The Dragon Republic’ by R. F. Kuang, Book 2 in the Poppy War series

I read the first book in this series a year and a half ago when it first came out. At the time I was impressed with some aspects of the book, but was disappointed by other parts. Here is my review if you want to take a look. To summarize, I had problems with the first book’s structure and I found the protagonist Rin to be extremely unlikeable. Compelling, to be sure, but unlikeable to the point of being unpleasant to read. So I’m coming into this second book with high hopes but also some skepticism. As this is the second book in a series, and also the author is no longer a debut, I’m going to be holding this book to higher standards than the first.

NOTE: Some of the words/names I use here might be misspelled. I listened to the audiobook, so I don’t know how a lot of these things are spelled.

So let’s get this started. This discussion contains spoilers. You’ve been warned.


To begin, I am reviewing this as though I were an alpha reader/beta reader/editor. My advice is general. Overall I liked this book, and at times I loved it. I definitely liked it more than the first book in the series. However in this critique I will be going in depth about the things I had problems with, because what’s the point of a critique if not to interrogate the things you don’t like.

Concept, Theme and Execution

The concept behind this book was ‘a civil war between a rebellious republic and an ancient feudal nation, where both sides have extremely dangerous magic, all while a colonialist empire wants to get into the feudal nation, loosely based upon Chinese history.’ I can’t really comment on the historiocity of this book, but I thought the whole civil war plotline was REALLY well done. It was easily my favorite part of the book.

I noticed themes of ‘self control vs being controlled,’ ‘toxic relationships’ and ‘racism.’ The theme of toxic relationships is very well implemented. The theme of ‘self control vs being control’ is decently well implemented,’ and the theme of ‘racism’ isn’t well implemented.


Plot 

I’m trying something a bit different for this analysis. I am providing my (mostly) unredacted notes I took while I was reading the book, so you can see what I’m feeling as I’m reading the book.

Notes from the first 4 hours of audiobook:

  • The book’s opening is well written, going directly into the book’s main plot. No side plot/slow reintroduction back into the story. This book begins with a cold open, picking up right were we ended in the first book. This is very much book 2 in a series, you can’t skip book 1 and begin here.
    • I’m not too happy about this opening. As a reader, I like books which have slowish openings. This book’s intro is the opposite of slow.
  • Once again the author is not afraid to show just how grim this setting is. The characters are suffering in the aftermath of book 1. Rin’s drug addiction, Rin losing control of her magic, Kitay’s losing faith in Rin, fox-kid and the doctor abandoning the Cike in the wake of Rin losing control.
    • All of these story beats. They do a good job of proving that this setting has consequences, which is GREAT. A lot of Fantasy books skims over the consequences, which sucks. Some of the most compelling storytelling there is is discussing the negative consequences of a hero’s choices, and the hero coping with the negative fallout of their actions.
    • However I must say that in this book, like in the first book, there’s no equivalent light to provide balance to the shadow. This book’s shaping up to be a misery fest, and I personally find outright miserable books to be emotionally draining in a bad way. The darkest nights lose some of their intensity without daylight to go along with it.
  • Plot wise, I was not engaged with the ‘pirate queen’ plotline which began the story. She seemed kinda random. I know she’s historically based and her presence in this book adds a historical sheen to the story.
    • She becomes kinda important later in the book, but I feel as though her addition to the book seems kinda self-contained and random.
    • That said, the pirate queen is a great, clever character. I like how she’s not afraid to stand up to Rin, and I like how Rin is plunged into emotional confusion by the fact that she can’t intimidate someone into obedience. The author really does do female characters quite well. (Kuang does male characters well too, but genre-wide good female characters are somewhat rare hence why I’m calling it out for respect.)
  • Rin learns Nezha is alive, and she meets his father. I like the Dragon Warlord, not least because he’s willing to stand up to Rin (just like the pirate queen). Him planning to establish a ‘republic’ seems farfetched to me. I hope the old man is just trying to con Rin into helping him. I especially like how he’s detoxing Rin off the drugs.
    • I think this guy’s a fictional parallel to the warring warlord period in China following WW1 and the fall of the Qing dynasty.
    • I like his combination of tough-love and hidden motivations. He comes off as being a patriarchal, paternalistic asshole, treating Rin not unlike a dog… but dogs are lovable, so he treats her like a family pet. Makes him ever so subtly malevolent.
    • Between the pirate queen and this guy, both using opium against Rin, I’m wondering if this signifies that Rin’s character arc in this novel will be her overcoming her addictions in order to become a better, stronger leader? Rin, despite all her power, is displayed as a pawn. Will her character arc in this novel involve her becoming more than a pawn? Will she become a warlord herself?
  • Two things.
    • I like that Rin is finally addressing her addictions. In book 1 she was unlikeable in part because of her flaws, but these struggles against her flaws make her more likeable.
    • I LIKE that she’s struggling with her genocide of the Mugenese people. Her genocide in book 1 really made Rin unlikeable. So her realizing she did something evil and kinda regretting it makes her more likeable.
    • Put together, I’m having a better time reading this book than I had the first book. I really struggled with the first book on account of how emotionally distant/kinda evil Rin was in book 1. Her portrayal here is warmer and easier to read.
  • First major problem: Rin’s not losing control of her rage often enough. I think her personal growth character arc in this book will involve her gaining self control. If that is going to be the theme, I want her to lose self-control more often to reinforce the importance of her needing to regain self control.
    • In particular, after she’s insulted by the pirate queen AND the warlord, I expected her to lash out with fire at least once. Rin (rather infamously) has a fiery temper, and resorts to violence easily. I get that the author wants to have Rin feel like a powerless pawn in the face of people who have control of her, but Rin not lashing out in futile (and stupid) anger against people who have control of her feels out-of-character for Rin.
      • Rin lost control once, at the beginning of the book when she burned her ally the fox. Once is a outlier; twice is a coincidence; three is a pattern. I needed Rin to lose control three times early on to really drive home the fact that she thematically has no control.
    • How could this have been improved? (again, my advice is my opinion, and no one likes unsolicited advice, yada yada):
      • When Rin spoke with the pirate queen, I would have had Rin lose control of her temper. The queen quickly calms Rin down by waving opium in Rin’s face. Rin, being a junkie, takes the drugs and gets high right on the spot. In this story, opium is the deus-ex-machina McGuffin which turns off magic, making shaman helpless. This shows that Rin doesn’t control a) her rage and b) her addictions. And it shows that the queen thoroughly controls Rin by exploiting Rin’s internal weakness. This emphasizes the themes of self control vs external control.
    • I prefer my version, because it further emphasizes the story’s themes while also being more ‘true’ to the character of Rin. It emphasizes the character traits we saw in book 1: Rin’s extreme self-motivation (ie her anger and flames), and self-destruction (ie her anger and flames and addiction), and making them into vice and not virtue.

Notes from the 8 hour mark

  • Rin and the Cike attack the empress, and completely fail at killing her. I like how the Empress is presented. Where the shaman of the Cike barely control the magic of their gods and are thus going insane, the empress is so thoroughly in tune with her goddess that she is both completely in control of her powers AND sane.
    • This makes the Empress seem very intimidating. I wonder if her mind has been completely taken over by that of the goddess, and that is why she’s sane?
    • I find the Empress to be a super compelling villain. She’s still too much of an enigma for my taste. What are the limits of her power? If Rin could blow up an island, and the Empress is more magically powerful than Rin, then why doesn’t the Empress just take over the world?
  • Rin and the Cike barely escape with their lives, rescuing the Dragon Warlord in the process. The civil war is kicked off, north vs south.
  • Let me take a moment to talk about Rin’s character arc in this book. So far I’m very impressed by it.
    • It’s revealed that Rin’s lost her magic. This is an… interesting turn of events. I have two potential problems with this.
      • On one hand, I find this kinda eye-rolly. It’s a trope that when a character grows too powerful, the author of a book/TV series depowers the character so the author can once again write compelling stories about that character. In book 1 Rin was so powerful she blew up a freaking island nation, so we’re officially at the point where Rin is so powerful that she can’t just deus-ex-machina phoenix magic away her problems
      • Second, part Rin’s character arc in this book is the fact that Rin suffers from loss-of-control due to the phoenix god invading her mind. By removing the phoenix god from the equation, you risk removing this theme from Rin’s character arc. I found this theme compelling, so by just straight up deleting it the author risks me not being compelled by this story.
    • That said, I think I like this plot twist.
      • By stripping Rin of her magic, Rin is forced to succeed based on the merits of her personality/drive and not by deus-ex-machina firepower. At the end of book 1, when Rin literally blew up a small continent, I was left concerned that her power level was escalating way too fast. It is exactly that sort of power level escalation which the trope of stripping the protagonist of their power is meant to address.
      • Second, because the author tied the block on her magic to her love/admiration/chip on her shoulder vis a vis Altan, the block on her magic has authentic emotional stakes. Rin has it in her power to reject the magical block at any time; all she has to do is have an emotional revelation (realizing Altan was a bit trash to her). But because Rin is so singleminded/not introspective, she realistically can’t reject the emotional block on her magic. That’s good character storytelling, integrating plot into characterization.
      • So when Rin finally does reject her toxic love of Altan, she’ll finally be in an emotionally healthy condition. Because she’s emotionally healthy, she’ll (potentially) be able to form a stable and in-control relationship with the phoenix god, thus resolving her out-of-control magic problems too. The magical block on Rin’s magic (potentially) is the just the crutch she needs to further both of Rin’s ‘toxic love with Altan’ and ‘can’t control herself because of the phoenix’ character arcs.
      • So… yeah. I’m willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt on this one. (I do find it a bit weird that Rin’s having a ‘rejecting toxic love’ character arc with a love interest who is already dead, but hey the book is good so I’ll read it. Makes me wonder if Altan is going to come back to life by the end of the book.)
    • As of right now, I’m really enjoying Rin’s character arc in this book. If this holds up, I think Rin’s emotional journey in this book might be one of my favorite of the year. I hope Rin gets to have a healthy emotional relationship at some point, because as of right now she wouldn’t know a healthy relationship if it hit her in the face.
    • I am a bit curious, though. Early on Rin’s primary character arc was presented to be her struggling with addiction/struggling with the phoenix god. Abandoning that character arc so abruptly feels… curious. Addiction doesn’t just go away. Hopefully the author will treat this subject well.

Notes from the 15 hour mark (aka just over halfway)

  • At moments I’m impressed with the author’s prose. Her prose isn’t aesthetically pretty a la McKillip or Kay or Rothfuss, but it has moments of being fucking intense. I like it.
  • Rin’s struggling under the command of Nezha’s annoying brother. Because her magic’s been sealed away she’s lost her value to the army, and is now struggling to find a purpose. The Cike as a whole is struggling to find a purpose in this war… climaxing in the Cike being dissolved by Nezha’s brother and Rin demoted.
    • This is an interesting development. I liked it, because it reinforces the theme of Rin’s powerlessness and fall from grace. For her to regain power, she has to grind out military respect the hard way: winning battles, following orders, and hard work. She can’t cheat her way to authority via magic. A+ use of a trope by the author. Honestly should have happened sooner.
  • Nezha’s brother is portrayed as being simultaneously competent but rash, a clever leader but also a leader who makes mistakes. He has his father and the Espenians driving him to make stupid decisions, in an attempt to prove himself. And it comes at a cost, when his fleet is slain by mines and in a battle. I am 85% confident that he’s going to die by the end of the book, hoisted on his own petard.
    • I like that he’s willing to treat Rin like shit. While I think he’s a bad person for ambitiously taking risks with his army for the sake of advancing his career, he serves an important narrative function. He’s Rin’s narrative foil, the thing she is trying to avoid becoming… which is why I think he’s going to die, to prove that it would be wrong for Rin to think more about her career than her individual soldiers.
    • Going back to the theme of being controlled by outside forces vs controlling yourself with discipline, by stripping Rin of command of the Cike, he’s forcing her to regain her personal discipline. All that she has left is herself, so self-improvement is all she can do.
  • One thing I’m iffy about in this book is the Espenians (Hespenians? I don’t know how to spell it, I’m listening to the audiobook.). The fact that they’re poking and prodding Rin, trying to come to the root of her magic, using phrenology and race-logic is gross. And that’s the author’s point, to provide a cultural commentary on the contemporary race-logic prevalent at the historical period.
    • Race-logic and phrenology and whatever is a real-world problem which is still culturally important, even to this day. I get that the author wants to interrogate this problem, for the sake of interrogating today’s society. That is good, and I respect the author’s art-as-politics. I even agree with her attempt.
    • My problem is that this issue of art-as-politics seems kinda shoehorned in from a narrative and thematic level. Let me explain.
      • In short, adding racism as a theme carries a lot of real-world baggage. To explore such a theme with the respect it deserves requires a lot of time and wordcount by a sensitive author. As of right now, we are halfway through the book. I find it difficult to believe that the author will be able to sensitively explore this difficult topic in the remaining half of the book. I fear that adding racism as a theme is opening a massive can of worms on top of everything else.
      • Now, I’m only at the halfway point of this book. I concede that it is entirely possible for the author to explore the theme of racism in the rest of the book.
        • For example, the author could easily discuss anti-Mugenese or anti-hinterlander racism by the Nikanese.
      • I’m worried that with so many themes, the author will struggle to provide fulfillment for all of them by the end of the novel.
        • Bear in mind that themes aren’t just literary professors being arcane, trying to find meaning in books which aren’t really there: themes can be both foreshadowing and Chekhov’s Guns, promising readers certain outcomes in their books.
        • Readers who don’t get what they’re promised aren’t happy readers. Most readers won’t consciously realize that themes are present in a book, but a lot of them will realize something is missing if themes don’t have proper resolution.
  • One thing I liked was how the the Espenian white people took a pseudo-scientific approach to magic, merging it with religion to create a vaguely culty/inquisitiony plotline.
    • This plotline did a good job of expanding the feel of the scope of the setting. In the first book, I felt that Nikon was the entire world. With the addition of these Espenian characters who’ve been all around the world persecuting magic-users, the world feels far larger.
    • Second, I’ll give the author credit: she did a good job of providing both a positive and a negative example of the religious Maker lunatics.
      • When writing a minority character in your book it’s important to include more than one example of that minority so the reader doesn’t automatically think that ‘all members of this minority are exactly like this singular character.’ So by providing both the super racist Sister Petra and the less-racist Albert as characters, the author avoids making all Makerites seem the same.
    • I liked how it seemed as though at points Rin was receptive to their missionary work, and she almost wanted to be converted. You can understand why Rin, after a year of listening to the mad taunting of the phoenix god, would be receptive to the word of a pacifist god.
    • One thing I would have liked which wasn’t there, though, was an atheist Espenian. Going back to what I said above about providing multiple examples of a minority, we’re shown multiple examples of religious Espenians, but no examples of irreligious Espenians.
  • I want to talk about when the protagonists go to the Kitraeds and are captured by the Chaggan’s people.
    • We get some insight into the origin of the Trifecta, including the Empress. This is good, because earlier I was complaining about how much of an enigma the Empress is. Still, she’s mostly an enigma.
    • When Rin arrives, she’s cured of her magical curse by a Mongolian-expy shaman. Basically, the Kitraed shaman gives Rin a spirit-journey where she confronts her negative memories with Altan. Together, they exorcise Rin’s negative memories and expel Altan’s hold over her psyche.
      • While I expected this turn of events, of Rin confronting and defeating Altan’s memories, I did not really buy that she was able to do it. To confront and defeat her toxic relationship with Altan, she needed to develop more inner strength/self confidence/discipline. Simply put, the halfway point of the book is way too early to resolve such a thematically important plotline.
      • Also, I didn’t really like the Sorkan Sira. I think the problem I had with her was the fact that the Kitraed culture wasn’t explored in greater detail. If the Sorkan Sira’s culture was explored more, I would have liked her more.
      • This scene does play into the theme of ‘being controlled by outside forces vs inner discipline giving you freedom.’ Rin is controlled by outside force of the Empress’s venom, which manifests as Rin’s inner flaw of her guilt regarding Altan’s death, while inner discipline is her rejecting the guilt associated with Altan’s death. This is really neat, because the outside force of the venom plays into her inside flaw of her remorse and self-doubt, doubly emphasizing the theme.
    • When there’s a brief civil war in the Kitraed camp and the Sorkan Sira is killed, the Cike member Kara is also killed. I liked this turn of events. It’s very important when writing a fight scene to have consequences for that fight. Kara’s death is a very authentic consequence for this brief battle, and also adds a negative affect to Rin reclaiming her magic and defeating the seal.
  • Earlier I mentioned how I was afraid this book would be very misery-centric. Well, good news! Rin and the crew had a scene where they shared bean buns and just chatted. That is exactly the sort of light and fluffy scene which is needed to counteract the misery of the book and add nuance to the storytelling.
  • And finally before I finish taking notes for this section, I think the plotlines/themes which aren’t working for me.
    • Rin detoxed off opium very early in the book, and thereafter she didn’t need continuous therapy to maintain her sobriety. I thought addiction would be a major storyline in this story, but it’s thus far only a minor storyline.
    • Rin isn’t as reckless and prone to fighting as I would expect her to be. I mentioned earlier that I wanted her to fight either the pirate queen or the Dragon Warlord. Same, I wanted her to fight Nezha’s older brother when he demoted her. Same for Chaggan’s rather rude relatives who took her captive. Same for the racist Espenians who attacked her and then poked and prodded her. If Rin is true to her reckless, violent characterization, she should have attacked one or more of these people.
    • I am somewhat concerned that Rin resolved her Altan plotline too soon in the story as well, though we’ll see if it comes back again later.

Notes from the 20 hour point. Only 4 hours left!

  • Rin’s regained her magic, and now Kitay is helping her understand the limits of her newfound power.
    • I liked this turn of events. Kitay helped her regain her magic via a magical ritual (a magical ritual better known as ‘The Power of Friendship’), and now their platonic relationship is being further explored. With their friendship, we’re getting a better sense of Kitay. I like him; he’s really smart and uses his intelligence to create nonstandard solutions to problems. He even seems sweet on a personality/emotional level.
    • Later on Kitay builds a set of Icarus-like wings so Rin can fly, which is a clever use of Rin’s magic. This leads to another scene of non-misery, where Rin has an epiphany while she’s flying Rin realizes that she’s been thinking too small for the entire book. Yes, she’s on the losing side of the war. But she has the power of her god on her side. And with that power, anything is possible.
  • They return to HQ, and get the bad news that Nezha’s brother is dead (I’m sure we’re all broken hearted about his loss). (However I’m not confident that he’s actually dead as we haven’t seen his dead body.)
    • What follows is a refugee sequence of scenes, where Rin catches up with her family from back in Rooster province. We realize how much Rin has grown from book 1 in this series. Her adoptive ‘aunt’ is still a bit of a b*tch, which is no surprise. What is a surprise is that her adoptive brother has grown up, and is very resentful towards Rin.
    • Including this scene here helps reinforce the theme about toxic relationships, as Rin has/had a very toxic relationship with her old adoptive family. But also she’s forced to contend with the fact that SHE has also inflicted a toxic relationship back on her younger brother, by completely abandoning him to his mother.
    • Adding this subplot reinforces the theme of the tragedy of war. Refugees fleeing from conflict, pulling up their roots and starving to death in foreign lands, is a good theme to explore in a grimdark novel.
    • That said, unless the refugee plotline comes up again later in this book it seems a bit fluffy. The book is rushing towards it’s climax; adding yet another sub-plot to this narrative so late in the game feels like it’s bogging things down, slowing down the narrative. I personally would have cut this plotline in edits in order to reduce the wordcount of the novel. But who knows! Maybe the author will make this plotline feel more important by the end of the book.
  • Rin and Nezha shout at one another.
    • Nezha’s a secret shaman, having been inflicted with shamanism against his will. He rejects shamanism.
    • Rin wants him to embrace his shamanism, because he would be a valuable military asset.
    • They fight. Rin calls him a coward. The sexual tension is quite impressive. I’m getting Zuko vibes off Nezha.
    • If they don’t bang by the end of the book I’ll be surprised. Just saying.
  • We learn that the Snake Warlord, AKA the only warlord besides the Dragon Warlord who has any characterization at all, betrayed the Republic and rejoined the Empress. I’m shocked, I tell you. Shocked.
    • Okay, I’ll come out and say it. The author did NOT do a good job of describing all the warlords. She gave characterization only to the two warlords who had plot-relevance. Because the author only bothered to characterize two warlords (Dragon and Snake), I could single out which were the important ones. The Dragon Warlord was given important plot stuff to do, so I guessed that the Snake Warlord would have important plot stuff to do by dint of the fact that the author also gave him special treatment.
    • It was obvious that the Snake would do something plot-important before the end of the book. I didn’t know what plot-thing he would do, but betraying the Republic wasn’t unexpected. Because it wasn’t unexpected, I’m not emotionally invested in his betrayal. Because I’m not emotionally invested in his betrayal, this plot point doesn’t really work for me on a narrative level.
    • In my opinion, the author should have deleted all the extraneous warlords and just have Snake and Dragon be the only warlords to be present in the story. That way I couldn’t single out Snake for being plot-important based on the fact that the author went out of her way to characterize him while not characterizing the other warlords.
  • And my final note for this section, there are too many side characters. Between Nezha, Chaggan, Karra, Dragon Warlord, Jinha, Explosives Guy, Kitay, Badass Archer Girl With Issues, and all the random members of the Cike whose names I’ve forgotten, there are just too many of them.
    • I feel like I’m saying this a lot, but credit to the author where it’s due, the author is doing a very good job of describing her characters. All of them are compelling, and have individual personalities. I complain about this a lot in my different reviews, but in a lot of fantasy books that the side characters aren’t particularly interesting or well characterized. The author largely doesn’t have that problem. I mostly like the side characters in this book.
    • However, I’m struggling keeping all these characters straight. There’s just too many of them.
    • Most the characters are good, well characterized. The author clearly worked hard in making them. But with so many of them, I’m having a hard time remembering all of their character arcs, all of their sub-plots. Here’s some examples.
      • Nezha has his ‘hates being a shaman’ sub plot.
      • Venka has her post-trauma sub plot.
      • Chaggan has Altan as his sub-plot, and also the twinning sub-plot.
      • Kitay has his ‘struggling to prove he’s a good leader when everyone thinks he’s only book smart’ sub plot.
      • The Dragon Warlord has his ‘am I a true Republican, or am I causing a civil war to become the next Emperor?’ sub plot.
    • And those are only the sub plots which I remember. I’m sure there are other sub-plots which went over my head. This book is jam packed with plot and characterization, and I’m speed reading it so I’m sure that I missed stuff.
    • I wish this was less jam-packed. I usually rail against books containing fatty and slow sections, but good gods this book is tightly paced and structured. Give me a breather.
  • Oh, and I thought Rin destroying the trident was a nice bit of symbolism, showing that Rin really does reject Altan. Moving on…

My notes after finishing the book

  • The book ended pretty much how I expected it to, with one or two surprising twists.
    • The Dragon Warlord betraying Rin was well foreshadowed throughout the book, so when he threw her to the wolves it made perfect sense.
    • The Hespenians taking Rin captive and killing the other shamans was a little more surprising, but not out of the blue.
      • After Rin was taken captive, I expected the book to end on a cliffhanger of her about to be sent back to the lab to be dissected. I kinda wish it did end there, that would be a great way to end the book.
    • Nezha stabbing Rin in the back… was not entirely expected. I seriously thought they were about to bone down, but nope! He put another sort of shaft into her. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) (Also I fully expect him to have a redemption arc in book 3.)
      • I knew something bad would happen between them. I anticipated them having a major falling out going into book 3, with Nezha siding with his father and Rin going against his father. I didn’t expect an assassination attempt.
    • The pirate queen coming full circle at the end of the story resolves the problem I had with her inclusion at the beginning of the story.
    • Rama? Rasa? Explosives guy died, as well as the rest of the Cike being killed, upped the stakes for the next book. Rin’s on her own now, with only Kitay (and Venka? I think she survived) left as backup. Also fox dude and the doctor, they were safely tucked aside at the beginning of the book.
    • The fight with Thalen was good.
    • The fight with the Empress was very thematic. Rin lost her first battle with the Empress because of her unresolved Issues surrounding Altan. Now that she’s resolved those issues, the Empress was little more than a speedbump, which is good. It shows Rin’s growth arc. Also we get still more reveals about the history of the Trifecta, and the reveal that the Hesperians were the bad guys all along.
    • The book wraps up with Rin completing her transformation into a leader. She’s been burned too many times following poor leaders, so now it’s her turn to be a poor leader and to go around and get her soldiers killed. So I called it saying that she’d become a warlord.
    • The theme of toxic relationships gets REALLY doubled down on with Nezha does his whole stabby stabby bit.
    • The theme of self-control vs external control was played into when the Dragon Warlord handed her over to the inquisition to be dissected, and they used drugs to subdue her. Not hte best conclusion to this thematic arc, but also not the worst.
    • The theme of racism gets explored with the reveal that the villains of the next book will be the Dragon Warlord (aka the lighter skinned North Nikan people) and the white Hespenians and their Eugenics bullshit, vs the darker skinned Southern Nikanese people who Rin leads.
  • This was a high stakes, tense act. I was gripped by the plot and didn’t quit reading after I started. Even after Rin won the war against the Empress and we entered a time of relative peace, I was still so much on the edge of my seat that I couldn’t quit reading. Well done to the author, this was a very taught and compelling section of the story.

My thoughts on the plot

  • I’ll start with the theme of toxic relationships is raised again and again and again throughout the book. First, with Rin’s toxic relationship with the queen. Then Rin’s toxic relationship with Altan. Then it’s raised with Nezha’s toxic relationship with his father the Dragon Warlord and his brother. Then it’s Rin’s toxic relationship with her aunt. Then her toxic relationship with Nezha and the Dragon Warlord, when they betray her. Again and again, this theme comes up throughout the story, woven into multiple characters and plotlines. This is elegant storytelling.
    • This theme goes deeper than just that. It represents Rin’s lack of healthy relationships throughout her life, and her reliance of Kitay and Nezha as her bastion of strength in a wild sea. So when Nezha betrays her at the end, it really hits home how much of a betrayal this is, because of the theme.
  • Another theme is Rin’s powerlessness in the face of forces controlling her/Rin taking control of her life.
    • The pirate queen controls her through drugs. Then the Empress controls Rin through magic. Then Rin’s powerless when the Kitraeds control her by threatening to kill Kitay. Then the Dragon Warlord controls her by imprisoning her and handing her over to the Espenians. This theme is elegantly woven into the plot, driving home Rin’s helplessness, her being overwhelmed by fate.
    • This theme represents Rin’s lack of self-control when it comes to drugs and her own rage. I did not think this theme was as well implemented as the theme of toxic relationships (I thought Rin needed to relapse once or twice in a big way), but by and large this theme worked. At the end, Rin escaping her helpless situation of being captured by the Espenians sorta evokes Rin triumphing over her inner doubts caused by her drug abuse/emotional problems.
  • The final major theme was racism. Throughout the book, this theme feels kinda tacked on. Racism as a theme isn’t as thoroughly utilized in this story as it should have been.
    • The theme of racism isn’t elegantly woven into the plot. This theme pops up whenever the white people enter the plot, and disappears whenever the white people leave the plot. There is a minor use of racism as a theme when some of the Nikanese people talk about the hinterlanders (known better as the Kitraeds), but it’s such an afterthought I hardly count it.
      • This theme represents Rin’s deep-seated loathing/inferiority resulting from her time in school in Sinegarde, where she was the poor girl and could have gotten kicked out at a moment’s notice if the rich people wanted her gone.
      • Rin even had a conversation with Nezha where she flat out told him that she hated him for this very reason. Nezha told a story about how the aristocrats were carefully crafted, while poor people like Rin were made out of mud.
      • Unfortunately (for me at least), white people eugenics isn’t symbolically evocative of Rin’s deep seated loathing for the aristocrats of Nikan.
      • This theme also echoes her PTSD after her time as a lab rat for the Mugenese. And while white people eugenics is evocative of her PTSD lab rat time in the previous book, something about this didn’t click.
    • I feel rude saying this, but this theme feels random and tacked on, added for the purpose of making the Espenian villains seem despicable. Yes, this book is supposed to be a historically inspired novel, and yes, a lot of white people back then were into eugenics bullshit and cultural superiority and hegemonic cultural colonization. This topic was a valid topic of discussion for this book, because art is politics. The author just didn’t pull off this theme. It needed more integration throughout the plot, similar to how ‘toxic relationships’ and ‘in control vs being controlled’ was integrated into every storyline.
  • One other last thing about the Hespenians which bugged me. The story beat of Rin killing the Hespenian rapist struck me as sloppy storytelling.
    • I can only speculate why the author included this story beat. Was it to make the Hespenians seem that much worse? Was it solely to act as the catalyst for Rin’s arrest later in the story? Was it to make the book seem that much more bleak? For me, on all three counts it didn’t work.
    • I’ll start off with a plot hole I spotted. Why did Rin drag his body halfway across town to dispose of it? She is literally a walking crematorium. She could have destroyed his body on the spot. She roasts people all the time; I don’t see why this time she decided to dispose of the body the hard way instead of the easy way.
    • If the rape scene was included to make this book seem that much more grimdark and bleak, I personally do not find gratuitous rape in books to be compelling. Yes, this book is supposed to be historically evocative, and yes, rape does happen in real world history and war. But this rape scene is tacked into the story with no forewarning, and is forgotten about almost immediately afterward. It has almost no emotional resonance, save for a brief bit with Venka. Rape isn’t really a theme in this book.
    • If the rape was included to provide an excuse for the Espenians to take Rin captive after she killed the rapist, they didn’t need an excuse. They were portrayed as anti-shaman. Rin’s a shaman. They had their excuse.
    • This scene could have been removed from the book, and the manuscript would only need a handful of changes to adapt to that change. That means this scene was pretty unimportant.
  • And finally, my overall thoughts.
    • I liked the plot in the abstract. A civil war where the heroes are on the losing side until the very end. The protagonist had to dig deep, overcome her inner flaws, in order to triumph in the end. But in the end it’s revealed that the real bad guys were the protagoinst’s allies all along, and she’s captured and nearly killed.
    • I had some trouble with a few of the individual story beats. In particular,
      • I felt as though the Altan-guilt plotline resolved too soon,
      • the re-learning fire occurred too soon,
      • The addiction plot resolved WAY too soon,
      • and the Hespenians seemed mostly irrelevant to the plot, as if they were included solely to introduce them as they’re the main villains in the next book.

I had a number of small problems with the plot, but my general theory is that it is better to have tried and failed rather than to not try at all. (And besides, the author didn’t fail.)


Pacing and Structure

This book was fast paced. From the start, the book had no mellow moments of introspection or contemplative worldbuilding. This book is all GO GO GO GO. This is good, in that it made the book a fast read, giving a sense of urgency and drive to the storytelling. This is bad, in that it sacrificed some of the tranquility a slower paced story could provide, denying the story more of a sense of patience and elegance and larger scope.

Different people like differently paced stories. I like my stories to walk the line between slow and fast. Slow enough to give the book a sense of timelessness, and fast enough to make me want to read it all in one sitting. This book was all fast, all plot, all action, and almost none of the whimsy and grace I like in a slow book.

I had a lot of trouble with the structure of book 1 in the series. The structure of this book, book 2, was much better. Almost every scene felt like it was stuffed full with plot point after plot point, so that every scene was vital to the final conclusion. This book’s structure is all about Rin’s personal journey from being a wild, burning out soldier devoted to killing the Empress, to being a tame and patient soldier by the end of it who spares the Empress’s life, and now has to scheme her way to replace the Empress.

If you take a step back and look at Rin’s character arc in this novel, it appears perfectly structured on the surface. But when I look close to her character arc, I’m left with confusion.

  • Rin detoxed from opium at the beginning of the book, but she never relapsed in a big way, even after her enemies used opium against her. She SHOULD have relapsed.
  • A major theme was Rin struggling against her guilt for failing to save Altan’s life in book 1. She conquored this internal struggle… but that triumph was halfway through the book. Why wasn’t this triumph at the very end of the book, so it had extra emotional impact?
  • Rin was consistently portrayed as being reckless and hating to be governed by her superiors, but she frequently is displayed as not only eagerly obeying orders but also being so gullible that she winds up being used as a schlub by her superiors. A character can’t both hate being controlled by her superiors, and also be so trusting of her superiors that she’s made into a patsy by them. That combo thematically doesn’t fit.

To wrap up about structure, I must salute several narrative beats the author used.

  • Rin defeating the Empress was entirely dependent on the character development of Rin triumphing over her own inner demons vis-a-vis Altan guilt. That’s good structure as well as character dev.
  • Same with Rin escaping jail @ the end- she used her friendship-is-magic powerup she has with Kitay. The book started with Kitay hating Rin, but it ended with Kitay saving Rin. That’s good structure.
  • Rin being betrayed by Nezha was ever so subtly foreshadowed throughout the novel, but was nonetheless mostly unexpected. We start the book trusting him completely, we trust him completely throughout the book… right up until the end when he betrays our trust and backstabs Rin. That’s good structure.

Characterization

  • Rin
    • Man, I wanted to love Rin’s characterization in this book. She’s the protagonist in this close 3rd person story, so this book is really all about her. We got to know her really well, in all her nuance. I’ll start with the good, and move onto the bad.
      • The Good
        • In concept, I liked her struggle against opium addiction. In this series, shamanistic power derives from the gods, and the godly realm is best accessed by using hallucinogenic drugs. As a consequence, shaman are tempered on a knife’s edge of infinite cosmic power and addiction/overdosing. Rin went through a convincing withdrawal process at the beginning of the book, which I liked and found compelling.
        • I liked how Rin’s main character arc in this book was her struggle to grow out of Altan’s shadow. Altan was a powerful figure, and made the plot orbit him in the first book. In this second book, we’re feeling the gravitational waves caused by his sudden death. ALL of the characters are rippling because he died, Rin most of all. The Empress using Rin’s puppydog love for Altan against Rin was a genius plotline. And Rin ultimately rejecting Altan (in the form of melting down the trident) was a good bit of symbolism.
        • I liked the sorta-romance between her and Nezha. Both are such awkward teens that it felt authentic that they had an awkward romance together. I liked how he betrayed her in the end, because it reinforced the gulf of experience between the two of them.
      • The Bad
        • I wanted Rin to struggle more against her opium addiction throughout the novel. She went cold-turkey early in the book in a dramatic and compelling scene, but she never relapsed. I wanted that relapse, I wanted her to have to detox again and again, gradually for longer periods of time until at the very end she cuts herself off once and for all.
          • Instead, she went cold turkey early, then was repeatedly exposed to opium again and again. The fact that she didn’t relapse was a) unrealistic and b) not compelling. It is more compelling to watch a character struggle to succeed despite failing.
          • If you’ve ever read Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson, one of the repeated themes in that story is picking yourself back up again after you backslide, after you fail. Instead of blaming other people and outside forces for your failures, you accept the blame and try to do better in the future. That’s what makes the characters in that book excellent. Rin never backslid back into her addiction, and that’s a pity.
        • I liked 99% of the Altan plotline… until it’s very climax in the dream sequence. I feel as though Rin didn’t quite earn her overcoming Altan. One or two more scenes were needed beforehand, where Rin is forced to admit that Altan was only using her as a tool, manipulating her love to make her obey. That scene didn’t quite happen, so her overcoming Altan didn’t quite pay off completely for me.
        • I wanted Rin to struggle more in finding meaning in herself after she lost her magic. Rin defined herself as the fire-wielding Speerlie, so when she lost the fire I wanted her personal identification of self to self-destruct. I wanted her to have an identity crisis, go on an opium bender, nearly OD, clean herself up and then work hard to re-earn everyone’s respect. This was a missed opportunity. Instead, after Rin lost her magic and was demoted, she instantly started working harder, trying to re-earn everyone’s respect.
        • Rin’s personality seemed pulled in two directions. On one hand, Rin is supposed to be independent and hates being given orders (see when Rin complains when Nezha’s idiot brother gives foolish orders vis a vis the fleet). On the other hand, Rin likes being given orders and following orders (see when Rin mindlessly obeys Altan in book 1 and the Dragon Warlord in book 2. Also the entire sequence of scenes where Rin’s a foot soldier after she loses her magic, and she feels relieved to be relieved of command of the Cike).
          • I think the author was going for something like ‘Rin consciously likes being brash and bold, but deep down she likes to obey.’ If this is the author’s intent, it didn’t really work. Rin came off as inconsistently characterized.
        • More on this theme of Rin’s personality being pulled in two directions, we have Rin on one hand being driven by rage and recklessness, but on the other hand she very rarely acts recklessly and impulsively.
          • I think Rin lost control of herself only once in the story, when early on she burned the fox shaman. That’s good, showing not telling.
          • But that’s it. She never again lost control of her magic. Early on, I wanted her to attack the pirate queen when the queen refused to give Rin supplies. Later, I wanted her to attack the Dragon Warlord to establish her dominance. Again, it seemed out of character that she didn’t. I wanted her to attack Nezha’s brother when he ordered the fleet into a risky position. I wanted her to attack the Kitraeds. I wanted her to attack the Hesperians.
          • Rin so rarely acted impulsively and recklessly, that the narrative’s insistence that Rin is impulsive and prone to incineration seemed like an informed attribute as opposed to an actual attribute. In other words, after the first time we were shown she was violent, were were never shown it again. This, when combined with Rin’s predilection for obeying orders, made a supposedly willful character seem quite docile. Maybe this was the author’s intent, I don’t know.
    • Finishing off about Rin, I think Rin’s personality worked for me about 85%. With a little more effort, a few more scenes of Rin being out of control violent or out of control addicted would have done a lot to make me like her more. Rin only needed 15% more oomph to really click for me.
  • Nezha
    • By and large Nezha really clicked with me. He seemed well motivated, and I understood his actions. As I mentioned before, I’m getting major Zuko vibes off of him. He’s your aristocratic best friend with father issues… until all of the sudden loyalty to his father causes him to betray you. Whenever he is on-screen, his characterization is consistant.
    • Could Nezha have been better portrayed? I think so. Maybe we could have had a scene where Rin really interrogates Nezha’s loyalty to his family. Have Rin ask Nezha what it would take for him to realize that his father might not have the best intensions. My biggest problem isn’t consistancy of characterization, but a lack of introspection. Sometimes the best way to make a character jump off the page is to have them question their ideals. Nezha never questioned his loyalty to his family, which held him back a bit.
  • Kitay
    • Kitay had a minor character arc early on, going on from being anti-Rin to pro-Rin. The catalyst for that change was the discovery that the Empress killed his father. This is a very light character arc, largely inconsequential to the overarching plot.
    • Did Kitay need a larger character arc? I don’t think so. He was the quintessential supporting character. He had some character growth early on, but after that he played his role as the genius tactician quite well.
  • Venka
    • She had a tiny, tiny character arc where she established her independence from her family. Her family disowns her for losing her virginity after being raped, and now Venka is left to pick up the shattered pieces of her life in the aftermath of both rape and being disowned. She picks up the bow again and returns to being a soldier, trauma be damned.
    • You know those really, really stinky cheeses which you can smell from a mile away but nonetheless really enjoy eating? Venka is like that to me. Her personality oozes off the page. Venka is an utterly unique character whose trauma has sunk into her bones, has damaged her, and she’s now recovering from that trauma without forgetting it. Great, compelling reading.
    • She works well as another supporting character. She might be my favorite in the book.
  • Chaggan and Karra (Qara? Qarra?)
    • I liked Chaggan less than the above. His usefulness to the plot seems mainly as a deus ex machina for shamanic knowledge. The second he’s no longer required, he’s deleted from the plot. I expect he’ll come back in the next book.
    • He also seemed to have been in love with Altan, though that plot point seemed mostly tacked on and be irrelevant to the outcome of the story.
    • Karra’s death served as a ‘sacrifice’ needed to counterbalance the ‘blessing’ of Rin regaining her magic. This plot device worked in upping the stakes some, but that sacrifice was reduced in emotional resonance because Karra isn’t exactly the most ‘stinky cheese’ of characters.
    • I think both Chaggan and Karra needed a little more oomph.
  • The Cike
    • This includes Explosives Guy and the two shaman who are killed at the end.
    • These three felt mostly like afterthoughts for most of the story. Sure, they had their narrative uses early on, but as the story went on they got more and more sidelined. When the Cike was officially disbanded and everyone went their separate ways, we lost touch with most of these guys. When the Hesperians showed up in force, the shaman were forced to go into hiding, reducing their plot relevance still further.
    • In the end, when all three of them died. Going back to my comment about a ‘sacrifice’ needing to counterbalance a ‘blessing,’ their deaths were the counterbalance to Rin’s freedom. I felt that these guys were so much missing from the main plot for most of the story that by the time they died I had lost touch with them and didn’t care about them as much anymore. I didn’t mourn them because for so long they’d been largely gone. In other words, they weren’t as big of a sacrifice as they could have been.
  • The Dragon Warlord
    • I really liked him as an antagonist. I think the author did a fantastic job with him, making him just dubious enough that you doubt his intentions but also honorable enough that you can believe he truly believes in democracy. Him selling out Rin in the end (while expected) really was a kick in the kidneys.
  • The Empress
    • I liked her as an antagonist. Early on she’s an impossible barrier in the way of victory, manifesting Rin’s emotional turmoil into unbeatable obstacles. But as Rin overcame the emotional turmoil left in Altan’s wake, the Empress’s magic of turning emotions into weapons stopped working against her. This is a great conceit for a character.
    • She was presented as the big bad for most of the story… except she’s beaten before the climax. It’s then revealed that she was the fake big bad, and the Dragon Warlord was the real big bad all along! The author handled this twist well. I expected it, but only because the author did a good job of foreshadowing.
    • I think we got just enough of her backstory to keep her mysterious, while also telling the reader enough to keep the reader curious and empathize with her.
  • The Hesperians
    • Swing and a miss. I suppose it’s too much to ask to have three compelling antagonists in a novel. Overall I didn’t like them from a narrative direction. The author did such a wonderful job creating nuanced villains in this book (between the Empress and the Dragon Warlord). In comparison the Hespenians felt like the Racist Spanish Inquisition.
    • This is a book about the fallout of colonialism, and the author portrayed the colonizers as being unrighteous and evil. Unfortunately (for me at least) the author failed to capture the spark of something interesting in the Hespenians. They were a boring villain.
    • In part, I think my problem is that I’ve read a book with a similar villain before, and I liked that villain better. The book is ‘The Traitor Baru Cormorant.’ The bad guys in that book were also into Eugenics and cultural superiority and colonialism and mercantile hegemony. And they were creepy. The Hespenians in this book felt like a watered down version of the Empire of Masks. Sister Petra wasn’t creepy. The Empire of Masks? They were so creepy it took me months to finish that book.
    • And that’s the problem I have with the Hespenians: thinking about them, they don’t evoke strong emotions in me. Simply put, I’m not afraid of them, I’m not creeped out by them, I’m not scared by them. I was scared of the Empress. I was scared of the Mugenese. The Hespenians, in comparison, are bland Spanish Inquisition tropes.
    • Finally, the Hespenian’s goal is to wipe out the worship of the Nikan gods. You know, the same gods who drive people insane and cause mass death and bloodshed? The gods who seem evil? When I think about the Hespenians, I think ‘Yeah, they’re colonizing assholes, yeah they murder people, but they kinda have a point that shaman shouldn’t exist. No one person should have the power to destroy an entire nation. The world probably would be better off without magic.’
    • With that last little bit of insight, it really makes the rest of the Hespenian’s characterization as being monomaniacally evil seem… shallow.
  • Overall, I think the characters were good, but not great. I was only truly impressed with Venka and the Dragon Warlord. None of the other characters were bad characters, just not great either. Rin’s characterization in particular was pulled in multiple mutually exclusive directions, resulting in her feeling a little neurotic. Rin is supposed to be kinda crazy, but neuroses isn’t the form her madness is supposed to take. It’s hard to write a character who is both independent and obedient. For me, Rin didn’t quite get over the finish line by the end of the book. To a lesser extent, a lot of the other characters suffer from a similar level of lack of polish.
  • That said, after reading this book I have affection for most of these characters (or reverse-affection for the villains, if that’s a thing). The author is clearly doing something right, because I am fond of Nezha, Kitay, Rin and the rest of the gang even though I can spot the flaws in their characterization.

Prose, Setting and Worldbuilding

  • This is a grimdark book. In my opinion, it was too grimdark.
    • When I started reading this, I was afraid this book would turn into a misery-fest. As it turns out, I was right. There is (almost) no happy in this book. Like, at all. Emotionally, thematically, there is no light to go balance the dark. Simply put, after a while I got inured to all the misery in this book. The Grimdark became normal.
    • Grimdark should never be ‘normal.’ What makes grimdark special is how much of an aberration grimdark is compared to our real life. When you overdose on grimdark, you make the aberration the new normal, and it stops being special.
    • My theory is that Grimdark should be an unexpected punch-to-the-gut because it is rare. The reader remembers that one punch because it is so rare.
      • Think about it like this: there should ALWAYS be doubt about whether a battle will go well or go bad. In that doubt between victory and defeat, there is space for the reader to both dread defeat, and earnestly hope something good will happen. There must be light to go with the dark, because in the ambiguous space between light and dark lies the potential for the author to pull off narrative gold.
    • This book violates my theory. The grimdark was never unexpected, because every scene was grimdark. There was no light to go with the dark. This book was so grimdark, bad things happened so much the book became predictably grimdark. It was so predictable that I basically guessed the outcome of the book from the 1/3 mark of the book.
      • Of course the Dragon Warlord would betray Rin, because this book is grimdark and betrayal is grimdark.
      • Of course the Snake Warlord would betray the republic, because this book is grimdark and betrayal is grimdark.
      • Of course Nezha would betray Rin, because this book is grimdark and betrayal is grimdark.
      • Of course the Cike would die by the end, because this book is grimdark and heroes dying is grimdark.
    • The author’s commitment to taking Grimdark up to 11 really has limited her storytelling potential. If the author was willing to be less grimdark her storytelling would be less predictable.
    • Let me ask you what’s scarier: knowing that a monster is lurking around the next corner, or not knowing if a monster is lurking around the next corner. I think fear lies in the not knowing.
    • This book was so consistently grimdark we always knew there was another monster waiting around the next corner. After a while, I didn’t dread what would happen next, because I knew what was coming next. As a result, I was emotionally prepared for the worst when the end of the book came because it was foreshadowed.
    • Consequently, when the twist ending of Nezha betraying Rin happened I was half-expecting it. Because the story was so bleak, my expectation was that the book would have a bleak ending. And thus the surprise twist was not as strong of a surprise as it could have been if the book overall was less bleak.
  • Next, about the author’s prose. It’s good. While her writing isn’t as aesthetically beautiful as someone like’s McKillip or Rothfuss or Guy Gavriel Kay, her prose is raw and vulnerable and earnest and powerful and intense. The author is willing to go 100% on the grimdark, and as a consequence the author is fully willing to write powerfully 100% of the time.
  • The book’s worldbuilding was a good elaboration of that told in the first story, but I admit I wanted more lore and stories about the gods and history. If you liked the first book, this was more of the same.

Final Critiques/What I Want in the Next Book

Net total, I’d give this book a B/B+. I had a great time reading it. While I personally wanted a slower paced story, I have to admit that it’s fast pacing made this a compelling read and a breeze to get through. The plot was great. The characters needed a bit of work, but overall they were good enough to be compelling in the plot.

The next book’s already written, so I can only speculate on what’s going to be in it. Specifically, I think Rin and Nezha are going to make nice and become friends again, even odds on becoming lovers. Second, I think Rin, Nezha and Kitay are going to become a second Trifecta. We’re going to find out why the original Trifecta formed (namely to fight the Hesperian invasion), and what became of the first Trifecta after their falling out. I suspect that Nezha will die, probably killed by Rin. Beyond that, I can speculate by we’re getting really down into the weeds by that point.


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