R.F Kuang is a young Chinese-American writer (she’s 23 years old) who’s made waves in the historical fantasy world. She’s incredibly accomplished as an author since her books have been nominated for the Nebula Award and it’s so heart-warming to see a book about historical China be so well received and loved. It’s been on my list to read Kuang’s novels since I have a particular weakness for historical novels but I’ve been busy for a while (hence the silence here) working on academic things and other non-academic projects (more on this soon, hopefully!). I knew I wouldn’t have the time to read as well as review both of Kuang’s books by the release date, so a few weeks ago, I sent off copies of R.F Kuang’s The Poppy War and Dragon Republic to my friend Annastasia (from the Amy Tan post) to read and review.
Below is Annastasia’s review of both of Kuang’s releases.
Jessica recently sent me copies of The Poppy War (HarperVoyager, 2018) and Dragon Republic (HarperVoyager, 2019) by R.F. Kuang since I wanted to read more books by Asian American writers and she had copies of the books (thanks, Jessica!!).
The Poppy War
The Poppy War (TPW) follows Rin, an adopted daughter from the southern villages of Nikan who remarkably earns a spot in Sinegard, the country’s most prestigious military academies–a ticket out of poverty and a constricted maiden’s life. Through her vigorous training by an ostensibly deranged mentor, she finds that she possesses intrinsic powers as a shaman–an ability to communicate and channel powers of her god, the Phoenix.
Based loosely on 20th century Chinese history of a failing feudal society at the end of the Qing dynasty, the Nikara Empire is under forces that leads them with war with the Federation of Mugen. The horrors of war–famine, mass casulaties, lives reduced to numbers, rape, and resulting refugee, survivor, and post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction are evident. Rin realizes her powers were not given to her on accident, and she may use it for what she thinks is justice.
Whereas TPW follows Rin as she discovers her gifted abilities as a soldier and shaman, Dragon Republic (DR) takes the reader along Rin’s journey to find her purpose. Although DR is the second book in the trilogy, it definitely does not disappoint and keeps–if not accelerates–the pace developed by The Poppy War.
DR closely follows the history of the development of Republican China to dive deeper into complex interplays of a country trying to recover from a war yet beset by colonialism and competing Western influence. Rin continues to grapple with the horrors of war–racism, classism, genocide, mass executions–and ethics of who really wins.
Rin finds herself questioning her loyalties and friendships while engulfed in a war where ideological, religious, political, and economic control are at stake. As a commander, Rin decides to align her forces with the Dragon Warlord to overthrow the Empress and create a new Republic where civilians apparently have a direct say in their country’s leaders.
However, Rin realizes this war is not only a domestic struggle, but spans oceans. Alliances come at a price. When Rin’s abilities to call the Phoenix are threatened while serving under the Dragon Warlord, she gets a better idea of where her loyalties lay.
Thoughts on Both Books
Kuang’s use of symbolism, particularly in DR, greatly enhances the books’ connection to Chinese history and culture. In Chinese mythology, the Dragon and Phoenix are representative of a perfect balance of forces–the yin (phoenix) with the yang (dragon). So far in the trilogy Rin and her Phoenix have worked with the Dragon Warlord and his Dragon to fight for a Republic. However, Nikan still is not fully unified yet, so we’ll have to wait to see if indeed the Phoenix will perfectly balance the Dragon. Watch out, world (particularly Dragons)–the Phoenix has risen.
Overall, Kuang’s writing style is not dense and fun to read. Given the length and plot expanse between the books, it was sometimes hard to keep track of which countries corresponded to which in real life. Compared to TPW, DR’s pacing was fast due to the amount of battle scenes. Kuang’s vivid descriptions and third person narration definitely helps foreshadow key character actions, keeping the reader on their toes!
Why These Books Are Important
When Jessica said these books she had were historical fantasy, I didn’t think much of it because to be honest, I haven’t read fantasy since high school. Well, the stars must have aligned; Kuang’s works were exactly what I needed to read.
Rin, the strong, Asian, female lead taught me how to be BRAVE. She not only teaches me how to identify “cowards”, but empowers me to call it out–because I can picture myself in Rin.
As a Chinese American female around the age of Rin (and Kuang!), I can identify so much with Rin’s culture and attitudes. For example, like Rin of Nikan, my grandparents were Southerners from the rural agrarian villages of China. Northern families have looked down upon our native tongue, unsophisticated Buddhist/Daoist/Confucian traditions, and of course, short stature.
It was undoubtably incredibly freeing as I read and imagined Rin telling all these powerful gods and people to “fuck off” on almost every other page. Rin is a fierce soldier and erudite strategist who understands the world so well.
Although Rin should be praised for her bravery, readers can also draw lessons from her fears–battles she wages against herself. Rin is often afraid of admitting the truth about people; she molds several key friends into who she wants them to be, not what their actions prove them to be. She helped me realize that it takes incredible courage to admit and accept the realities of current friendships and relationships, especially when I want to hold onto previous versions.
Lastly, the historical lessons of TPW and DR could not be more relvent to today’s rise of hate crimes and race/religion-based genocide around the world. In TPW, Rin fights against all odds to rise against people who hate her skin tone, socio-economic status, and geographic background. In DR, Rin fights countries who hate her religion and race. Although both books expose the little progress across history given today’s political climate, Kuang unfortunately does not provide an allegory which solves the problem. Ironically, Rin is equally fueled by hate to drive out these forces of suppression. Nonetheless, these scary parallels to today’s current events encourage me to dig deeper into history.
If you’re looking for an adventure with a coming-of-age young adult heroine (without the teen fiction love triangles!) who fiercely understands geopolitical forces, grab yourself a copy of R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War and Dragon Republic now. I absolutely can’t wait until the last book in the trilogy comes out.