The Dragon Republic (The Poppy Wars #2), R. F. Kuang. New York: Harper Voyager, 2019.
Summary: Seeking revenge against The Empress of Nikan, Rin joins the effort of the Dragon Lord to create a republic, who seeks to enlist the support of southern warlords and a foreign power, the Hesperians.
[Note: This review includes a synopsis of the plot set up and some details that will be spoilers for those who have not read the first book in this trilogy.]
Rin and the small band of Cikes have turned into mercenaries for Moag, a pirate availing herself of the weakness of the Empire after the war. She is leading them after the loss of Altan. Rather, she is struggling to lead, remembering the devastation she wrought by calling the fire of the Phoenix and the nagging vision that it should have been she and not Altan who should have died. Her efforts to deaden the pain with opium are eroding her ability to lead. All that drives her is her desire for revenge against The Empress of Nikan.
After her last raid, a marginal success imperiled by her sighting of The Empress, she is kidnapped by Vaisra, the Dragon Warlord, sold off by Moag who recognizes her as a liability, and not one that she wants to give ships for a futile venture. He helps her shake her opium addiction and convinces her to join him in a coup effort against the Empress, after which he hopes to unite the warlords under his leadership, creating a republic instead of an empire. The coup plot fails and in the process, the Empress “seals” Rin’s ability to call the fire, injecting a “poison” that will eventually destroy her. But not yet. She retains her skills as a warrior.
The failed coup attempt doesn’t end Vaisra’s efforts. He plots a war against the Empress. This brings her alongside one time rival, and later friend, Nezha, Vaisra’s younger son, fighting together under Jinzha, his older brother. All through this story Rin struggles under her own guilt, the burden of leading the Cike, and her inability to regain her shamanistic power. She also struggles under being used as an instrument of war by Vaisra, and the probings by his allies, the Hesperians, who either would convert her or kill her. Yet her own struggle attunes her to try to help Nezha, who also struggles with an awakening awareness of his own shamanistic powers. Amid all this, she is faced with the consequences of Vaisra’s war for the people of Tikany, under the Monkey Warlord, Gurubai.
So many, including the Empress, want to use her. Increasingly, she becomes aware that it is a world where warriors like her are likely to be discarded or killed once their usefulness is past. Yet fighting wars for someone else is all she has known, and knows how to do. Not only her life, but that of those closest to her are at risk as she navigates this perilous gauntlet.
R.F. Kuang has created a story with twists and surprises as we wonder whether this instrument of the Phoenix, Rin, can rise from the ashes like her god. Whether she does or not, can she survive the forces both within and without that would tear her apart? Also, there is much unresolved at the end of this story setting up the third book in this trilogy, The Burning God.
My review of The Poppy War.