And here it is, the grand finale. After waiting longer than I’d planned to, after finishing The Poppy War, to pick up The Dragon Republic, I got my hands on this final installment as soon as I could because I needed to know how it all wrapped up. With the amount of world and plot building, in physical scope and political complexity, I was on the edge of my seat to see how Kuang brought it all to a finish point. Also, being honest here, I wanted to get to it before I forgot too many of the details!
“Rin was a monster, a murderer, a destroyer of world. Nothing but blood and ashes ever trailed in her wake. The world was a better, safer, and more peaceful place without her in it. He believed that. And yet…”
This third book picks up essentially right where the second one left off, as far as action is concerned. A few weeks have passed since Rin and Venka and Kitay escaped from Vaisra and his Dragon Republic, leaving Nezha behind as well. They’ve taken some time to lay low, treat their (myriad) wounds, and try to decide what’s next. Allying with the Southern Coalition, Rin finds (yet again) that the leaders are mostly there for their own gain and care little for saving Nikan or the people of the South. So, in a series of short term alliances and dramatic shows of force, Rin, Kitay and Venka turn to the people, especially those of Rin’s provincial home province of Tikany, who are willing to risk it all and fight for her, following her banner of violent vengeance in the quest to free Nikan. Facing the intelligence and superior firepower of the Hesperians, the deep-flowing aristocratic power of the Dragon Republic and the North, with guest spots from deposed Empress Su Daji and the Trifecta, Chaghan, and more, Rin and her Phoenix leads a blazing swath of blood and death across the country.
Phew. I mean, I thought the first two books were violent and deadly and horrific and fiery in all the ways (literal and figurative), but Kuang proved here that there’s always more… This book brought particular attention to Rin’s bloodthirstiness in a really unique way though. Up until now, she was a student or pawn or “just” in charge of the Cike…but here, here she really steps into a full warlord general sort of role, making decisions not based purely on winning a battle or merely staying alive, but in premeditated moves of power consolidation, shows of force, and in general affecting lives on scales she’s never had access to before. It was a fascinatingly written transition, because the way it played off her connection and power-drawing from the Phoenix, which had been based purely on anger/vengeance before, the cold-blooded (and sadistic) murder choices she makes in this book come, in some cases, from a very different motivation. Watching Rin come to terms with that, and reconfigure her connection with her god as a result, was while terrifyingly realistically bloodthirsty, really quite insightful and hard to turn away from.
I also really appreciated that despite these slightly more surface-level changes, Rin, at base, remains exactly who she is and has always been: ruthless. She still deals quite a bit with trauma-memories and guilt and PTSD, but has found a unique, and unsurprisingly not particularly healthy, way to deal with it that allows her to tamp it down and keep going. I appreciate this consistency of character because it would have been easy, if not true to her character, to “write” her growth into a better example of leadership. Along these same lines, the way Kuang explored the transition from war general brain to political leadership brain, the differences in wartime versus peacetime (in needs and consequences and qualifications), and if it is even possible to leave the paranoia of battle/need to keep fighting behind, was great.
As far as other character interactions are concerned, Kitay’s continued horror at and discomfort with Rin’s choices and actions is also written exactly as it should be (in my opinion, anyway), and I loved the complexity between them and their relationship that grows out of that major difference in their POVs. It was incredibly nuanced and made all the better (and it was really dang good to start) by the continued interweaving of each of their interactions with and reactions to Nezha. Plus, as the story progresses, seeing the way their trio mirrored (in many ways) the disastrous inner reality of the Trifecta was a spectacular example of the cyclical nature of history and relationships. The parallels of the three, the intricacies of dependency and need and love and betrayal, and the ways those played out so similarly, as the interdependence and power struggles and going-to-your-head of it all tears them apart from the inside out with myriad external fallout…it was all so well done. Also, the way it only takes one small moment to change trajectory had me on tenterhooks waiting to find out if they’d make all the same mistakes or if they’d choose a different path.
Some final thoughts. Goodness…this book was nonstop for the entire 24 hours of listening (yup – I went with the audiobook again because I really enjoyed the narration of the last one). The depth of detail in the war and political strategy stays top-notch. I know I’ve said this in every review so far, but it bears repeating: Kuang’s combination of twentieth century Chinese history and full-on magic/mythology (especially of Rin’s fire and the Phoenix, but also Nezha and his Dragon and, no spoilers, but some new god-connections as well) is truly some of the best writing I have ever read. There is so much depth to it all, so much detail. The continued presence of the Hesperians, their clear parallels to Western culture and technology and faith and “superiority,” also stood as a clear commentary and condemnation of the harm colonialism that was impossible not to see…and impossible to pretend it was anything other than the horror it was. I loved how Kuang also simultaneously exemplified how the native peoples weren’t (and shouldn’t have had to be) good/special/unified or “better” in any way, in order to be able to continue to live in their own traditions and beliefs. Because in the end, how were their beliefs, false unity, infighting/inequity, etc. any “worse” (read: less worthy of existing) than their oppressors’ version of those same things? Last, what a spectacular, perfect, stunning ending! I was shattered and I loved it. I was definitely slightly concerned that the ending would wrap too cleanly or would feel too perfect, considering on what a large scale Rin had smashed the existing structures to bits. But the ending was perfect – in line for her character, her relationships, her role in the world, the overall situation – it was truly the only way, it felt right in every way, and it was everything.
*deep heaving sigh* I cannot believe this trilogy is over. Kuang wrote something so special here and I loved it. The development of the world (historical fiction and high fantasy) and characters was ambitious and compelling and developed to perfection. As a reader, I both hated and loved Rin (with a lot of feeling) at the same time. And just as she destroyed and cleansed and rebirthed Nikan through Phoenix fire, I feel like I went through a similar experience while reading it. That’s the freaking skill that Kuang brought us with her writing.
A few quotes from this last book that stood out for me:
“You don’t fix hurts by pretending they never happened. You treat them like infected wounds. You dig deep with a burning knife and gouge out the rotten flesh and then, maybe, you have a chance to heal.”
“…the battles were easy. Destroying was easy. The hard part was the aftermath.”
“The point of revenge wasn’t to heal. The point was that exhilaration, however temporary, drowned out the hurt.”
“And you should know by now that when you leave your enemies alive, wars don’t end.”
“Let them think of us as dirt, Rin thought. She was dirt. Her army was dirt. But dirt was common, ubiquitous, patient, and necessary. The soil gave life to the country. And the earth always reclaimed what it was owed.”