I wish I liked this more than I do. There are parts I genuinely did like, mostly in the second half. And the setting, the world-building, the system of magic and so on are all really interesting. But overall, I found this an almighty slog. Note that in the rest of this review there'll probably be spoilers for the first book, The Poppy War, so watch out if that concerns you.
The tone of this book is basically the same as the latter 60% of the previous one. It's unrelentingly grim and heavy on military strategy and prolonged descriptions of battles. Now I realise I'm the dummy reading a series that isn't exactly shy about being labelled a “military fantasy”… but I still have to say it, OK. I really wanted more magic and world-building and more of those tense interactions with maybe-enemies-maybe-allies. The battle scenes, and even worse the preparation before the battle scenes, did not hold my attention well.
I'm also not enamoured with the character of Fang Runin. I was excited at the end of the first book because I thought R.F. Kuang had set her up brilliantly as a villain-protagonist, having had her murder the entire population of Mugen and all, and I couldn't wait to see how deeply Rin would embrace the darkness. For some reason in this book Rin is back to being played straight as a hero. No one gives a second thought to the morality of killing the entire civilian population of a country, but leaving most of their military alive because they were all invading your own country at the time and thus outside the reach of your massive fireball, duuuuuh. You could maybe try calling her an “antihero” because she's mean to everyone and battles with substance addiction, but her actual moral compass is never questioned (unless you count when Vaisra et al. got pissy with her for killing the rapist but their concerns were strategic, not ethical) and I really really think it should be.
So at this point, do I plan to read the last book? And the answer is, well, maybe… probably… eventually. I am intrigued if not hopeful about Rin's sudden realisation that ~*~there is power in the masses~*~… considering she seems to have no clue that there have also got to be workers and peasants in her country's north and not only in her home province… and certainly hasn't twigged that there were also workers and peasants in Mugen that she decided to genocide lmao. I don't know, look, maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised and the narrative will rebalance, with more emphasis on the evil Rin has wrought and not only on her good intentions. I know the series is from her perspective and all, but geeeeeez, everyone working against her is totes just jealous/scared of her awesome power and none of them are motivated by her callousness or destruction, huh? Let's hope that changes. If truth be told, I really want to see more of Su Daji in the final book – now there's a woman whose evil actions haven't been handwaved away because she meant well. I'd also like to see more of the “hinterlanders”, the Ketreyids, and the system of magic at play in the series – the parts of this book dealing with those things were by far my favourite. Also, more tense interactions with maybe-enemies-maybe-allies can't hurt. But mostly I'd really like to not be let down by the third book the way I was by this one, and so I can't say I've made my mind up to read it. We'll see!