The Burning God by R.F. Kuang
November 17, 2020, from Harper Voyager
Adult grimdark fantasy
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After saving her nation of Nikan from foreign invaders and battling the evil Empress Su Daji in a brutal civil war, Fang Runin was betrayed by allies and left for dead.
Despite her losses, Rin hasn’t given up on those for whom she has sacrificed so much—the people of the southern provinces and especially Tikany, the village that is her home. Returning to her roots, Rin meets difficult challenges—and unexpected opportunities. While her new allies in the Southern Coalition leadership are sly and untrustworthy, Rin quickly realizes that the real power in Nikan lies with the millions of common people who thirst for vengeance and revere her as a goddess of salvation.
Backed by the masses and her Southern Army, Rin will use every weapon to defeat the Dragon Republic, the colonizing Hesperians, and all who threaten the shamanic arts and their practitioners. As her power and influence grows, though, will she be strong enough to resist the Phoenix’s intoxicating voice urging her to burn the world and everything in it?
Wow, R.F. Kuang really knows how to destroy a person, huh? The Poppy War trilogy has been a ride from start to finish, and The Burning God was no different. I feel like my heart has been kicked around and beaten to a pulp because of what has happened to these characters. R.F. Kuang delivers a brutal yet fulfilling ending to The Poppy War trilogy that will leave readers’ heads spinning.
First, Fang Runin, our favourite hotheaded antiheroine, who has been through so much. Rin has come so far from the orphan we see in the first book. She’s been so affected by trauma and war and beaten down–I didn’t realize she was so young, that the series has only spanned a few years at most. Rin is violent and paranoid and so full of rage and unequivocally does horrible things. I found myself, well, not entirely rooting for Rin, but hoping that there was a path out of it, somehow–hoping that there could be redemption, and the ever-sinking feeling as Rin drives herself deeper into the whirlpool of rage and violence.
Then there’s Kitay, and Kitay just makes my heart clench. He has also been beaten down so much by the events of the series, and he’s definitely changed–here he is more pragmatic and brutal, and it’s clear that being tied up with Rin mentally has affected him. The way Rin and Kitay complement each other is done so well–they balance each other out, and I loved their interactions in this book, even as it destroyed me. Nezha has always been a fascinating character, holding familial duty above everything else. Though he comes from a place of privilege, he’s been very much affected by the war too, and you can see how tired and weary he is in this book. I loved Rin’s interactions with Nezha in this book, fire and water clashing and reacting, and each Rin and Nezha interaction had me on the edge of my seat.
The Burning God, like the rest of the series, is relentless in its pace: R.F. Kuang rarely lets her characters rest, even when there isn’t any physical action going on, and the book doesn’t stop with wringing readers’ hearts out. It keeps you on your toes and drives you to the brink of exhaustion, but you can’t stop reading.
One of the things that stands out to me about The Poppy War is its running commentary on war, imperialism, history, and colonialism, and The Burning God adds to that. The world of Nikan mirrors China during its encounter with the West, and the characters have to make difficult choices when it comes to the Hesperians. This is a frighteningly stark insight into the beginnings of colonialism, and one that acknowledges the complexities of history. Kuang is an accomplished academic in addition to being an incredible fantasy author, and this series shows it well.
The Burning God was a brutal conclusion to a brutal series, but definitely one that kept me engrossed the whole way through. I’d have to say it’s one of my favourite fantasy series out there, and R.F. Kuang deserves all the praise she gets about it–it lives up to the hype as a grimdark series, and as one that is unique in the current world of fantasy. I will definitely be keeping an eye on Kuang’s future releases after I lie down and recover from this book.
content warnings | genocide, rape, war, racism, self-harm, violence, gore
representation | chinese-coded characters, characters with ptsd