November 17, 2020

The Burning God

By R.F. Kuang
Review by
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Few heroines have come as far as Runin Fang. She's literally crossed the entire continent of Nikan, destroyed an island, channeled the divine power of the Phoenix, killed the enemy in nearly every way imaginable, been betrayed by someone she loves, gone into hiding and come back out again. It's been a wild ride full of anger, triumph, humor and sheer willpower. In The Burning God, the third and final entry in the Poppy War trilogy, R.F. Kuang finds new ways to bring life, horror and excitement to this saga about a nation torn apart by war.

Left to die by the Dragon Warlord, Rin and Kitay find themselves back in the South, at the head of the Southern Coalition. This liberation force, created to rid the territory of Mugenese soldiers and to challenge the Dragon Republic, is poised to take back Rin's homeland. But with their Hesperian allies at their backs, the Dragon Warlord and his son Nezha are nearly unassailable. When an old enemy is revealed and a path to victory becomes clear, Rin must decide whether to trust her allies and unite behind a common foe or do the unthinkable: Build an army of shamans and take back the continent.

Though The Burning God treads new ground in many ways, Kuang constantly references people, places and things from the previous books. Of course, this is really helpful for readers who haven't been back to Nikan in some time, but it also creates a sense of history. All of the things Rin has done and all the people who have built her feel ever-present in her mind as she makes decisions both small and large. It also feels nostalgic, wistful even. You can tell that Kuang is deeply in love with her story, and it shows: The Burning God is the best-written book of the trilogy.

It's also the most thrilling, both because the twists, the turns, the intrigue and the magic are dialed up to 11 and because of Kuang's masterful sense of momentum. We've been waiting for Rin to lead troops in battle and conquer her many enemies, and Kuang's narrative delivers. I've heard it said that writers should write about what they enjoy. It's clear that Kuang delights in political and military strategy, in moving and cataloguing the many players on the board. As in the previous two entries in the trilogy, these passages have a sharpness that few other books can match.

Then there's Rin herself. Those of us who have read every book in the trilogy will reflect on the bloodshed and the carnage that leads Rin to this point. There's a moment where she wakes up after having slept well for the first time in a long time and looks in the mirror, contemplating who she is and who she wants to be. It's a poignant and strangely peaceful moment for a person whose story has been defined by war. It's also touching and sad when paired with an ending that will leave you dazed.

This place and this protagonist are singular in fantasy literature, and I hope we'll get to return to Nikan someday. Better yet, I hope we get to return to the future Nikan that this book promises. I'm sure the Phoenix will be waiting, ready to set the world on fire.

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The Burning God

The Burning God

By R.F. Kuang
Harper Voyager
ISBN 9780062662620

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