It’s been almost half a year since I read this book, and I’m still recovering.
If you’ve been around here for the past year, you’ll know that one of my all-time favorite series is The Poppy War. The Burning God, the last book of the series, was my most anticipated release of the year. And wow, was it an experience. It broke me, and all I can say thank you, Ms. Kuang!
I’m not going to write any more for this intro (this review is practically an essay at over 1.6k words long), but if you haven’t read The Poppy War or The Dragon Republic, I would skip over the first half of my review! I don’t mention any specific spoilers for any books, but you could assume certain things based on what I say!!
RF Kuang || November 17, 2020
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?
Thank you to Harper Voyager for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion in any way.
All quotes are from an advance copy and may differ in final publication.
To any reader anxious about this epic finale, or intrigued enough to pick up book 1 for the first time: Good luck.
The Burning God is the thrilling conclusion to the Poppy War trilogy, and when I say thrilling, I truly mean it. I felt like I was holding my breath the entire time I read it, so scared for what was going to happen yet unwilling to put the book down and have to wait another second. It was an exhilarating feeling to be engrossed in this book, and upon finishing it, all I could do was let out a slow exhale (before the tears fell), in awe of the threads RF Kuang had woven in this book. While not my favorite of the series, and not perfect in my eyes, The Burning God was a fantastic way to end a brilliant trilogy.
“Do it. Take what you want. I’ll hate you forever. But I’ll love you forever. I can’t help but love you. Ruin me, ruin us, and I’ll let you.”
Rin. Rin. Fang Runin, my favorite murderous, vengeful, and very stupid antiheroine. I can’t start this review without talking about her first and foremost. I fell in love with her and her arc from the start of the series, and she continued to impress me with how angry, motivated, and dumb she is. Following her throughout the book was riveting but painful, both for her foolish decisions but also for how she somehow managed to grow more and more terrifying.
She’s changed so much from her time in Tikany and Sinegard, and like in The Dragon Republic, she learns how to heal from her trauma in her own way throughout the book and find agency that she was never allowed. Though I couldn’t get enough of Rin finding thrill in her darkness, I was equally scared by her, especially knowing this time that she was based on Mao Zedong. (I hadn’t looked into the historical connections before reading books 1 and 2.) Her arc is so well-written, and as one of my favorite fictional characters, this book did her complete justice and she got everything she deserved.
Hate was a funny thing. It gnawed at her insides like poison. It made every muscle in her body tense, made her veins boil so hot she thought her head might split in half, and yet it fueled everything she did. Hate was its own kind of fire and if you had nothing else, it kept you warm.
I am also deeply obsessed with the dynamics and relationships Rin has with other people, particularly Kitay and Nezha. First of all, Rin and Kitay’s love for each other… I’m going to cry. I’m genuinely going to cry. I want what they have—that all-consuming, burning love for someone that makes you feel like something essential to your ability to live has been ripped from you if you’re away from them. And as for Nezha… I was excited and anxious to see what would happen between him and Rin after the ending of The Dragon Republic, and I was not disappointed. So many scenes involving them made me lose my mind, and I live for their complex, complicated dynamic. If I say anything else I will just end up screaming, so I leave you with that.
On top of Kuang’s excellent character work, the prose in The Burning God is absolutely lovely. I devoured the entire book in a matter of three days, which is a feat on its own considering its size but even more so after I had been struggling to read anything for over a week. I made nearly four hundred highlights, by far the most I’ve ever made in a book. (Scrolling through all of them now is how I feel alive, and by alive I mean in monumental pain.) I’ve said before that Kuang’s writing is easily readable, which I greatly appreciate in the adult SFF genre, and I think her prose has gotten even better in this book. It flows so beautifully yet cuts into you in all the right places.
One will die. One will rule. And one will sleep for eternity.
This novel, and this trilogy, is one of themes. The Poppy War painted the story of a girl, a war, and the terrible journey that led her to commit an atrocity; The Dragon Republic followed her in the aftermath, witnessing her grapple with trauma and a new war; and now, finally, The Burning God watches her become an even more menacing force to win an impossible war. And throughout it all, war is unending, trauma is pervasive, and the terrors of imperialism and colonialism loom overhead. The book’s ties to Chinese history add even more meaning—to know that all of these horrors are inspired by, or sometimes even specifically modeled after, events in the past—for even in a fantasy world, the true villains are not whatever nightmares can be conjured by gods and shamanic magic, but the humans who take and never stop taking.
The main goal for so many of the characters in this book is winning the war. For some of them, it feels like a gaping thing essential to their survival. But what is heartbreaking is that even though one side could come out of the war slightly less unscathed than the other, there is no real winner. Not when the West has sunk its claws in so deeply that all you can do is learn how to live with it breathing down your neck. And I think that’s the true beauty of this series (if you could call it beauty): the way it explores what people do to survive in a world where they must exist with their oppressors.
Amidst all of this, Kuang writes some brilliant warfare and strategy, making the book all the more entertaining and exciting. I loved seeing how the military tactics changed throughout the series as they adapted to new enemies, and you can really feel the pages dripping with Kuang’s intelligence. And the fight scenes in particular were… thrilling, to put it one way. Some of the best combat scenes I’ve ever read that were somehow full of both hatred and yearning, to put it another.
“You can’t do this for me. I won’t let you.”
“It’s not for you. It’s not a favor. It’s the cruelest thing I could do.”
I know many people are anxious to see how this book ends, just as I was, and I can assure you, no matter what you think, you are not prepared. I was vaguely tearing up as I read the last chapter and epilogue, but as soon as I finished the book, I went back, reread them, and immediately started crying. I was genuinely sitting on the floor of my bathroom, hugging my knees to my chest, and full-on sobbing into my arms.
It is an emotional ending, but one that is so, so fitting, and I am deeply satisfied by it. I think there will be people who don’t understand it, who don’t love it at all, and I’m going to be upset that those people don’t get it. Because ultimately, no matter how harrowing or upsetting, it is a realistic and beautifully, poignantly written portrayal of the certain kinds of horrors in this world and Rin’s, the people who inflict or become victims to them, and the consequences they have to face. It is truly the only ending for these characters and this world, in my eyes—it broke my heart, and I loved it.
I won’t lie: to me, this book was not perfect. Though overall it was an amazing novel and conclusion to the series, as evident by my high praise, this was the least well-written book of the trilogy, in my opinion. I wish it had been longer, especially near the end. There were a lot of scenes that I think would have benefitted from being more developed, especially with specific reveals or twists, and some parts weren’t wrapped up in a way that completely satisfied me. There were just certain plot points that I wanted more development from, and I was sad that I didn’t get to see that.
“I am the force of creation… I am the end and the beginning. The world is a painting and I hold the brush. I am a god.”
All that being said, The Burning God was undoubtedly an excellent book. It’s a bittersweet feeling to have reached the end of this blazing trilogy, one that I have only known for a year yet hold so dearly, but I am happy with its ultimate ending, even if there were some rough parts on the way there. RF Kuang has certainly made a name for herself in the adult SFF genre, and I can’t wait to devour her next masterpiece.
If you are looking for a fantasy series that draws on Asian history, explores colonialism, imperialism, and war, and creates compelling and complex characters and dynamics, I highly recommend this one. This trilogy has been a breath of fresh air, from an author who doesn’t shy away from the more gruesome parts of history and writes with so much intensity. Kuang laces pain in her every word, and I can’t help but love it. I likely will never recover from these books, but I don’t think I am meant to. This is a story that demands your attention, demands that you listen and breathe it in, and refuses to let you go.
:: representation :: Chinese-coded MCs
:: content warnings :: brutal war themes (murder, death, violence, torture), genocide, racism, colorism, abuse, animal death/cruelty, depiction of trauma/grief, drug use, mutilation, sexual assault, suicide, cannibalism, talk of rape/sexual abuse, talk of human medical experimentation
have you read The Burning God yet, or any of the books in The Poppy War trilogy? what were your thoughts? do you plan to? what was a book that made you sob this year?