BOOK REC: The Burning God (Poppy War #3) – R.F. Kuang

Author: R.F. Kuang (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Harper Voyager

Genre: Fantasy, historical fiction (ish)

See Also: The Poppy War, The Dragon Republic

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, will she be strong enough to resist the Phoenix’s voice, urging her to burn the world and everything in it?

Warning: this post will probably contain spoilers for The Burning God, as well as previous books in the series.

I’ve been extremely excited about this book basically since finishing the last one. It’s been a while since I’ve stumbled across a series as it was publishing where I had to literally wait a year between each book. With everything that’s gone on, and with the length of the previous books, however, I hadn’t found time to re-read the first two iterations between each release. This meant that I didn’t necessarily remember immediately what had happened in the last one. I will say that it wasn’t so much a problem between The Dragon Republic and The Burning God as it was between The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic, and I think that’s because TPW covered such a huge amount of time, while TDR was a much more compact period.

So, onto this edition of “Rin and Friends Commit War Crimes”, it picks up a few months after the end of TDR, where Rin is in an uneasy alliance with the Southern Warlords against the new alliance between Yin Vaisra and the foreign forces he has traded access to the country and its shamans in exchange for military support. Rin has continued to be her oh-so-charming self and thus made absolutely no friends whatsoever. Meanwhile, her conflicted feelings about Nezha and her now missing hand from injuries in TDR have her off-balance.

This is by far the longest of the trilogy, and, honestly, by far the most bleak. Where the previous two instalments both had moments of hope, moments where you thought things might possibly turn out okay, there’s none of that here. While the whole series has been categorised as grimdark, this is the first book where it really felt grimdark. For the characters, for the conflict, for the country, this is literally the lowest point. To the point that even the ideas they have for saving themselves don’t seem like they’ll be enough, or that they’ll make things worse.

It was a difficult read. It was really hard to read a book where there wasn’t really any gasp of hope for a happy ending. But here’s the thing, the ending of The Poppy War made it clear that there was no way that we could get that traditional, easy happy ending because how can you redeem a character from committing genocide? The Dragon Republic made it clear that Rin wasn’t going to work for redemption in the way she needed because the only way she knew how to handle a situation was with aggression, or drugs. The trauma she has been through, the things she has done, and the way she has dealt with them have seen her become more desperate and, as a result, more aggressive.

In here, Kuang really shows the impact of trauma, of conflicting advice from people in power, and long term narcotics use. The threads become tangled in Rin’s mind, and she becomes increasingly less capable of choosing the correct path. Having been burned so many times before, she doesn’t know who to trust, and naturally this fuels a paranoia. The tragedy of Rin has been sown in the previous two books, this book is the final act of her story, the inevitable outcome that couldn’t be prevented in this volume because it was written in the months and years before.

Kuang is a fantastic writer, and her research and dedication is really clear in every book. This is based on a dark period of world history, there was never going to be a magical happy ending, a solution that fixed every problem and gave Rin a fairytale. But the power of the first two books was that you could almost believe there would be, and it’s only by the final part of the trilogy that you’re faced with the inevitable. Things are too far gone before you’ve even realised they can’t be fixed, and all you can do is watched.

I read somewhere that Rin is loosely based on Chairman Mao. I’m unsure how true that is, however given as Kuang has based scenes on historical events before, I can easily believe that the section that seems to run parallel with The Long March is meant to be so. I wouldn’t be surprised if other battles and attacks in the book are based on specific historical events too. I remember Kuang discussing around the publication of TPW that she wanted to examine and draw attention to trauma and war crimes in a way that had been done at length in Western literature, but had been glossed over in discussions of Chinese history. That means they were never going to be books that were going to be comfortable reading, but they’re definitely ones that had an impact on me.

As someone who generally reads books that make me feel good, I’ve found myself pondering whether I would re-read these in the future. It’s a series that genuinely blew me away, but the weight that builds up as it progresses isn’t insignifcant, and rightly so. I wonder if there’s too much for me to process in one reading though, and whether they would land differently if they were read one after the other rather than with a year’s distance in between.

Briefly:

  • The final book of The Poppy War series, it’s the resolution of everything that happens in the previous books, and also, to a point, an escalation. I wasn’t kidding with “Rin and Friends Do War Crimes”.
  • I found it difficult to read a book that I found so utterly devoid of hope and potential positive outcome from the beginning. Was this because of the writing, or a Pavlovian response against loving that Kuang has trained into me through previous instalments?
  • Regardless, I think these books will rightfully become part of epic fantasy canon, because they have done something weighty, meaningful and utterly spectacular in their pages. I can’t wait to see what Kuang has planned to break my heart next.

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