I’ve drawn it out as long as I could, both reading the book and writing this review, but it’s finally time to say goodbye to an amazing world filled with even more amazing characters. The one thing that makes me cheerful is that we’ll get a brand new Rebecca Kuang novel this year and I have pre-ordered a shiny hardback edition because, damn, Kuang catapulted herself onto my list of top favorite authors of all time with her debut trilogy.
THE BURNING GOD
by R. F. Kuang
Published: Harper Voyager, 2020
eBook: 640 pages
Series: The Poppy War #3
My rating: 8.5/10
Opening line: “We shouldn’t be doing this,” Daji said.
The exciting end to The Poppy War trilogy, R.F. Kuang’s acclaimed, award-winning epic fantasy that combines the history of 20th-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters, to devastating, enthralling effect.
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?
My thoughs on this book will be mostly incoherent, have little to say about the plot as such, and probably won’t do much to convince you to pick up the trilogy if you haven’t already. If, however, you have made it this far, have read and suffered alongside Rin through the first two books, then you already know some of what’s coming. As did I. Thus the drawing things out to the last possible moment.
We’ve left Rin and Kitay fleeing from what was supposed to become the Dragon Republic, with Rin severely injured and heartbroken about the betrayal she’s suffered. In book three, she not only goes through even more pain and suffering, but the stakes of this seemingly neverending war get higher and higher. And along with the stakes, Rin’s tolerance for bending her (already loose) moral code gets stronger and stronger. After all, what are 100 lives when it means saving hundreds of thousands of others? Is sacrificing one civilian village really that bad when it means gaining an important victory in the war and taking one more step towards freeing the country? It’s questions like these that accompany you throughout the book and while Kuang doesn’t offer easy answers, she lets her characters take different stances and her readers make up their own minds. The brightly shining star that is Kitay is clearly the one who retains his sense of right and wrong the most but he also happens to be a brilliant strategist. And everyone who’s ever played a game of chess knows that, sometimes, you need to sacrifice one precious piece in order to win the game.
As the plot goes, you get more of the same, except even on a higher level. Where book one was mostly “learning how to war” at Sinegard and book two was putting some of those lessons into practice, this time, Rin is fighting the war more top down. She may have commanded a small group of people before, but now she’s working to have whole armies at her command. The transition from being part of actual battles and seeing the killing first hand to sending nameless, faceless soldiers to a place to die for you is well done and makes Rin’s character arc all the more believable. Without Kitay by her side, she probably would have turned tyrant very quickly…
There were a few surprising moments in this book, however, and I’m not only talking about the ending. If you’re read this far, you know the ending could go either way. Everyone could die (literally everyone) or some people could die or all main characters could survive – not likely, but you never know. The war could be won with minimal casualties or it could be won at a terrible cost. Or the war could be lost and any dreams of republics or empires could be smashed to pieces. Anything could happen and that’s what makes this book so compelling throughout its rather large page count. As is often the case, my heart was with the characters more than with the plot, but they are so closely linked that that’s almost the same thing. Rin’s actions have direct consequences on people’s lives and in this volume, more than anything, these consequences are made more visible. Actions that were taken in the very first book, for example, show their effects now, when people are starving because there was no harvest because of some military assault that absolutely had to happen to defeat the Mugenese. Except now the population is fighting famine and it’s not only bloody battles that threaten people’s lives…
Although this book made me more and more depressed the longer I read, it also cemented my respect for Rebecca Kuang’s talent, not just as a storyteller, but as an observer of humanity. The way she describes war, on the one hand from a very personal point of view, driven by emotion and not just strategy, is so impressive. But she also shows the bigger picture, leaving personal sensibilities behind. It doesn’t matter who leads Nikan – the Empress, Rin, Nezha, or someone entirely different – when an outside threat is coming to destroy everything this culture has ever held dear.
I guess what I’m trying to say in so many words is that I loved and hated this book, but in the best of ways. I hated that it deals with such dark, tough themes, that it puts these characters that I’ve grown to lovet into the worst situations, that it poses moral questions that aren’t just hard but impossible to answer. But I also love that it’s an exciting adventure which throws beloved characters into terrible situations, I love that the writing flows beautifully while relating atrocious things, I love that this trilogy made me feel so deeply for fictional people in a (mostly) fictional setting that I can’t stop thinking about them even months after leaving these books behind.
I’m still quite sad that this didn’t win the Hugo Award for Best Series but it definitely won my personal award for Series That Wrecked Me Emotionally And That I Will Never Forget.
MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!