ARC provided by the publisher—Harper Voyager—in exchange for an honest review.
Cover Illustration by: JungShan
The Burning God by R.F. Kuang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: The Poppy War Trilogy (Book #3 of 3)
Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Grimdark Fantasy, Military Fantasy
Pages: 640 pages
Published: 26th November 2020 by Harper Voyager (UK) and 17th November 2020 by Harper Voyager (US)
Bursting with violence, devastation, death, and profound emotions. The Burning God is by far the best book R.F. Kuang has written in her career so far.
“Here’s a prophecy for you, she’d said. One will die. One will rule. And one will sleep for eternity.”
My claim might sound like hyperbole to you, but I can’t help it, I’m genuinely astounded by how far Kuang has improved in her craft as a storyteller. Do not misconstrue my statement, though, I loved both The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic, but The Burning God blew them out of the water; it’s simply on a higher level of quality.
“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 won’t mention any specifics regarding the story in this review. I have contemplated discussing the source of the inspiration behind the conflict in this final installment, mainly Mao Zedong’s response to Western imperialism, but I feel that it would be too spoilery for those who don’t know; I prefer to refrain from ruining your experience. If you don’t know about Mao Zedong’s tyranny, though, I suggest reading about them; before or after you’ve finished The Burning God, it’s up to you. That being said, If you do know about Mao Zedong’s story, you probably already know the general direction of Rin’s story, but rest assured that Kuang has more than enough ammunition in store to surprise, enthrall, and bleed your heart dry. I had a notion of the fate of the main characters, but I totally didn’t expect to be enraptured as much as I did. The narrative was thoroughly merciless, full of brutal actions, gripping, and unputdownable. I’m not kidding; I read the last 200 pages in one sitting. The final 200 pages of this grim novel were truly Kuang at her best; I have so many praises for what she achieved within the last few chapters, and yet I’m rendered speechless right now. Honestly, I doubt there’s an option for a more fitting ending for this trilogy than what’s written here; everything just clicked.
“The best plans were a secret until their execution. The hidden knife cuts the deepest.”
Rin has come a long way from where her story started in The Poppy War; she has fought, raged, sacrificed, and lose a LOT of important companions for the duration of her bloody—an understatement—wars against the Mugenese, the Hesperian, and the gods. I totally understand that Rin may not be a likable heroine; I don’t think she was ever intended to be one anyway, especially considering that her character is based on one of the cruelest tyrants in our history. To me, though, she’s one of the most memorable anti-heroines in fantasy. It’s not often I find myself compelled and invested in an unlikeable main character, but that’s how I felt with Rin. She has so much fury and hatred vested inside her soul towards her enemies, and she’s willing to risk everything—even when it hurts her deeply—to bring total obliteration to her enemies.
“Once I was your screaming victim, begging for your mercy. And now you cower before me.”
And it’s worth knowing that my investment in the characters didn’t go exclusively to Rin; the side characters were equally compelling, and some were definitely more likable than Rin. Their complex relationship with Rin serves as one of the things that made reading this trilogy so compulsive. Additionally, we also get to witness the background of the Trifecta in more detail here. It’s splendid, really. Kuang isn’t afraid to torture and pushes all of her characters to the brink of insanity. The number of difficult choices with pivotal results that the characters have to make was terrifying, and I couldn’t help but find myself glued to observe the tempestuous events their decisions bring.
“We all lost our parents early on, before they could tell us what provinces we were from. Perhaps that’s why we were so bent on unification. We were from nowhere, so we wanted to rule everywhere.”
One of the standout components of The Poppy War Trilogy has always been the ruthless action sequences that combined the best and worst of both humanity and the gods. I personally think that the actions and combat sequences in The Burning God are the best in the series. The lethal destructions inflicted on each other, and the damage—physically and mentally—they caused were inhumanly powerful and harrowing. As Rin wielded incredible control over the blazing crimson flame that ravages everything in her path, there are also other characters with their own respective capabilities to unleash cataclysmic maelstrom, deadly soul-leeching, and groundbreaking (literally) magic. The Burning God encapsulates what happened when mortal avatars with access to divine powers clash with each other. Glinting swords were raised, the Hesperian’s super-advanced technologies were launched; the gods are cruel, and their elegy of death was unstoppable.
“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.”
As much as I enjoyed reading the constant trading of divine strengths in this blood-soaked concluding installment, it was actually the military tactics and psychological warfare that Kuang implemented into her narrative that signified the biggest improvement in her writing skills. I’ve always thought of the series as a grimdark/military fantasy series, and Kuang once more incarnated these classifications with amazing precision. The war tactics employed were smartly written; environment, power, weapons were all considered before each battle waged. Most importantly, I can’t praise the psychological warfare engaged highly enough here. It’s purely remarkable how the most intense moments of the entire series were not when a clash of swords and magic were displayed, but it was the psychological battles fought. I honestly felt the dread and extreme paranoia that the characters experienced; the bleakness of the atmosphere and the feeling of helplessness were scorched into my soul, and once again, I couldn’t put the book down when this entire section of the heartbreaking story unraveled.
“Ideological purity is a battle cry, it’s not the stable foundation for a unified country. A nation means nothing if it can’t provide for the people in it. You have to act for their sake.”
I still have a myriad of things to praise, but I must put a stop here; I risk writing a novella if I don’t force myself to stop now. In my review of The Poppy War, I said: “This is the beginning for a new queen of fantasy and you should consider yourself damn lucky to have the chance to witness it.” Not only this statement stands true up this day, but it screams stronger now. I am incredibly fortunate that I get to witness Kuang’s journey as an SFF author from the beginning; the trail of stories she left here is inspiring, and I foresee the flames she’ll ignite in her future novels will be as brilliant. It has been an extraordinary honor to have read The Poppy War Trilogy, an Asian-inspired fantasy trilogy I cherished since its pre-debut in 2018. Tempered with tremendously well-polished deftness in storytelling, every scene in this book was painted vividly, and every range of emotions was tangibly delivered to the readers. It might not do enough justice to Kuang to say that The Burning God is one of the best grimdark fantasy novels that I’ve ever read, but this is the highest form of praises I can bestow to this novel. The Burning God is indisputably one of my favorite books of all time, and more than ever now, the completion of The Burning God earn R.F. Kuang her rightful crown and throne as one of the queens of modern fantasy.
“For it was wonderful to remember that this land could still be so breathtakingly beautiful, that there was more sewn into the heart of the Twelve Provinces than blood and steel and dirt. That centuries of warfare later, this country was still a canvas for the gods; that their celestial essence still seeped through the cracks between worlds.”
The Poppy War Trilogy: 14.5/15 stars
To future readers of this book, get a bucket—preferably two—because your tears will flow. In The Burning God, Kuang threatens to rip out the hearts of her readers, and this is what we’ll say to her:
“Do it. Take what you want… I’ll hate you for it. But I’ll love you forever. I can’t help but love you. Ruin me, ruin us, and I’ll let you.”
Official release date: 26th November 2020 (UK) and 17th November 2020 (US)
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
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