Author: R.F. Kuang
Release date: November 26th, 2020 (UK); November 17th 2020 (US)
Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark, Military Fantasy
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?
Carrying an epic tale brimming with unrelenting violence, heartrending trauma, and the devastating horrors of war to its harrowing conclusion, The Burning God sees R.F. Kuang carving out her place in modern fantasy to new, extraordinary heights as she concludes her first trilogy a powerful testament to her absolute writing prowess.
It never is easy to write a review for a series finale. I knew it was going to be especially difficult to write one for The Burning God. R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War series had been in my heart for the past year since I discovered it in university, and The Burning God had been my most anticipated release of 2020 (I also raved about the series here). To say that it wrecked me would be a grave understatement.
Having suffered loss and betrayal from every possible angle she could expect, Fang Runin (Rin) turns her true allegiance to the Nikan south – returning to her roots. In her grueling quest to liberate her people from the callous grips of the oppressive north and the colonizing Hesperians, Rin is forced to reckon with her country’s past and future as she realizes that saving her country would involve more than winning battles. Her complex relationship with the Trifecta forces her to confront Nikan’s history; and throughout her battle against the Hesperians, she is forced to reflect on Nikan’s path forward after the war no matter who wins. On top of that, she grapples with her new position as a leader and a saviour; constantly bursting with an impulse to burn her way down and start anew. While cries for blood and vengeance have proven effective in drawing people to her cause, Rin finds herself struggling to retain that loyalty as she has to manage a starving populace and a divided army.
The level of storytelling, writing, and depth in Kuang’s craft continues to astound in The Burning God. The military fantasy elements (e.g. the battles, strategies, and daily dealings) are deftly explored with appropriate depth and sensitivity. For example, The Burning God emphasizes the difference between willing and unwilling parties of war, the moral considerations one needs to make to stay true to a cause, and the varying circumstances the cast’s differing tactics could and couldn’t have worked. True to what readers have come to expect from the series, The Burning God also continues to depict the psychological consequences of warfare with both flaring intensity and heartfelt precision.
Throughout Rin’s journey, the turn of events in The Burning God pose a question: in response to Western imperialism, were the sacrifices and losses suffered throughout the series (and by analogy, Chinese history) justified? While The Burning God doesn’t offer an easy answer to this question, much to my delight it presents a deeply introspective narrative to examine the ideological conflict that occurs throughout the series. In The Burning God, the clash between different ideologies evident in the Southern Nikara-Hesperian conflict culminates in a climax bursting with life as such that they too become characters of their own. The Pantheon, the magic system is no longer just a magic system but an embodiment of the Nikara belief clashing with the Hesperian belief that wishes to replace it in a quest for ideological superiority. Rin is thrown into this conflict, and her every decision creates a massive impact in its trajectory. The number of pivotal decisions she has to make inflict both terror and a morbid fascination to observe the turbulent turn of events brought by her decisions. Kuang’s narration spares no mercy as Rin’s journey is brought to a final reckoning in its riveting, heartbreaking, and perfect conclusion.
While every character is depicted with appropriate complexity and depth, it is Rin’s character that ultimately makes the series and compels me. Throughout her journey, she has found herself launched into a bloody war against the Mugenese, the Nikara Empire, the Hesperians, the gods, and ultimately herself. She has come a long way since her mundane days at Tikany and Sinegard: she had fought, raged, sacrificed, and lost a lot. She also had been forced to come to terms with the many, many atrocities she’d done. While her character is based on one of the most controversial, cruel, tyrannical figures in our history, Rin became a compelling, sympathetic anti-heroine who has seared her place in modern fantasy. The fury, hatred, rage, desperation, power-hunger, and ultimately, struggle for belonging throughout the trilogy ultimately make her a character as blazing as the power she calls forth from the Phoenix.
I still remember my first time discovering The Poppy War: how I appreciated Fang Runin as dark-skinned Chinese (analogue, at least) representation, saw visages of myself in her character at Sinegard Academy days, the shock and horror as the Third Poppy War broke out, and the morbid fascination that accompanied Rin’s heartbreaking, yet chilling decision. Fang Runin’s journey has truly come so far, and this grim, blood-soaked epic is one that I know I will re-read time and time again as The Poppy War trilogy has secured its indisputable place in my heart as one of my favourite fantasy series of all time. It has constantly delivered tangible emotions and palpable tension across a vivid, blistering, and passionate tale of vengeance. The Burning God is the perfect conclusion to the enthralling, yet tragic tale that started with The Poppy War.
The Burning God is available for pre-order, set for official release on 26th November 2020 (UK) and 17th November 2020 (US).