The Burning God (The Poppy War #3) by R.F. Kuang
Publication Date: November 17th, 2020
Hardcover. 768 pages
About The Burning God:
"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?"
The Burning God is the final book in the The Poppy War trilogy, and it was an epic, stunning conclusion that is definitely going to stick with me.
The Poppy War has been a trilogy that I've found has really set itself apart from other fantasy books in its genre. It's not uncommon for a series to lean on the darker side--after all, grimdark has been rising in popularity over the past few years--but there's something about The Poppy War that meshes this idea of grimness with the reality and rawness of what living a life under warfare, poverty, and near-constant discord, (which is its own form of grimdark) in a way that somehow feels even more intense and unpredictable. The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic were both striking installments that I didn't think could be improved upon, but somehow The Burning God was just as, if not more, intense and captivating than the previous two. The stakes are also somehow higher (despite the fact that they've been incredibly high this entire trilogy), which only added to my struggle to put this book.
Something that I have to comment on before continuing this review is the evolution of Kuang's writing and storytelling over the course of this trilogy. Kuang herself has said in various interviews how much her writing has matured from writing The Poppy War until now, and I very much agree and am impressed with how much her writing has developed. That's not to say that the early books aren't well-written, as they absolutely are, but you can see her character developments, plotting, writing style, and exploration of war and strategy gradually deepen in scope and meaning as the trilogy progressed, which really made for a fantastic reading experience. The historical inspirations that played such a large role in the development and creation of this entire trilogy also seems to have become stronger and has been expanded upon in brilliant ways.
Our protagonist, Fang Runin (Rin), remains of the most compelling parts of this story, as she is incredibly brash, often unpredictable, and willing to go just about any lengths to accomplish her goals. She's not exactly someone I would describe as "likable" or easy to get along with, but she does know how to get things done and she's not one to ever choose to give up--Rin would truly rather die fighting than ever give up. Although I'm not usually big on revenge in general, Rin's fire for vengeance and destruction of her enemies is one of her most captivating and almost admirable qualities. It's not that I think merciless destruction of those who are against you is a great idea or should be encouraged, but Rin just has such a strong level of determination and anger and hatred that she so finely directs towards her specific enemies that I can't help but find myself compelled to see how it all plays out and to admire the sheer dedication and drive that Rin contains within herself.
There are also a myriad of supporting characters that stand out, though I hesitate to include their names for fear of spoiling who has actually made it to the end of the story Kuang is telling. I loved seeing how all of these different characters' relationships with Rin had so many different moments of push-and-pull throughout the trilogy and how carefully Kuang always kept a focus on the true motivations and emotions that would affect their interactions. As much as this book is filled with cruelties, brutality, and a lot of darkness, it also has some really warming moments between characters and some relationships and scenes that will make you smile--and some moments that will probably break your heart. You can't ever really get comfortable with anything in this book because there are constantly changes and unpredictable turns that leave you never completely sure what anyone is doing.
Something that has held true through all three books is how Kuang incorporated the gods and magic in this trilogy, and I particularly loved their role in this book. Magic in this book is not a guaranteed thing, and there aren't any specific rulebooks associated. However, there is still a level of "rules" that are part of it, and I really appreciate how much risk goes hand-in-hand with having any level of power, as I always think there should be some sort of balance or sacrifice required when stories offer that kind of power to a character.
The last thing I'll touch on is the pacing, which was once again spot-on. The final book in a trilogy is often filled with a lot of action and big battles, and although this book certainly contained those elements, it also still focused a lot on strategy and discussions of conquering and ruling and so many other important themes to consider. We get to explore even more of the world-building and history of this world and its inhabitants, and I think Kuang incorporated all of those elements smoothly into her narrative that together created an incredibly enjoyable read. There were a lot of discussion on military strategies, and I really thrived on these because I felt like they offered a lot of really interesting insight into the characters involve in these discussions, as well as military strategy itself.
As with the previous books, I feel like this book should also come with a small content warning for violence and brutality--these aren't easy books by any means. The topics dealt with are intense and some extremely moral questions are explored in ways that may be difficult for some people to examine. Rin is honestly a bit ruthless, so that's something important to consider in how she will react to both wanting, taking, and using her power.
The ending of this trilogy was utterly perfect and flawlessly executed. I am so impressed and excited by what Kuang did with this trilogy and will absolutely be re-reading it in the future to continue to discover what else there is to get out of it.
The Poppy War is sure to be a trilogy not soon forgotten. As I said in my review for The Dragon Republic, "This book will punch you in the face, laugh at you when you're shocked, pretend to make it better...and then stomp all over you again with a smile. And you'll love every second of it." And that hasn't changed a bit with this final installment. I cannot wait to see what Kuang writes next. As of my writing this review, I believe she has mentioned that she is currently writing a book set at Oxford, and I can't wait to see what that entails.
*I received a copy of The Burning God in exchange for an honest review. This has no effect on my rating of the novel.*