Not every story requires a happy ending, the kind of ending where the main characters walk off into the sunset. The type of ending where the plot has been neatly wrapped up with the villains defeated. Peace reigns, and the book ends tidily, trying to leave readers with a sense of satisfaction. However, entertainment is not limited to just that type of ending, and it can also be satisfying to see a book or series reach its most logical conclusion. We want to complete a book and feel the overwhelming emotion that the author wishes to depart, even if that emotion is sadness, for sadness itself can be cathartic.
The Burning God, the third and final novel in R. F. Kuang’s dark and bloody trilogy, is the most logical and entertaining evolution of the series. This book, this series, is brutal. Kuang goes to great lengths to portray violence and war in an extremely realistic fashion, even as she introduces truly spectacular fantasy elements which defy all conventional norms. The trilogy follows heroine Fang Runin, or Rin for short, in the fictional land of Nikara, which is heavily inspired by the real-world China around the time of the opium wars with Europe. In the previous two novels, Nikara suffered from a devastating war with the neighboring Mugen Federation, analogous to Imperial Japan, followed the inevitable civil war once it was revealed that Nikara’s own empress had instigated the war. Rin begins the books as a student at the Sinegard military academy before Mugen invades. She soon finds herself connecting with the god of her ancestors, the Phoenix, one of sixty-four members of a primordial pantheon. Over the course of these three books, Rin suffers nearly every torture imaginable, and inflict every cruelty on her opponents. She may be our heroine, but she is certainly no hero. No one is.
During the previous novel, The Dragon Republic, Rin sided with the rebels in Nikara’s civil war in effort to enact revenge on the empress, Su Daji, who caused the devastation in the first novel, The Poppy War. At the start, Rin fell completely under the spell of the dragon republic and its leader, a noble who wanted to unite the nation under a new democracy, throwing off imperial shackles. He positioned himself as a father figure to Rin so easily and earned her admiration and loyalty, just as she was desperately searching for someone to follow. However, by the end of The Dragon Republic, things fall apart. The Republic had sided with the Hesperians, analogous to the Europeans who attempted to colonize and then influence China. With Hesperian backing and technology, the republic is able to defeat the empress, at the cost of opening their country to a vastly more powerful nation. And, along with that power, the Hesperians bring a new, dominant religion and a virulent strain of racism positioning all Nikan as subhuman. The Burning God was published in November of 2020, before the recent rash of violent, racist, anti-Asian attacks swept through the news. But it just shows that this attitude is, unfortunately, nothing new to the world. At the start of The Burning God, Rin has joined a new revolt to overthrow the nascent republic and force the Hesperians from their shores.
Rin is both an endlessly fascinating and frustrating character. She has as many faults as she does strengths, and the novel’s close third-person point-of-view ensures that we continually see the world as she sees it. Needless to say, Rin can also be a somewhat unreliable narrator. Her perceptions color every page, and Kuang skillfully navigates the differences between Rin’s opinions and the objective reality. In Rin’s eyes, the world is simple black and white. Enemies must be slaughtered, preferably in the most violent way possible, and weakness cannot be tolerated in any fashion. At the start of this book, Rin is finally done following and is now looking to lead. However, both she and book make it very clear that Rin actually has no interest in governing, nor does she have any skill. She does make impassioned speeches, or inspire loyalty in her soldiers. In many other books, everything would be solved with a speech. Words to bring everyone together under one banner. In the world of The Burning God, Rin burns her enemies and rivals to death, and leads through promises of revenge. Rin herself states on more than one occasion that she is not thinking about the future beyond warfare, that winning the war will somehow make everything work out in the end. Luckily, she is accompanied by a few supporting characters who more than make up for her weaknesses in that regard.
However, no one is quite able to curb Rin’s violent tendencies, although the violence is understandable given the depths of depravity all sides seem to engage in. Kuang does not mince words when describing the horror war inflicts on a nation. In the world of the book, Rin is a shaman. A person who has been able to contact the pantheon directly and allowed a god to reach through their body into the material world. The gods here are more like forces of nature, embodiments of primordial notions. They do not answer prayers and they care not for the wishes of mortals. They simply wish to exist. However, their existence brings destruction to mortals. Rin channels the Phoenix, a god of fire and destruction, whose only wish is to burn as bright and as hot as possible. By reaching out to her god, Rin is able to produce flame and heat in such intensity that bodies burn to ash and metals melt. A one-woman bomb all on her own, Rin is capable of turning the tide of a battle entirely on her own. However, she is not the only shaman in the world, and even this magic has its limit. The voice of the gods is never far from the mind of a shaman, always driving them towards madness and wrath. And not even magic is all powerful as science and technology advance.
The Burning God only has a few other main characters aside from Rin, a decrease over the previous two books as we spend more time alone in Rin’s head. Chen Kitay is her constant companion and a brilliant strategist. Temperate where Rin is volatile, he brings a cleverness and intelligence that perfectly complements her violence. He is also her anchor, a mystical barrier between her and the Phoenix, allowing Rin to channel the gods power without losing her mind in the process, sharing the load and avoiding insanity. The dedication these two characters have to each other is oftentimes more meaningful than any romance. On the other side of the conflict is Yin Nezha, son of the dragon warlord and the main antagonist of the novel, even if is not shown to be entirely villainous. Rin’s once rival and love, Nezha truly believes that the future of Nikan relies on the Hesperians and their technology. In his few appearances, he is never shown to be cruel, but truly remorseful. A shaman in his own right, he also provides a supernatural challenge to Rin on top of the normal and mundane effort of fighting a civil war. Rin’s thoughts dwell on Nezha so often that he often serves as both antagonist and deuteragonist at the same time. Reading through The Burning God, it is easy to want Rin to kill or kiss him, depending on the page.
If you have not read The Poppy War or The Dragon Republic, I cannot recommend reading The Burning God just quite yet. This is absolutely a series worth reading, and, while Rin’s journey over the trilogy can be brutal, it is also engaging. At times, we want her to succeed and it becomes easy to cheer for her wanton slaughter of enemies. And, at other times, the horrors of war and the violence both she and others cause are sobering. Make no mistake, this is a brutal series, and it requires the right mindset to enjoy. But Kuang is an extremely talented writer, and knows how to make even despair engaging. The Burning God is absolutely the finale of this trilogy, but Kuang finishes the series in a way that makes it clear that the story is not complete, even if we will not be there to witness it. While I will not spoil more of the plot, the ending itself is both heartbreaking and inevitable. Looking back on the trilogy, it is hard to believe that it could have ended any other way.
The Burning God can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 5 days
Next on the List: Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse