NOTE: This trilogy is not for everyone. Themes of war are constant throughout the books; it is very graphic. Check out Tiffany’s “Things You Should Know Before Reading The Poppy War” first before you read! Additionally, these are my own opinions. I am in no way claiming that mine are any more valid than others, I am simply voicing my own interpretations of RFK’s writing.
“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.
What was that, like what the heck was that?
That was my literal reaction to The Burning God — Rebecca F. Kuang’s last book to The Poppy War grimdark trilogy. I’m not kidding when I said that The Burning God was my most anticipated release of 2020. I picked up The Poppy War around June and was so enthralled by the world building and characters that I had to read The Dragon Republic the next day. Needless to say, quarantine felt like torture while waiting for The Burning God. But! Perhaps fate was on my side? I was provided with an e-ARC by NetGalley and my wish was fulfilled.
Reading The Burning God was such a journey– or rather, a rollercoaster. First, I had midterms while reading the ARC so my brain was everywhere. I’m pretty sure I stayed up until 4am to read, woke up at 9am to take my midterms, and took a nap then finished the book. It was such a brain rot; I couldn’t put the book on pause to focus on anything else.
I loved this book. I also have strong feelings about it. These feelings can coexist with one another! Overall, this trilogy will always have a place in my heart.
The Burning God picks up exactly where The Dragon Republic left off with Rin contemplating the fate of Nikan while Nezha allies with Vaisra and the Hesperians on governing Nikan. After the betrayal, Rin realizes who she should have been fighting for all along: the South. Below is the Goodreads description that perfectly sums up the start of the Southern insurgency against the North.
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?
Before reading the book, I had multiple theories about what I think would happen, especially following Mao Zedong’s trajectory. I was utterly, devastatingly wrong. The main takeaway from RFK’s writing is that this is a story about power. Who has power? What can you do with that power? To what extent is power more important than human lives? That being said, the struggle for power is the constant motif throughout the trilogy with various factions such as Su Daji/The Trifecta, Mugen, Vaisra’s republic, the Hesperians, the Southern factions, and of course, Queen Moag. Through these power struggles, certain questions arose: who is best? Who is the most fit to lead Nikan? Are people capable of governing themselves? Do we govern through fear? These deliberate political theories are what made me love the trilogy so much.
“Nikara history was crammed with fools who imagined themselves kings. When their luck bled out, they died like anyone else.”
In this final book, Kuang navigates these questions as Rin’s sanity declines. That’s actually why I loved Rin as the main character so much (I would not call her a protagonist), Rin in The Burning God is not presented as a saviour of the South but rather an egotistical, power/revenge-hungry individual fueled by rage. The irony of it all is that Rin did not particularly care for the South but rather the bodies and power that they provided her. I am not saying this to discredit the trauma that she went through. Her story as a war orphan alienated by society and during her time at Sinegard is crucial but how she processes that trauma and chooses to wield it is just as important. Kuang also specifically said that this trilogy explores how dictators are made and I personally think that she did so perfectly. Regardless, Kuang’s political commentary on the West/East through Rin was fascinating and refreshing. Rin explicitly describes the ugly realities of imperialism, and more specifically, religious colonialism and its hypocrisy.
Consequently, this book focuses on trauma and the cycles of violence. We got to see the damaging effects of colourism, xenophobia, and colonization in such raw forms– the sad, ugly parts of humanity. The one thing to remember is that these themes are not specific only to this book but rather constant themes throughout our own history. An important scene that really stuck out to me was when Rin reached the New City and saw Nikan under Hesperian rule. Rin was struck by how clean and orderly it was and found herself and Kitay asking whether or not maybe succumbing to them was the only solution. When all you’ve known is war, of course you’d ask yourselves these questions. BUT! Of course Rin is too prideful for that (and I love it). To those who’re confused about this scene, I think it’s important to realize that the scene wasn’t about showing the Hesperian’s superiority but rather their exploitation of Nikan. Nikan, too, could have achieved such advancement if they weren’t ravaged by wars left and right. More importantly, Kitay and Rin represent the common sentiments towards the West: those who support colonialism for the sake of their livelihood and those who refuse to support colonialism also for the sake of their livelihood. This scene portrays distinct sentiments throughout history from the perspectives of the ‘colonized’ and it’s so important to recognize that. That being said, it wasn’t about how Nikan is inferior – RFK would not imply that – but what Nikan could have been and what was robbed from them. These wars were staged by the colonizers for them to go into Nikan to play saviours – that’s the critique RFK was pointing out to us!
This scene made me angry as it parallels the French colonialism in Indochina so much. And again, I’m so grateful for Kuang for tackling such important issues.
Moving onto characters! A new character that I genuinely loved was Souji. I loved him and thought he deserved better (No? Just me? Ok. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). Souji’s guerilla warfares were so fascinating to read about, and his love for the South? I deeply respected that. I really thought that Souji would be the baddest Southern leader but alas, Rin’s pride got to her head. I do have my own concerns about Souji’s portrayal of *certain scenes* but I do think that Kuang did a good job of portraying him as humanly as possible; Souji wasn’t some god or saviour, he has his flaws and vices too. And then we have the Trifecta! I was so excited to read more about these complex and interesting characters. Su Daji has to be my favorite villain (?) ever. Again, Kuang truly portrayed these characters as humanly as possible. Despite their godlike powers, Daji, Jiang, and Riga were total assholes stuck in cycles of violence, trauma, and abuse. We got to see them deteriorating, showing the ugly, weak parts of themselves. Their ending was definitely very anti-climatic though, I had to reread because I wasn’t sure that they actually died. Then I went on to believing that they would just poof out of thin air and come back again. But I guess maybe that’s just how war is? The Long March ended anti-climatically because that’s war. There’s no glorifying it.
Another character’s arc that I was disappointed with was Venka’s. I understand how her role ultimately affected Rin’s development and the bigger themes of the trilogy- but I was disappointed! We were given crumbs for Venka scenes and I was desperately reading fast so that I could get more Venka in action. Venka’s end, though, indeed felt rushed and like an afterthought. However, after thinking about it, the majority of the books have been from Rin’s POV so we will never truly know what Venka did or did not do. But again, that’s war isn’t it? These children grew up within these cycles of violence and despite us loving their characters, they are still capable of committing atrocities (even if that means against one another). Us, as readers, want to make meaning out of things because we find joy in words, in symbols. But maybe Venka’s death was just it- and perhaps that’s okay. I also understand that we might be upset at some of the characters’ deaths, but we have to remember that deaths are not always honorable. Ultimately, the story is not about them, but rather the powerful critique of imperialism.
“History repeated itself, and she was only the latest iteration of the same scene in a tapestry that had been spun long before her birth.”
Now, the ending of the book. I kind of expected this, kind of did not. I did a ton of research on Mao Zedong prior to reading The Burning God and theorized that Rin would be the last one standing and rule over Nikan like MZD. I sobbed for an hour after the ending because I felt like RFK just slapped me in the face.
It took me about a month to fully process that ending; I was angry, frustrated, and just sad. I think that it’s important to know that RFK had planned for this ending when she first started writing for the trilogy, or rather, The Poppy War, The Dragon Republic, and The Burning God were all written to lead up to this ending. I also think that it’s important to look at the underlying message of the ending: how do we move forward? The ending isn’t about a reimagined revolution but rather a powerful critic of western imperialism and how countries move forward without being stuck in cycles of violence.
“Oh, but history moves in such vicious circles”
Nikan struggled against the Mugen, the Hesperians, and now a civil war, there was absolutely no way the Nikara people would have wanted to fight another war for Rin (and we saw that in Tikany). They wanted a chance at survival, supplies, food, a life. Additionally, RFK illustrates the road to autonomy through Nikan, portraying the struggles of states that emerged from imperialism without erasing their pain and trauma. States do not magically thrive overnight after a revolution- and RFK captured that extremely well. Nikan’s future, as a result, parallels so many of the states that gained autonomy from imperialism (Vietnam, Cuba, India). Even after gaining independence, these countries were subjected to neocolonialism imposed by their colonizers, the continuous close relationship in which the colonizer uses economic, globalization, and conditional aid to influence the once colonized state. We see that through Nezha’s fate with the Hesperians. The ending, therefore, is a powerful critique of imperialism and neocolonialism, but also a story of how countries have been trying to move forward – a story that has not been told throughout history.
“It’s a long march to liberation, Kitay had said.”
Overall, I really enjoyed this trilogy! It will always be one of my favorites. Thank you RFK for bringing to light such crucial issues, as well as feeding my political nerdiness. Shoutout to Keke (ReadwithKeke) and Victoria (CorneliaStreetReads) for screaming about these books with me, and for proofreading! And thank you for reading, I’m always up for discussing the books too!