… y’all, I don’t have the words.
Okay, I do, but they’re not going to be good enough.
I made the decision to reread The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic, the first two books in R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War trilogy, before diving into the final installment, The Burning God. I read something else in between War and Republic, but then went straight into God after that. And I’m glad I did; this is a complicated series, and I’ve probably literally read 200 books, if not more, since Dragon Republic.
Two things became immediately clear: first, that I hadn’t really given Dragon Republic enough credit, and second, this series is good enough that it ought to be considered canonical. I have read modern series that I loved more– I am waiting quite impatiently for the third volume in Fonda Lee’s Green Bone saga– but I’m having a really hard time right now coming up with one that I thought was better.
And yes, to be 100% clear, I’m saying that Kuang, who is somehow only 24, is a better writer than the likes of Rothfuss and Martin, and almost certainly whoever else you might name at that level.
This remains a difficult series to read, about difficult subjects. Kuang is writing about war, and colonialism, and genocide, and rape, and eugenics, and PTSD, and hatred, and racism, and drug abuse, and any number of other objectively terrible things, and her world is one that generations of war have already torn to bits– as the series begins, the nation of Nikara has known about 20 years of peace, and it’s presented as an aberration– and there aren’t good guys or bad guys so much as there are competing ways for everything to be horrible. While her characters are (or become) generals and emperors and shamans and, effectively, gods, she never lets you lose sight of what the shifting alliances and betrayals and catastrophes are doing to the peasants and common people of her world, and no action is without consequence. In the hands of a less skilled author this would be nihilism; I went after the writers of The Last of Us 2 earlier this year for presenting a world in which no good decisions were possible– but instead it comes off as a hard (and surprisingly realistic, given that the main character can breathe fire) look at the inevitable result of dynastic struggles, religious intolerance and colonialism.
I could talk for hours about how Kuang handles religion in this series; the struggles on earth are literally mirrored in heaven as well, and then when the monotheistic Hesperian system comes into conflict with the Nikaran pantheon all sorts of interesting things happen, because everyone believes their gods are real– and in the Nikaran case those gods are literally providing paranormal abilities to their shamans– and it is never made quite clear whether the Hesperian God is real or not, or whether “science” is the explanation for some of the things that happen in the book. It’s tremendously well-done, and that’s before I get to the part where the gods of the Pantheon are presented as barely-controllable forces of nature who will eventually drive their acolytes insane if they’re not killed first.
I have said this in the review for each of these books; these are not for everybody. They pull no punches and they are graphic, brutal books about broken people. Rin herself, while she’s far more in control of herself in this book than she was in Dragon Republic, is a character that not everyone is going to be able to connect with– she is in over her head and she knows it, and she’s (as she is frequently reminded of by other characters) prone to letting her emotions guide her rather than thinking her actions through, particularly when those actions begin to involve the health and safety of thousands and thousands of people. She fucks up, over and over again, and her mistakes hurt people, over and over. But for me? God, this was so good. I’m going to have a lot of trouble figuring out where to place this in a couple of weeks when I write my end of the year list, because I read it right after rereading the first two, and this piece, as you’ve probably noticed, is more of a review of the entire series than it is The Burning God specifically. But it’s so good. I don’t know what plans Kuang has in the future for this world– this specific trilogy is definitely concluded, but there is definitely room for more stories in Nikara and potentially Hesperia as well, which we never actually see– but I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next. Absolutely phenomenal work.