#Review: THE BURNING GOD, by R.F. Kuang

… 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.


I was a big fan of the first book in R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War series– it ended up being very highly ranked in what was a very good year for reading– and I jumped on the sequel as fast as I could when it came out.

And … well, brace yourself. This is not one of my usual hyperbolic slobbery OMG GO READ THIS RIGHT NOW reviews. I still think you need to read it, but there’s gonna be a proviso or two, some quid pro quos … anyway, read on.

Trigger warning, for, like, everything that is bad. If you’ve ever needed a trigger warning of any kind do not read this book or this review.

The Poppy War starts out almost sorta feeling like a Harry Potter knockoff set in a China analogue, only Hogwarts is a military academy and Hermione is the main character instead of Harry. Oh, and she’s explicitly described as being an ethnic minority rather than being shoehorned into being one years later on the strength of her hair being described as curly, but that’s a whole different conversation. That conceit will last you about a third of the first book, and then Hermione, whose name is Rin in this book, burns out her fucking uterus with drugs because menstruation distracts her from her studies and then all the sudden it ain’t Harry Potter no more and it really never goes back. It goes dark and it goes violent and it goes really war-crimey and this is a book that I enjoyed reading quite a lot but it absolutely 100% is not for everyone. Rin eventually acquires the ability to produce and control fire, and … well, she doesn’t really use it to keep people warm.

I mean, they are warm, for the second or two until they burn to death, but not, like, in a good, comfy sort of way. The bad kind of warm. Where you’re screaming. And then you die. There’s lots of that. And the book honest to God ends with Rin committing what is basically genocide. Spoiler alert, I guess. That was book one, you should have read it by now.


The thing about The Dragon Republic is that it doesn’t start off with the comforting (ha, “comforting,” he called it) Harry Potter-esque maybe this is sorta YA beginning. No, the Rin in this book is already jaded as fuck and is basically a war criminal leading a gang of war criminals, and she spends the first 2/3 of the book drug-addicted, angry, depressed, suffering from massive holy shit-level fucking PTSD, and mostly unable to use her powers for various reasons. Oh, and also racism. Like entire groups of people in this book refuse to even treat Rin like she’s human. Lotsa racism.

The first book got dark. The Dragon Republic starts off dark, stays dark, and then trades that dark for a chic slightly darker dark once it gets going. And by the end of this one, we’ve completely upended everyone we’re fighting against and everyone we’re fighting against and the status quo is status gone, and everyone is miserable or dead or a refugee or all three except the ruling class, and fuck those guys anyway.

I four-starred it on Goodreads, but this is one of those books that really resists a star rating, because in many ways it’s just as good a book as the first one, and again, I really liked the first one. It’s just that it’s so fucking unrelentingly gritty that you want to wash your hands when you’re done reading it, and it’s hard to read because of that. It may end up on my end-of-year list anyway despite four-starring it, because it is what it is very, very effectively. It’s just that it’s a book where terrible things are happening all the time to main characters who are really only moderately sympathetic to begin with– saying Rin is kind of an asshole is a muted understatement– and … well, if you don’t want to read something like that, I’m not going to get mad at you. The first book Ain’t for Everybody. This book, I think, is for a slightly smaller subset of Ain’t for Everybody, because I think there will be people who read and enjoyed The Poppy War who will check out of this anyway, and again, I can’t be mad at them about it.

If you liked the first book, definitely pick this up, but if anything about this review made you think that you might be part of the Everybody that this Ain’t For, I’d gently suggest you listen to that intuition. R.F. Kuang is absolutely a writer of staggering talent, and I’m just as in for Book Three as I was for The Dragon Republic, but I just can’t recommend this book unconditionally. Enjoy, but enjoy with care.


The-Poppy-WarI will say this about R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, and that will probably be enough to make it clear how much I enjoyed it without the distraction of the rest of this post: I lost quite a bit of sleep over this book.  I read it in a couple of big gulps over a few days, and both nights I was reading it I was up much later than I wanted to be because I couldn’t put the damn book down.  I was even carrying it around with me in the house and reading the occasional chapter or few pages whenever I had a chance to during the day.  A huge percentage of my book-reading is done in bed nowadays, so if I’m setting aside time I could be spending doing something else during my limited free daylight time it’s a really impressive sign.

Early on while reading it I described it to my wife as “Harry Potter, only in sort-of-China, and the main character is Hermione instead of Harry.”  It does start off very much in that vein, almost a YA-ish format, right down to the character’s Big Bully Enemy being identified right away.  That’s only about the first 20-30% of the book, though, at which point the nation goes to war (the school the main character, Rin, attends is a military academy) and all fucking hell breaks loose.  This book lulls you in, see, and makes you think you’re in a comfortable, recognizable sort of narrative only with some East Asian cultural influences thrown in instead of Hogwarts’ staid Britishness and some occasional swearing, but once it goes off the track it goes off the track hard, and once it starts surprising you it never really stops.

Hermione was super-dedicated to her schooling, right?  Did she take medicine to burn out her own uterus so that she wouldn’t have menstruation distracting her from her studies, thus rendering her permanently infertile?  Hermione ain’t shit, then.  And once their country is invaded, genocide becomes a major theme of the book.  I don’t remember anything about genocide in the Harry Potter books.

I’m going to spare you much of a plot summary, because you deserve to see the twists and turns as the story unfolds, but be warned that R.F. Kuang does not hold back.  Once the war starts there are some scenes in this book that would have made Genghis Khan himself think man, they’re going a bit too far with this.  Oh, and drug abuse.  Lots of drug abuse.

Seriously: this is not a book for the faint-hearted, but if you aren’t too bothered by profanity and hyperviolence and drugs in what, again, starts out feeling like a slightly more grown-up version of a kids’ series, you’re going to love it.  This is definitely the first book of a series, at least a duology– and I can’t wait for the next book in the series.

That said.

(Some spoilers after this part, but I think you want to read it anyway.)

I did the thing I usually do when I really like or really hate a book and went to read a bunch of Goodreads reviews once I was finished with it.  I generally start with the bad ones; they’re more fun.  The Poppy War does not have a lot of bad reviews, but one of the one-star reviews described the book as “super-duper racist,” or something along those lines.  I blinked a couple of times at that, utterly unable to figure out what the person was talking about, and looked around some more.

So here’s the thing: this book is set in a fictional China analogue.  And the event that kicks off the last 2/3 of the book is the mainland country being invaded by the natives of the small, “moon-shaped” island not far off the coast.  In other words– and I needed this pointed out to me; I didn’t pick up on it on my own– Japan.

I do not know a lot about Chinese and Japanese history, but I know that historically Japan has not been nice to China.  And this book’s Federation of Mugen has occupied Nikara (pseudo-China) in the past, and … well, they’re not very nice either.  Now, the interesting thing is that over the course of the book Rin develops some rather major shamanic powers, to the point where by the end of the book she basically calls down the literal wrath of God on an entire island full of these people and razes it to the ground.  Now, it’s an island where the Mugen have been doing experiments on people from her ethnic group, so it’s not as if it’s unjustified, but most of her compatriots react with horror at what she’s done, and it’s set up that Rin is becoming just as bad as the Mugen were by forgetting that they’re people.  There is lots of innocent blood shed here, on both sides, and plenty of it by our protagonist.

I simply don’t know enough about the history here to be able to confidently state whether Mugen is a clear Japan analogue– I mean, there are definitely parallels, but it’s not like Kuang (who was born in Guangzhou in mainland China) dwells on racial differences between the Nikara and the Mugen very much, and this is a book where Rin’s dark skin causes a lot of friction at her exclusive military academy, so it’s not like race is something Kuang ignores.  It may be that my own ignorance is keeping me from seeing how bad this is.  So, while I absolutely enjoyed the hell out of the book, and everything I said before the line is still true, it might be that there are things about it that make it problematic that I haven’t fully explored.  Be aware of that, I guess.  I would be interested to know if someone from Japan was bothered by this; I don’t know enough to say.