ARC Review: The Burning God by R. F. Kuang

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?

CW: depictions of war, violence, gore, burning, talk of past rape, cannibalism, famine

Finally, this brilliant trilogy comes to an end. I was absolutely stunned when I received the ARC for this finale, because despite reading both the previous books only last year, it was one of my most anticipated books of 2020 and I was quite dreading how it would end. And it was everything I expected it could be.

Kuang is a masterful writer and we as readers can feel the growth in her craft and skill in each subsequent book in this series. I was gripped from page one, and despite being more than 600 pages long, I really read it end to end in one go because I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I didn’t know how it ended. The story is engaging, brutal and intense, surprising me at many turns and also making me paranoid about what horrors lay in the upcoming chapters. The author also does an excellent job at creating a bleak atmosphere, a country ravaged by war, and a people who have very few options left for survival. It’s utterly heartbreaking to read at times, but that’s always been the strength of this trilogy. And the less I talk about the military strategies and battle sequences in the book, the better – because they are exquisitely crafted and I can say that this is definitely where the author shines the most.

Rin is the most frustrating character I must have read in the past couple of years, and I still couldn’t help but hope that there was a light at the end of the tunnel for her. She is fierce and brave but also ruthlessly pragmatic, who knows the consequences of having her power but still revels in exercising it, who’s thoughts and ideas are so off putting sometimes that we forget why she is the way she is and how much trauma she has gone through to be in this situation. She really is the perfect anti heroine and I have such a love-hate relationship with her, that she is gonna be very memorable to me for a long time to come.

What keeps us reminded of Rin’s humanity are the side characters – Kitay remains the moral center of the story, with his conviction to try and do the best thing possible in every circumstance and not indulge in unnecessary violence; and his relationship with Rin is probably gonna be my all time favorite friendship depiction for a long time to come. The absolute trust and belief they share in each other is amazing to read about and I’m gonna miss it now that the trilogy is over. We also get more of Venka in this finale and I thought that was a brilliant choice – she provides kind of a counter to Rin’s personality and despite being abrasive herself, the moments they share have some tenderness and it made for some quite reflective breaks in between intense situations.

We also get to know more about the history about the trifecta, especially Daji and Jiang but it still felt a little incomplete to me and I wanted to know about how they came to be and their falling out. We also get to know Nezha better and while it made me understand some of his decisions as well as his helplessness in certain circumstances, I still can’t like him. And I maybe can feel why Rin has such conflicting emotions about him and doesn’t always make rational decisions in confrontations with him, but I still hate the guy. There are also many other new characters introduced who had significant impacts on the story, and I was in awe of the author’s ability to be able to do that in the finale of a series.

All the themes and the history that the author brings to light through this fantasy world has always been the major highlight of this series for me. While TPW was a parallel to the second Sino-Japanese war and TDR was the beginning of the Chinese civil war, in this finale we see more of the parallels to the peasant revolution, rise of Mao Zedong, the Long March, and some indications of the devastation caused by the Great Famine. They all make for a difficult reading experience even when reading in a fictional world, so I can’t even imagine how brutal the actual events must have been in early and mid 20th century China.

Kuang never romanticizes the effects of war and this book shows more of it, without ever feeling gratuitous. The bigger picture of a war maybe for higher ideals like freedom and independence, but the devastation it causes in terms of unimaginable violence, deaths, food scarcity, homelessness and just overall trauma is very realistically depicted, and it creates very vivid pictures in our head which are hard to forget.

But just like in TDR, the thing that made me most angry was the depiction of western colonization through the Hesperians – how the west’s belief in their moral superiority and Christianity’s unending efforts to convert have decimated age old local traditions and cultures, robbing them of their uniqueness and making them all homogenized and in an image of the west, but also never equal to them.

In conclusion, this was a near perfect finale with intricate amalgamation of history and fantasy, spectacular military strategy and action sequences on both material and spiritual planes, and a host of amazing characters who make the most brutal choices imaginable in a merciless war. I really had no predictions about how it would end but when it all concluded the way it did, it made the perfect sense in my head and there can’t be anything more satisfying in the conclusion of a beloved series. If you are a fan of the previous two books, I obviously don’t need to convince you to read this one. But if you are someone who loves grimdark/military fantasy novels with very realistic depictions of war, then you should totally checkout this trilogy. I would also definitely recommend reading a bit about the history involved in creating this fantasy world, or checkout this brilliantly researched post by Tiffany – just so you can better appreciate the depth behind the storytelling and the unusual choices the author makes to bring this story to life.

PS: Thank you to HarperCollins UK and Netgalley for providing me with this advance review copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.

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