Review: The Burning God (The Poppy War #3) by R.F. Kuang

No, you’re not crazy by thinking you missed my review of the second book, The Dragon Republic; I simply did not post it on this site. Click here to check out my incredibly eloquent and thought provoking Goodreads review. I know, I really outdid myself there.

I knew coming into this that it was going to be hard to get through, and it was most likely going to end on a low note, but I still feel like I expected more. You know? I just thought that I knew where or how the final conclusion should’ve finished off and gotten to the point where a purpose was achieved, but it didn’t. Is that my YA brain showing? I’m not sure, but I felt a bit disappointed in the way the story ended. I get what was meant to be said and done, but in regards to impact it was more like a flitter than a punch.

There are going to be spoilers so maybe don’t read this if you haven’t gotten this far in the series yet.

Honestly, the conclusion was probably the most disappointing part. Not because of what happened to Rin and Kitay, or even Nezha for that matter, but what the future looks like for Nikan and the Hesperians. This whole time in the series, we’ve talked about the division not just between the 12 provinces in Nikan but the clear lines drawn between North and South, and once the Mugenese were taken care of the war shifted into that of a civil war. But then the Hesperians showed up and made things more complicated. I assumed that though the book would spend most of the time with the South rising up and defeating the North, which was a really strong highlight of the book, that it would get to a certain point where Rin and Nezha realized that rather than fighting each other they should turn their fight onto the Hesperians instead, which is their true enemy. Yes, they are more technologically advanced and appear to be stronger and wiser, but you’d think with the Phoenix and Dragon together in a united front they could defeat Hesperian occupation but I guess not. And that’s why I’m disappointed, not just because that didn’t happen, but because the story basically tells you that no matter what the Hesperians would always be superior. That the Nikara are as dumb and ignorant as the Hesperians view them. That, basically, the white people will always win. And sure, is this historically accurate to the 19th-20th century? Yes. But the beauty of fiction is that you can change your story to fit the narrative you want to write, to change assumed connotations of people, and really impact the way others think. And to me, this just told me what history always told me: the white people are always superior and always come out on the other side as winners. It just felt like we were building and building to finally have the Nikara see themselves as worthy and for the Hesperians to finally be afraid, for once, but nope. It’s all fine from a historical perspective, and as a friend pointed out this is a story about the losers and not the winners of history, but from a fiction and thematic standpoint, I’m severely disappointed in the white people winning yet again.

It also felt like this book dragged in a lot of places, definitely more than the other two in my personal opinion. I know that this is obviously a war story, but almost every part of this book was a battle, a pause to survey the damage, and then just a repetitive loop. There was also a bit of a formulaic element coming through in this book, where Rin would meet a new character and then be betrayed by them, and it would happen time and again. It first happened with Vaisra in The Dragon Republic and then again a few times in this one and I, for one, have enough trust issues as it is and situations like this don’t help it. Rin was already paranoid enough after all the betrayals she faced, but every time she met someone new in the story she’d blindly trust them without remembering her past mistakes, and that’s how you can pick out its formulaic nature. I wanted to like Souji and think he’d maybe be helpful but I also knew not to get my hopes up, expecting him to betray her because that’s what always happened. A lot of authors do this, not just Kuang, because they think it’s such a “gotcha!” plot twist and it’s not. It’s tiring and predictable and literally fuels the fire under my ever growing trust issues that I don’t need to see this anymore. So due to this, and how a lot of the book dragged and felt like it was there just to fill it out, it just added to some of my underwhelming and conflicting feelings.

I also feel like this book really would’ve benefitted from a dual POV narrative, splitting time between Rin and Nezha, because it’s impossible to get the whole picture from just Rin and it shows. By following her from the beginning we know her opinions on how things should work and how the country should be run but then there’s also Nezha’s view. And I’m sure there are a lot of people who agree with Rin and her actions, just like there are those who disagree with Nezha, but we’re never really given a chance to hear Nezha out. That’s in part because Rin refuses to give him a chance to explain himself whenever they meet, but it’s also in part because the narrative doesn’t give him a chance. I personally don’t hate Nezha because I know there’s more to him than simply betraying Rin in favour of the Hesperians. I know there’s more to his beliefs and ideology than just the Hesperians being right. But I’ll never know for sure because no one gave him a chance to explain. I needed to know why he was doing what he was doing and prove to me that all of his character development wasn’t for nothing. I needed to know that Rin’s side wasn’t the good side and his the bad, or that he also believed they could find a middle ground. I honestly think that was Kuang’s biggest mistake in this book and if she had that dual POV, at the very least, then the book would be that much more fleshed out and fulfilling in the end. Oh well.

Ok, my brain wants me to point form these last thoughts so I apologize in advance for this format:

  • The whole thing with the Trifecta was SO anticlimactic and a smidge pointless?
  • Raising little baby shamans was probably one of my favourite parts of the book.
  • Venka deserved better.
  • Kitay deserved THE WORLD.
  • Vaisra got what he deserved and I cheered.
  • On what planet did Rin think she could be a good leader? In this economy? Even Katniss knew she could never lead Panem. Come on girl. She was pretty insufferable near the end.
  • Thank god Chaghan got away from this mess. I hope he’s ok.

So, in conclusion, I am very disappointed with the thematic direction of the trilogy’s conclusion, but it’s still a good story. The writing is superb, the characters are so unlikeable but enticingly interesting, and the mirroring elements to history will make any nerd want to squeal. I still think it’s one of the best Adult Fantasy series I’ll ever read and I don’t regret reading it. I just regret getting my hopes up for how it was going to end.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Hardcover, 654 pages
Published November 17th 2020 by Harper Voyager

Book Synopsis

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? 

The exciting end to The Poppy War trilogy, R. F. Kuang’s acclaimed, award-winning epic fantasy that combines the history of twentieth-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters, to devastating, enthralling effect.

Goodreads | Indigo | Amazon

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