R.F. Kuang had a tall order on her hands when it came to the task of writing the hotly anticipated conclusion to The Poppy War trilogy — both its predecessors met with rave reviews and drummed up a passionate fanbase; the consensus was already that Kuang’s second book, The Dragon Republic blew the already beloved first installment, The Poppy War, out of the water. Expectations were sky-high, fans were bouncing off the walls trying to come up with theories about the fates of Rin, Nezha, and Kitay, and the pressure could not have been higher. But because this is R.F. Kuang, and her books only go from strength to strength, she knocks it completely out of the park.
I have to force myself to be brief in this review, mainly in the interest of avoiding spoilers and inviting the righteous ire of a not insignificant portion of the internet, but it’s not going to be easy. Kuang has referred to herself as “an ideas author,” and it’s never been more evident than in The Burning God. The scale of this book is massive, not just in terms of the battles that wage in its pages but the ideas about warfare, politics, cycles of abuse, imperialism, and class that simmer beneath them. The ideological explorations of the first two books explode here, and it’s a testament to Kuang’s skill as a storyteller that the complex political machinations of this book are riveting to read; she weaves them seamlessly into the brutal, unrelenting, precisely action sequences and the effect is a constant ceaseless tension. You really understand that, in reading this book, you’re embroiled not only in a fight for lives, but for ideas and systems.
The real mastery, of course, is that this war of ideas is made immediate and palpable in the shape of the characters. Rin, Kitay, and Nezha and the relationships between them — some shattered, some emboldened, and all inextricably entangled — are at the beating heart of the novel. Rin’s character trajectory is one of the most fascinating and visceral ones I’ve read in recent years; she’s a main character destined to go down as one of the best. However, it’s her relationships with the other two that cause the gut-wrenches and heartbreaks of this novel. And this has never been a series to pull punches. These characters and their bonds have their claws in us from the start, and Kuang isn’t afraid to pull and twist at them.
It’s hard to say much more at this point without venturing closer into spoiler territory, so I’ll restrain myself. I can only say that the constantly, expertly intertwined twin tracks at the core of this novel — the sagas of characters and politics — culminate in one of the best endings to a series I’ve read. It isn’t one that I had predicted, but it fits and closes the story beautifully. No punches are pulled, no ends are left loose. Kuang offers an answer to the questions her novels have posed, and, true to the spirits of the books, it’s a ruthless and unyielding and an unwaveringly realistic one. But it’s one that allows for the presence of its own peculiar brand of hope, and that’s what will linger long after you finish reading this series.