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The Burning God by R.F. Kuang

book cover of The Burning God

Almost as soon as I started reading this book, I was relieved: it's much better than the last one. Where The Dragon Republic disappointed and frustrated me for depicting Rin as a hero when many of her actions (like genociding the Mugenese) are so clearly evil, The Burning God immediately makes clear that Fang Runin is a real villain-protagonist. I was so thrilled by this reframing that my renewed enthusiasm kept me going for a good long while.

To the extent that I didn't enjoy this book, it was mainly because it was very long, and there was a constant whirlwind of neverending but repetitive activity to fill the pages. I'll admit, as I said in the last review, that some of this is on me for reading a military fantasy when I'm not keen on military strategy. But then there was also – without wanting to spoil anything specific – the long, sorry situation with Nezha, multiple rounds of trusting people before inevitably being betrayed… while I was reading it (for most of the book) I was happily along for the ride, but at the end I look back and just feel overwhelmed by everything that happened. A lot of individual characters had arcs that finished unsatisfyingly. The ending also suffered a bit from pacing – there was a "fake climax" just close enough to the end that I thought it might've been the real climax, so then everything afterwards felt like a really drawn-out and overlong "falling action" section, until nearly 100 pages later it became clear there was going to be another, real climax. Then once we got there, I had very mixed feelings about that real ending. On the one hand, I think it's perfectly fitting for the character of Fang Runin that even once the war is over she can't get over her paranoia, or turn her mindset to reconstruction. On the other hand, it did make the events of nearly the entire book feel pointless, if she was just going to hand control over the country to Nezha so easily. What was all the destruction for, then?! But you know, I guess the core of the trilogy is Rin's rise and fall rather than the state of the land around her.

I want to be fair, though. Pretty much everything that I said I wanted to see in my review of the last book was, in fact, present. For the majority of the book, I was deeply engaged and clicking through pages like nobody's business. And it's also notable that this book puts a very Chinese spin on the fantasy genre, with a wonderful skewering of Western, Christian colonialism in the Hesperians, and drawing extensively on Chinese history, culture and geography. Everything to do with the setting, including the magic system and the gods, was super interesting to me. And overall, I think this has been the best-written and most enjoyable instalment of the trilogy (not quite enough for me to give it a higher rating than the three stars I gave The Poppy War, though). If you've read the first two books, you have every reason to finish the series off.

Books in the Poppy War series

  1. The Poppy War
  2. The Dragon Republic
  3. The Burning God (you are here)

★★★

a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.