Review: The Burning God by RF Kuang

See my reviews for the previous books The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic.

HERE BE SPOILERS

Well here we are at the end of The Poppy War trilogy. In case you missed my very positive reviews for the first two books, I’ll summarize by saying that they’re really good and you should go read them posthaste (the books, not the reviews). This one is also very positive but with a series like this, enjoyment and happiness need to be considered as two different things. After all, we were warned.

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It’s been just over 1800 pages since we first met Rin, only really a few years in book-time elapsed, and I honestly can’t tell you if there exists or could exist a more appropriate ending for the series than the one Rebecca Kuang gave us in The Burning God.

Notice I said appropriate. Not good, happy, or satisfying. In fact, if I had to give a Kubrick-like subtitle to this review, it would be something along the lines of “Unsatisfying Endings Can Be Good, Actually”. Read on for why I think that’s the case but if you’ve already read the first two books (as you should) then you already have a pretty good idea why it had to end this way and why I’d argue that an ending that could be called satisfying would’ve contradicted a main theme of the series.

At the opening of this part of the story, the war with the Nikara Empire is over; the war with the Republic and their Hesperian allies is only beginning. Rin, now crippled after her fight with Daji and leading only a paltry force of provincial troops, faces not only war against Vaisra, Westerners, and Muginese remnants but also the distrust of her new superiors in the Southern Coalition. They fear her and rightfully so. As before, Rin’s desire for revenge continues to outpace her attention to the strategic concerns of winning a war, so much so that she’s arguably fighting a different war entirely. Whereas the warlords see her as only a powerful but largely uncontrollable tool, Rin’s own sights are still set on liberation of another sort. Increasingly, she comes to despise the system of councils and bureaucrats that have long made up Nikara governance. Any collection of advisors beyond her own handpicked subordinates (since who could truly equal a mortal who can call on a god?) will inevitably plot, bicker, filibuster, steal, and generally hinder the work that needs to be done to bring a final peace to the South. To get what she really wants, she’ll have to destroy them too.

It’s bloody work, if not bloodier then more horrifyingly personal than any atrocities committed previously in this Third Poppy War, and only Fang Runin can do it. Only Fang Runin and the Phoenix, whose hunger for destruction claws away more of its host’s will with every burst of flame that courses through her body. Rin’s ambitions for peace are still a priority, but only in the sense that an ideal stands at the end of a path that must first be followed, each step another army incinerated, city depopulated or former ally destroyed on the barest possibility of their eventual betrayal. If it brings her closer to her goal, if it brings the Phoenix screaming back into the material world, then Rin must comply.

This isn’t to say she has no choice. At every stage, Kuang’s deft and intimate prose leads us through an intricate web of self-doubt, reassurance, and rage as Rin faces each new challenge that her various enemies, mortal and otherworldly, can throw at her. The reasons she makes the choices she does are clear, often in the starkest possible terms of survival or death. Still, even with Kitay and Venka to advise her away from her most destructive urges, the Phoenix is ever present and ever hungry. But did we really expect anything different? She never actually wanted to rule. What Rin craved more than peace, more even than acceptance from those she’d once chosen to command her, was victory. Steps along the way to that victory gave her opportunities to experience what it meant to command in her own right and eventually to rule, but what good is it to fret about logistics or administration when the enemy is right there and the functionally unlimited power of her god could wipe them out for good?

Of course, we know it’s never for good. Resounding victories over the Muginese armies, even over the Federation itself, only turned their remnants more desperate with nothing left to lose. Rin’s continued use of the fire gives her a degree of increased control but at the same time deepens her desire for its power; for flames that just as easily consume her allies. It’s this latter realization—that the people of the South will die not just for a concrete military goal or an abstract ideal but for her, their Speerly god—which sets her on the final path to that unsatisfying-but-appropriate ending. With this corner turned, whatever roads might have diverged from it may as well have not been there, though one by one they face Rin and the reader with agonizing potential.

It’s this potential that makes it all hurt the most. Not simply because it’s thrown away (even though it often is) but because in the back of my mind there was the knowledge that we’d already been told the price for what Rin had done in embracing the Phoenix, and watching it happen with that knowledge didn’t make it hurt less. In that way, the urge to hold out for a satisfying ending, and by that I mean a neat ending where everyone including Rin could walk away with what they truly wanted, is falling into the same trap as Rin’s idealization of total victory. We knew that channeling a god is an unsustainable means to any end other than the god’s fulfillment of its own nature. We knew that continued warfare without compromise only fuels further reprisals, further fragmentation, and further suffering borne almost entirely by seemingly endless and nameless masses of Nikara civilians. We knew all this and yet, like Rin, I was confronted with constant questions: was it all worth it? Were her acts justifiable in the service of ideology despite the cost, or even more terrifyingly, because of it? How far could the universe really permit one person to go for revenge? Because whatever that limit is, the Phoenix’s hunger is undoubtedly greater.

Rin knows this too, or else she wouldn’t struggle as she does with rising doubt and guilt over the atrocities she ultimately chooses to commit. She would’ve committed even more if not for the moderating influence of Kitay, whose agony at the Phoenix’s every touch changes in Rin’s mind from a suspicion to a hindrance to a promise of even greater power. As in the previous two books, Rin continually forces herself down a more extreme path by choosing to ignore whatever brutality she can’t rationalize away; on some level, she knows that if she truly faced the horror of her deeds and intentions, then she herself couldn’t survive it either. Again, these were nothing more than the terms of her bargain with the god of Speer, which she accepted for her apprentice shamans even as she still denied it in her own mind with every dream of a peaceful life for herself after Hesperia’s final downfall. But each of these dreams carries with it the seeds of its own undoing, as the only way Rin can see to reach them is through further rationalization of the brutality she came through a mix of insecurities and fear to admire in her idols: Altan, Vaisra, Su Daji, and the Red Emperor. Where they ultimately failed, she would succeed, if only because her will to power through personal and military sacrifice was that much greater.

The fundamental issue Rin faces is not just how to win the war. This kind of tactical concern was never her forte and even strategy could get her too bogged down in the details: cities, roads, dams, supplies, and more minutiae that were better left to Kitay. Instead, the issue she faces is the nature of reality itself. That the material world is only the collective dream of the gods; that its history is only a recurring cycle of anarchy, conquest, consolidation, and collapse; that Rin herself is no more its architect than the Red Emperor or Su Daji were, despite all the significance heaped upon them by subsequent generations. Whatever role Rin played for ordinary Nikara, the Hesperians, or anybody else in this world, her devourer god saw her as nothing more than a conduit for unsustainable consumption which only left Rin’s mortal allies with more enemies to spoil their every victory. That is, unless the cycle could be rejected and broken, like one of her old instructor’s strategy games where the optimal ending was that which was arrived at without unnecessary conflict. There was no shame in calculated surrender; only in pressing on toward inevitable defeat no matter the cost.

In choosing death over vengeance, Rin presented Nikan with a greater choice: to either rebuild the same systems she’d torn down through brute force or to build instead on the possibilities that this destruction entails. Warlords, provinces, Speer, the Trifecta, this latest Western occupation force, had all been reduced to ash as is the nature of fire. But where fire passes, it leaves behind richer soil.

The slate given to Nezha in the epilogue is not entirely a clean one. After years of systematic looting, sexual violence, murder, and infrastructural sabotage, the Nikan mainland faces years of continued suffering that can only be alleviated (and that only in part) by foreign aid. Rin’s suspicions about a Hesperian return thus appear entirely justified and knowing Nezha’s desire to accept any aid he can to save the remains of Nikan, the future of whatever state he chooses to build on the ashes of the Republic and the Empire is certain in one respect: there will be no Nikan that’s entirely free from foreign influence. At the same time, whatever else could’ve tied him to the past cycles of history has been equally destroyed. At least from his perspective, the technological aid offered by the Consortium could truly benefit the Nikara people. He may well be right. The certainty of religious suppression by the Gray Order looms over them as well, such that the brutality of Rin’s means and ends don’t negate the fact that she was right about the stakes. There is no going back to the way things were, for good or ill.

But what alternative was there really? An intercontinental war that would only end with the sinking of millions more lives and inevitably Rin’s own into the all-consuming fire? As much as she and the Phoenix wanted it, there was no clean victory to be won through the pure exercise of divine power alone. If peace is to exist in the material world, then it would have to won through human will as well. In that kind of material world, Rin—having become a god herself, not just as a symbol for the South but nearly an immortal embodiment of the Phoenix—had no more place than did the dragon of Arlong. She could exist as a legend to frighten and inspire but not as a mortal and definitely not as a god. And to truly become a legend, Fang Runin would first have to die.

It’s this divergence from the cycle of Nikara history that also brings an end to the overall trilogy’s parallels to that of our world, namely the life story of Mao Zedong. These parallels have been made clear before in author interviews and since I only know broad strokes about 19th-20th century China, I’m not going to dive deeper into them here than my limited knowledge allows. (If you’d like to read much more about these historical/cultural parallels from a Taiwanese perspective, I’d highly recommend Everything You Need to Know Before You Read The Poppy War By R.F. Kuang by Readbytiffany.) Some are fairly obvious and intentionally so: the revolutionary forces’ respective Long Marches, followed by a string of unconventional military victories, ending with the defeated Republican government escaping to an island on the former empire’s periphery to rule in exile. But that last point is where the similarities end.

Again, I admittedly don’t have the historical background to make many other connections than what I have here, so I take it for granted that Kuang’s narrative choices in relation to real-world history were all well-informed and deliberate. I don’t expect the histories to match one-for-one, even when major episodes do coincide. The important thing is that in the end, Nikan and China do diverge radically through Rin’s death at what was then the height of her powers. Could she have really accomplished her original goal of total revenge through total destruction? After what she did to Mugen, she very well could have. But in terms of the narrative, would that have really been satisfying? Maybe for the Phoenix. Not if the constant refrain in her narration that the weakest in society suffer the most from war was to really be taken seriously. Still, I wouldn’t call the ending of the series an uncomplicated vote in favor of the status quo by any means. What we get instead is an openness to be filled with melancholic fascination at the potential that Nikan—and any world that fights against societal oppression—can achieve. It’s a freedom to imagine other futures, other realities, other relationships with the past, other systems that don’t exist to exploit and extract but to heal and provide.

Did Rin hate herself for being unable to do what was necessary before or was her final act a form of cathartic self-acceptance? Does her vengeful spirit linger in the material world like Altan’s and other Speerlies’ did? Or was her suicide a form of closure that allows her spirit to leave this world behind and finally join her god? I’m not convinced that the answers to these questions are particularly important. Rather, the emphasis in the story was on how she chose to break the cycle, with no included speculation on a reemergence that would violate her entire choice to die in the first place.

With the cycle of Trifectas and empires now broken through Rin’s final gift of self-sacrifice, peace becomes a possibility at last. One that naturally entails compromise and further encounters with Hesperia, but the choice to start again from scratch lends the series a hopeful note made all the more tempting by the obvious finality in other parts of the narrative. It suggests not an easy road toward fixing all the abuses of both colonialism and authoritarianism through power alone but rather a willingness to embrace possibility, to embrace dreams, as a site for the creation of a better world.

The Burning God is available at major retailers and indie bookstores.

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