Why You Need to Read: “The Burning God”

The Poppy War Trilogy, #3: The Burning God

By: R.F. Kuang                                                                       Audiobook: 23 hours 47 minutes

Published: November 17, 2020                                              Narrated by: Emily Woo Zeller

Genre: Historical Fantasy, Grimdark, Military Fantasy, Folklore

            What was wrong with her? She’d started and ended wars. She’d buried a god. She’d incinerated a country. There wasn’t an entity on the planet that could face her in a fair fight and win. She was certain of her own strength; she’d sacrificed everything to make sure she never felt powerless again. 

            So why was she so afraid? (Chapter Eight). 

            History presents war with selections to choose from; some wars are revolutions, some wars are civil, some wars are invasions, and so on and so forth. The surface of war may be simple, but the layers run so deep it’s difficult to determine the alliances and the motivations for it. Not to mention, war affects EVERYONE and EVERYTHING. The Burning God—the third and final book in The Poppy War Trilogy—by R.F. Kuang, delves into the power and the warfare of a war that doesn’t seem to end. 

            Fang Runin “Rin” is still alive, but she’s without her troops, her allies, and her hand. Betrayed again by those who wanted to use her powers as a shaman for their goals, Rin decides to return to her home province in the south in order to liberate them from both the Dragon Republic and the Hesperians. There, she learns that her past actions have turned her into a living legend amongst the common people. And, they want to fight with her. Rin’s friends are Kitay, her friend from Sinegard, and Venka, her classmate and her former rival turned ally. Then, there’s Nezha, the son of the Dragon Lord, who is serving his family’s cause instead of Rin’s. While Nezha is Rin’s opponent, he isn’t the only antagonist Rin has to kill in order to liberate Nikan. However, will her new alliances led to more betrayal? Rin continues to develop in a way so that we can still root for her while trying to overlook the numerous atrocities she commits for liberation and for revenge. In Rin’s case, you can’t have one without the other. 

            Similar to the first 2 books in the trilogy, there are 3 parts in The Burning God; and, each part focuses on the antagonist(s) Rin must defeat to claim victory once and for all. Part I has Rin, Kitay, Venka, and what remains of their army marching into the Southern Provinces to liberate them from the Dragon Republic. Rin returns to Tikany for the first time since she left for Sinegard, and what she discovers there strengthens her conviction to transform Nikan into an independent nation. Rin’s new army consists of the common people and those who rebelled against the Dragon Republic. From them, Rin and her army are taught about elements of war that they didn’t learn at Sinegard. It turns out, guerilla warfare works for revolutionary purposes. But, what about against an invading nation? 

            Part II has Rin betrayed (again) and separated from her friends. From here, Rin makes an uneasy alliance with one of the last individuals she expected to see again. However, Rin knows this alliance this the only way to defeat both the Dragon Lord—Yin Vaisra, Nezha’s father—and the Hesperian fleet. During the march to regroup Rin’s troops and to rescue her friends, Rin learns the truth about her shaman powers and the Trifecta. Now, Rin has to decide where and who her loyalty lies with, and whether or not the end justifies the means.

            Part III has Rin and her army at full force. Rin, Kitay and Venka defeat all of their enemies and have liberated Nikan. However, the end of the war isn’t over until all hostile forces either surrender or die. In addition, Nikan has been ravaged by war for so long that there is no short-term plan for the survivors to carry on living. On top of that, Rin has the power and the recognition she always wanted, but like each war leader in (our) history, Rin struggles to maintain power and control for herself. All Rin has to do is weed out the remnants of her enemies—including Nezha—and find a resource to make Nikan self-sufficient in the years to come. Unfortunately, war is NOT a game, and it doesn’t end until all of the foes from one side are dead. 

            In addition to the plots in each Part in the novel, there are several subplots which enhance both the narrative and the character development. Some of the subplots include: the destruction of Speer, the fragility of the Trifecta, the Yin Family, Rin’s return to Tikany, and shamanism. All of the subplots tie in the plots of this story as it reaches its end. The characters’ story arcs end in ways that match the mood of the series, which is a combination of shocking and appropriate. Not only do these subplots wrap up the plots going back to the first book in the series, but also presents the conflicts all of the characters face throughout (and before) it. 

            The narrative is in 3rd person limited, which means readers learn everything going on from Rin’s point-of-view and from her stream-of-consciousness. The latter is essential because readers are able to understand why Rin makes the choices—both good and bad—throughout the narrative. It should be mentioned that there are a Prologue, an Epilogue, and 2 Chapters which are not told from Rin’s P.O.V. These serve as memory sequences which enhance the story and the conflicts, and lets readers know what Rin is up against. The narrative is what drives the story; it is well-written, and it can be followed by the readers easily. 

            The style R.F. Kuang uses in The Burning God brings The Poppy War Trilogy to a full circle. As the author ends the series, she reintroduces everything from The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic in order to remind her readers about the cost and the effect of war. In addition, this finale presents grimdark through a historical lens. After the release of The Dragon Republic, Kuang announced the historical figure Rin was supposed to represent. Anyone who is familiar with what happened in China after the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), knows what Rin’s victory could mean for Nikan. The mood in this novel is puissance; it is a non-stop power struggle from start to end. The tone in this novel is the evanescence of power; the effects of war last much longer than an individual’s power and influence. 

            The appeal for The Burning God have been positive. Fans and readers who have stuck with this series will not be disappointed with the story’s conclusion. Fans of historical fantasy, military fiction and revenge stories—The Priory of the Orange Tree, The Rage of Dragons and Nevernight, respectively—will enjoy this book (and series) the most. There have been criticism of this book due to the realistic violence portrayed throughout the trilogy. However, this portrayal of warfare and of violence is the reality within the fiction, sadly. As I mentioned in a previous post, this series is the most similar to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series—and, maybe Joe Abercrombie’s books (I haven’t read them yet, but I will very soon)—so, his fans might enjoy this series as well. I listened to the audiobook edition of this book, and the narrator, Emily Woo Zeller, did an amazing job.

            The Burning God is a blazing finale to a series that started off as a school fantasy, transformed into a military historical fantasy, and ends as a grimdark series. R.F. Kuang delivers a powerful end to a series with Asian roots and influence. Do not wait as long as I did to read this book, you have no idea on what you’re missing out on. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

P.S. Thank you Sasha for getting me to finish this trilogy through out buddy read!

Why You Need to Read: “First, Become Ashes”

First, Become Ashes

By: K.M. Szpara

Published: April 6, 2021

Genre: Urban Fantasy

TRIGGER WARNING: Be advised. This book contains elements of self-harm, imprisonment, rape, torture, abuse, and non-consensual sex. 

I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for a fair review. All thoughts are mine alone.

            Her voice drips with pity I neither want nor need. This is useless—this whole conversation. Nova said outsiders wouldn’t believe us. Not that we were acting in their best interests, nor that we were Anointed. She warned us about their zealots and skeptics. That I could literally work magic in front of them and they wouldn’t see it. Well, I know myself and I’m not going to waste time or magical energy proving their ignorance to them. I don’t care if Miller believes me, I just need her to uncuff me, (5: Lark/Now). 

            Speculative fiction has emerged to have a fandom which rivals sports fans. The last 50-60 years saw the emergence and the growth of fans of this genre through books, films, and video games. As the fandom and the popularity grew, people started dressing up as their favorite characters and recreating scenes from those media. Various activities—especially, Dungeons & Dragons—are familiar as fans take tropes from these narratives and come up with similar stories. Just like with all stories, there are moments of the good, the bad and the ugly. Most of the time, fans—cosplayers and gamers—tend to leave the ugly out of their “stories.” K.M. Szpara does NOT avoid the ugly in his latest novel, First, Become Ashes, a hybrid of Jonestown and Japanese role-playing games.  

            The protagonist in this novel is Lark, short for Meadowlark. He has spent his entire life in Druid Hill with the Fellowship, training to partake in a quest to save the world. He is one of the Anointed Ones—those gifted with magic and abilities—who will leave his home on his 25th birthday to prove himself by defeating a F.O.E.—“Force of Evil”—or, a monster. However, Lark is a couple of months shy of his 25th birthday. The one who gets to leave Druid Hill first is Kane, who is Lark’s training companion and boyfriend. He is an Anointed One, too; but, since he is older, Kane leaves for his quest first. Lark starts counting down the days until it is his turn to leave and to join Kane. Unfortunately, Kane goes off on a different quest, and it involves the F.B.I. and the S.W.A.T. Team. Kane has decided to put an end to the lies told by their leader, Nova. Kane discovered a long time ago that their lives were a lie. There is no magic, no monsters, and no reason to fight. The lead agent on this investigation is Agent Miller, who knows a lot more about the Fellowship and Nova than she lets on. Agent Miller needs Lark to testify against Nova and the Elders for all of the crimes they’ve committed. Lark refuses to cooperate because he believes Kane became “corrupted” immediately after going on his quest. Lark decides he’s the only Anointed One who can save what is left of the Fellowship. Once he escapes confinement, Lark meets Calvin, an outsider—a super nerd and a professional cosplayer—who is willing to assist Lark on his quest by any means necessary. Accompanying them is Calvin’s friend, Lillian, who is a part-time podcaster. Meanwhile, accompanying Agent Miller’s search for Lark is Deryn, Lark’s older sibling. They were one of the first Anointed Ones before Nova stripped that title from them—as a child—for unknown reasons. They are willing to put an end to the Fellowship due to the harsh treatment they received. All of these characters develop as the story progresses, and readers learn quickly that they are not only individuals who are trying to debunk lies, but also are complex people who had their choices taken away from them, and they are seeking ways to reclaim their lives. It should be mentioned that while Nova is the villain, she is NOT the antagonist. One of the characters mentioned is Lark’s antagonist, but do you know who it is?

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is a twist on “the hero’s quest.” But instead of the “hero” leaving to “save the world,” the hero is on a “quest” to prove magic is real and the Fellowship is not the “corrupted F.O.E.” The second plot is the investigation of the Fellowship, which is a cult. Readers learn about the cult’s origins, and how and why Kane decided to “betray” the Fellowship. There is one subplot and it develops alongside the two plots, and it is central to the story. The subplot involves the trauma suffered by all of the characters; and, the common theme involves fantasy and gaming. Remember, 2 of the characters did not suffer within the Fellowship, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have personal demons and reality to face. Please keep in mind the trauma suffered by the Fellowship includes: physical and emotional abuse, family separation, isolation, torture, and sexual abuse. While this subplot is essential to the plots, such incidents are common and occur more often than is reported. In other words, the reality within the fiction is too palpable to ignore.

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Lark, Kane, Deryn and Calvin. They are all reliable narrators because what they experience relates to the conflicts within the story: the influence the Fellowship has had on the characters and whether or not magic exists. The narrative alternates based on which character is narrating the story. Lark and Calvin’s narratives are in 1st-person and follows a sequence which is told in the present. Lark and Calvin are on a quest, and it takes them further away from what they know as they believe they are getting closer towards fulfilling their quest. Deryn’s narrative is told in 1st-person and is told in the present. Deryn travels with Agent Miller in order to track down Lark. However, Deryn isn’t looking for Lark just because he is their sibling, but because they want vengeance for the treatment they and the others who are not “Anointed Ones” were subjected to by Nova. The more time Deryn spends with Agent Miller, the more of their memories begin to resurface, and they realize there is truth behind Kane’s actions. Kane’s narrative is told in 1st-person, but the sequence is presented in the past. This is because Kane’s narrative is his testimony against the Fellowship to the F.B.I. It is through Kane’s memories and flashbacks (not the same thing), readers learn what really was going on within the Fellowship and how Kane was able to interpret the lies and the abuse in Nova’s teachings, and why he decided to betray them, knowing they were a cult. The narrative goes back-and-forth between the present and the past and it moves among the characters so that the story is complete without any bias, which is essential when referring to cults.

            The style K.M. Szpara uses in First, Become Ashes is a homage to the nerd fandom. Several allusions to fantasy novels, video games, anime, cosplayers, comic-cons, etc., make their way into this novel, and it balances the atmosphere and the conflict presented in the story. And, as a member of this fandom, the message is clear, there is a minuscule part of us who desire such aspects to be real. That is not to say that every mundane thing within our reality can be explained—there are a few living things which break the laws of science (i.e. bumblebees, dolphins, butterflies and moths, etc.)—but, how many people are willing to believe in “other explanations”? Nevertheless, this novel is a cautionary tale as to what can happen when individuals use people in order to fulfill their twisted desires. Both the villain and the antagonist use Lark (and the other members of the Fellowship) to get what they want—one wants dominance and the other wants their beliefs to be validated—and, both leave Lark a broken individual who believes he has to go on his quest so that everything he went through wasn’t for nothing. The mood in this novel is wishfulness. All of the characters long for something, and some of them are willing to do anything to fulfill it. The tone in this novel is the brutality these characters are willing to put themselves through, especially with the conflict of the individual versus society. Keep in mind such treatment and desire can manifest anywhere, and are not limited to cults. 

            The appeal for First, Become Ashes will be positive with discretion. The novel has LGBTQIA+ characters, but the presentation of the cult and the treatment will receive the most attention and criticism. Once again, this book has a Trigger Warning of sadomasochism, sexual and physical and emotional abuse, and it should not be read by anyone who either has issues with these topics or has undergone similar experiences. That being said, this novel will be praised for its themes of “living in the real world,” “life is not a fantasy (story),” and “not everything can provide an explanation.” This novel belongs in the speculative fiction canon in the subgenres urban fantasy and low fantasy. An urban fantasy is a fantasy story associated with rural settings adapted to specific (and often actual) locations. A low fantasy—the opposite of high fantasy—is a fantasy story which presents nonrational occurrences without any causality because they happen in a rational world where such things are not supposed to happen (this story is NOT magic realism!). So, fans of American Gods by Neil Gaiman and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin will enjoy this book the most. I believe gamers and cosplayers will enjoy this book, too because of the social commentary and the (familiar) criticism mentioned throughout the novel. 

            First, Become Ashes is an excellent blend of fantasy and reality, and a great social commentary. This is one of those books in which the conflict is more memorable than the characters, and that’s a good thing because this plot device will keep readers immersed from start to end, similar to a great video game. It’s hard to believe this is the author’s 2nd novel, but it means readers can look forward to more works from him in the future! 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!