The Burning God by R.F. Kuang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the third book in the Poppy War trilogy, and here Fang Runin's long, bloody, brutal journey finally comes to its end. She has undergone quite the character arc, from a naive teenager trying to enter a military academy to escape an unwanted marriage in her home village, to a General who lays waste to her entire country, with her titular Burning God (an elemental, chaotic spirit) in tow.
But if I could sum this book up in one sentence, it would be this: What happens after you win? Because in much of this book, Rin does win. Her Southern Army boots out the remains of the Republic (from the second book, The Dragon Republic) and even causes the invading, technologically superior Hesperians to flee. But a marauding General does not a ruling Empress make. You can see Rin's hubris and inability to turn her focus from conquering to rebuilding, and it is this that ultimately brings her down. Because of her, a widespread famine grips her country, Nikara, and the people she has professed to fight for undergo terrible deaths from cold and starvation. The economy and infrastructure of Nikara has broken down, and Rin is simply unable to fix it.
Anybody who has read these books knows there can't be a happy ending. There isn't. But given this story and these characters, it is the only ending possible, and it is wholly earned. The epilogue, told from the point of view of Rin's fellow shaman, gives the reader a small tinge of hope that Nikara might someday be able to survive and recover. Don't start any of these books if you can't handle blood, gore and relentless bleakness. This is not an upbeat book by any stretch of the imagination, and the characters, especially Rin, are brutal, ruthless monsters. But this is definitely the sort of book where the phrase "everybody is the hero of their own story" applies. Rin is not likable, but she is fascinating. As is her story.
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