“We didn’t pull any punches.” R.F. Kuang on Her Next Novel, The Burning God

“We didn’t pull any punches.” R.F. Kuang on Her Next Novel, The Burning God
Image: Kobi C. Felton

R.F. Kuang made a splash in 2018 with her debut novel, The Poppy War, an epic military fantasy about a young woman named Rin, who finds herself in the midst of a brutal war.

Loosely based on real-world Chinese history, The Poppy War earned Kuang nominations for both the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. She followed up that book last year with The Dragon Republic, and in November, she’ll close out the trilogy with The Burning God.

Kuang recently unveiled the cover for that third installment, which will pick up the story of Rin and contending with the awesome power that she’s unleashed.

After saving her nation of Nikan from foreign invaders and battling the evil Empress Su Daji in a brutal civil war, Fang Runin was betrayed by allies and left for dead.

Despite her losses, Rin hasn’t given up on those for whom she has sacrificed so much—the people of the southern provinces and especially Tikany, the village that is her home. Returning to her roots, Rin meets difficult challenges—and unexpected opportunities. While her new allies in the Southern Coalition leadership are sly and untrustworthy, Rin quickly realizes that the real power in Nikan lies with the millions of common people who thirst for vengeance and revere her as a goddess of salvation.

Backed by the masses and her Southern Army, Rin will use every weapon to defeat the Dragon Republic, the colonizing Hesperians, and all who threaten the shamanic arts and their practitioners. As her power and influence grows, though, will she be strong enough to resist the Phoenix’s intoxicating voice urging her to burn the world and everything in it?
Image: Harper Voyager UK

I spoke with Kuang about that upcoming book, and what we can expect from it.

Your first novel, The Poppy War, struck a particular chord with readers: It’s a mix of military fiction, magic, and Chinese history. How did you get started on this particular world?

Mostly by accident. I wrote The Poppy War when I was nineteen and didn’t really know what I was doing, so I didn’t approach world-building in any deliberate fashion. I think authors always end up writing what we enjoy reading. At the time I was really into military history, wuxia novels, and western epic fantasy—it felt natural to try to wed all of that into a single project. You can see the hints of Ender’s Game and Naruto. I just threw in a hodgepodge of themes and aesthetics I liked, and that syncretism seems to have worked.

Now I’m into a very different set of influences. I’m getting a little bored with sword and sorcery epic fantasy, and I’ve diversified my reading quite a lot, so that’ll have an interesting effect on what creative project that produces next. That sounds vague but I’m not allowed to say more.

That book ended with Rin committing some terrible atrocities to end the war, and opening herself up to some pretty dark impulses. Where does that leave us for The Burning God?

This whole trilogy has been about cycles of violence, abuse, and responses to trauma. The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic saw how violence recreates itself; how wars don’t end if dehumanizing narratives persist. The Mugenese have never treated the Speerlies as human; Rin ends the book convinced that the Mugenese aren’t human.

These aren’t perspectives that developed over the course of the book; they were the product of years of xenophobic storytelling and popular memory. It’s pretty easy to spot the real world parallels here. The Burning God asks if it’s possible to break that pattern, and if so, what that might take.

How would you describe this installment?

We didn’t pull any punches.

You’ve put Rin through the wringer with this trilogy, and she’s been at the blunt end of power in several forms—both magical and political. What impact do you see this having on her?

She’s changed a lot through this trilogy. In The Poppy War, she was the scared, overwhelmed ingenue; the world came at her very fast and she reacted from fear and grief with apocalyptic consequences. In The Dragon Republic, she learned to get a grasp on her power and to overcome her addiction to taking orders from more powerful figures.

The Burning God sees her at the height of her power—she’s finally on the same page as the Phoenix, she wields the flame like it’s an extension of her body, and she knows, for the first time, whose side she’s really on. She’s been a punching bag for most of this trilogy but now she’s finally, finally in the driver’s seat. But I’m not sure we’ll like where she wants to take us.

This book closes out the trilogy. What do you hope readers will take away from the entire cycle? What are you excited for them to read?

In this last volume I’ve tried to shy away from easy answers. Readers familiar with Chinese history will likely have spotted the historical parallels in the plots of the first and second book, which deal with the War of Resistance and the Chinese Civil War. They’ll also probably know where The Burning God is headed.

The question, then, is: Does Rin’s path follow Mao’s path into an era of mass death and disaster? Without giving too much away (and you may still probably want to skip the rest of the answer if spoilers really bother you), I can say that the trilogy has struggled with the question of the rise of communist movements around the world as a response to western imperialism. Were those movements successful? Where they failed, were their sacrifices justified? The Burning God ends by asking whether an alternate future was possible for China.

But that’s all I can offer—questions. There are no easy answers to be found in counterfactuals.

After this trilogy is over, what’s next for you?

More books! There’s very little I can say at this point, given that I’ve only just started drafting the new project, but I can confirm it has nothing to do with the Poppy Wars trilogy.