Exploring themes of dictatorship, war, sociopathy, power, and rage, The Burning God—the third book in R.F. Kuang’s much-lauded Poppy War trilogy—could not be more timely. The series, which follows an orphan with special powers who is called to fight for her country when a neighboring nation invades, pulls from Chinese history, nodding to everything from the Song dynasty to the Second Sino-Japanese War.
“A big question of the trilogy is what could make a dictator like Mao [Zedong] commit the sort of atrocities that he did,” says Rebecca Kuang, 24, as she settles in for a chat from her boyfriend’s apartment in Florida. She looks cozy in a gray Yale University sweatshirt. “What has to happen to you to turn you into someone that could do those things? Some sociopathy, yes. But that’s too easy. What experiences and ideologies would have to shape you? And if you could change the path of those events, that history, would you?”
In Burning God, on shelves November 17 from Harper Voyager, Kuang pushes readers’ favorite antihero, Rin, a rage-filled stand-in for Mao, to the brink, exploring brutal territory in a dark but satisfying end to the trilogy.
Kuang was 22 when her 2018 debut, The Poppy War, introduced her as a strong voice in modern fantasy. The book deftly explores dark themes and imagery with a surprisingly light, sometimes humorous tone.
“It’s a very syncretic mash of ideas—themes from 20th-century Chinese history but with a Song dynasty aesthetic and wuxia and anime sensibilities, all told through the structure of a Western epic fantasy,” says Kuang. “It wasn’t deliberate, just literally everything I was into at the time.”
The Poppy War earned the first-time author nominations for the Nebula, World Fantasy, and Locus awards, and it won both the Crawford Award and the Compton Crook Award in 2019, cementing her as a voice to be reckoned with in the genre. She published the sequel, The Dragon Republic, in 2019, earning a nomination for the Joseph W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She won that title, now renamed the Astounding Award, this year.
While she’s grateful for the accolades, she’s not resting on her literary laurels. “A lot of Asian writers have this really high level of achievement in other fields,” she says, laughing. “Like, Ken Liu has a law degree from Harvard. Asian diaspora children are encouraged not to ‘squander’ our college education. The arts are so unpredictable. Even now, I haven’t touched my book money for living expenses. I’m determined never to have a full-time writing career. I’ll have a career as a professor.”
Born in China, Kuang grew up in Dallas, cultivating her debate skills and eventually winning the national high school Tournament of Champions. She earned a spot at Georgetown, where she studied economics. It was a bad fit. “I’m Asian, so I’m supposed to be good with numbers, right? Except I’m totally not,” she says. Wrapping up her sophomore year, she decided to take a gap year in China, coaching teen debate students in a program in Beijing. “I told Georgetown bye. But I wouldn’t have done it without a job.”
While there, she spent a lot of time with her grandparents in Guangzhou, learning about Chinese history and culture. “In Dallas, the extent of my education was like ‘Lunar New Year is a holiday where we eat dumplings,’ and that’s it,” she says. In China, she did a deep dive, reading Iris Wang’s The Rape of Nanking, Mao’s biographies, and histories of the Sino-Japanese wars. “It left a huge impression on me.”
She also had conversations with her grandparents about their lives during the national upheavals during the Second Sino-Japanese War and the cultural revolution. “They would tell me these crazy stories about how they survived everything that happened,” she recalls. “I wanted to record it somehow. But it turned out that a college sophomore with no history training is not qualified at all to write a biography. And if you’re writing about someone’s trauma, it takes a lot of interviewing, of talking about really terrible things. I couldn’t put my grandparents through that.”
But she had to do something. “For the first time in my life, I didn’t have anything to do after work, so I had to be productive somehow,” she says. “I tried to learn to code. But coding is very difficult. While I was on CodeAcademy.com, though, I saw an ad that said, ‘Write your novel in three months using Scrivener.’ I had never taken any creative writing classes or even thought about writing. I decided to try.”
The first scene she wrote in what became The Poppy War was one that echoes the Rape of Nanking, a brutal 1937 Japanese attack on Chinese civilians resulting in the deaths of an estimated 300,000 people. “The scariest thing about that chapter is that I didn’t make anything up. Everything in that chapter is actually what happened in history,” she says. “I was, like, sitting in the corner, crying all the time. I didn’t understand what I was doing to myself.” She says she’s never edited or revised or even reread that chapter since. “But I learned to cope with the darkness, take breaks, take walks, talk to people.”
And she tempered the dark with humor, blending the black comedy of modern Chinese literature and the frantic action of forms like wuxia and anime to build the trilogy’s unique voice. “I’m a zoomer,” she says, referring to members of Generation Z. “None of us take ourselves seriously. We use humor to deal with the fact that climate change is destroying our world and every day is another existential crisis of anxiety and depression.”
What she had to unravel is what she wanted to say about that dark history and the current moment. “I realized that my books start with themes I want to explore, rather than plots or characters. Then the characters embody certain ideologies,” she explains. “With Poppy War, it was about exploring the suppressed retributive rage that Nanking triggered. Nobody talks about the massacre, even though 300,000 people died there [on the eve of] World War II. Discovering it was horrifying. That first novel, it’s really just one long scream of rage.”
Within three months, she’d finished a draft and landed with agent Hannah Bowman at Liza Dawson Associates. After six rounds of revision, the book sold at auction to David Pomerico at Harper Voyager. The sale closed on her 20th birthday. “I really had no idea what I was getting into,” she says. “It all just happened so fast. And a three-book deal basically locks you into a lot of work for the next five years.”
While working on the trilogy, she finished her BA in history at Georgetown, then headed to the U.K. to earn her master’s at Oxford as a Marshall Scholar. She’s set to start a doctorate in East Asian languages and literature at Yale University in the fall of 2021. “I’m most interested not in the mechanics of military history, but how it’s written, memorialized, popularized, and commemorated,” she says. “The ideologies of it. That year in China changed the trajectory of my entire life.”
Now, she’s on another gap year of sorts, having deferred Yale. She’s using the time to write her next book, a standalone historical fantasy she’s dubbed “the Oxford novel.” It delves into the colonialist, slave trade–driven history of elite universities—and, Kuang says, it’s even darker than the Poppy trilogy. “These institutions were actively built as centers of knowledge production to perpetuate the ongoing colonialist and imperialist expansion,” she says. “That’s not a thing of the past, which became very apparent to me while I was at Oxford. How do you grapple with that, engage with it, as a scholarship student of color?”
If it sounds ambitious, that’s because it is. But three books and three degrees in (and counting), Kuang is still very much the student, both in writing and in life. “I feel like I’m still getting an education in how to write,” she says. “I’m lucky I got paid to write my training wheels. But my growth between 2015 and now is astonishing. It’s really important to me that, in the future, people think, ‘By far, the Poppy War series were her worst books.’ Because otherwise, it means I didn’t grow as a writer.”
Sona Charaipotra is a journalist and the cofounder of book packager Cake Literary, the coauthor of the Tiny Pretty Things series, and author of Symptoms of a Heartbreak.