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Review: The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

The Incendiaries
R.O. Kwon
2018, 214p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/}: A powerful, darkly glittering novel of violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of domestic terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea.

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe. 

Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group—a secretive extremist cult—founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. He has an enigmatic past that involves North Korea and Phoebe’s Korean American family. Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

The Incendiaries is a fractured love story and a brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists, and of what can happen to people who lose what they love most.

This was a book that sounded excellent in theory but for me, kind of failed to live up to it in practice.

It focuses on Will, a university student who has just transferred to a New York college from a bible college in California. He knows that to fit in there, he’ll have to reinvent himself – new wardrobe, move his house location a little, tap into what he knows about more prestigious areas and hide the fact that he works a part time job around his classes. He follows some people into a party on a whim and there he meets Phoebe: beautiful, well entrenched in the college social scene and somehow, they end up in a relationship. Then Phoebe is drawn in by John Leal and things go south from there as Will realises that John’s grip on Phoebe is increasing and with his own conflicted feelings about religion, Will lacks the zeal John needs in a follower. There’s a wedge driven between them and Will ends up on the outside looking in when the group commit a terrible act that culminates in the death of five innocent people.

I think for me, the biggest problem I had with this book was the choppy and non-linear way it was told, switching between focusing on Will, on Phoebe and on John Leal. But some of the focus is always in the abstract, focused on what Will knows or is told so it becomes difficult to tell what’s real and what someone has contrived to be the truth. There’s some reasoning given for Phoebe’s vulnerability to someone like Leal, and it’s the sort of thing where guilt and grief are not dealt with, which leaves her open and raw and a perfect victim in some ways. But still however, the character of John Leal fell very flat for me, I saw nothing in him that was charismatic or powerful, even mildly interesting. Perhaps viewed through Will’s eyes it wasn’t there but I felt like there should’ve been more to really show how he managed to ensnare his followers.

I just found it really hard to really sink into the story and stay engaged – like there were times when I thought I was going to finally connect with it or find it interesting and have some sort of realisation about the characters or their motivation or Will and Phoebe’s relationship but it just never really ended up happening. Life at college in the US is very different to going to university here as well but honestly, how did Phoebe stay enrolled? She is told she’s going to fail and she hasn’t even unwrapped the plastic from her textbooks by this point. She makes a halfhearted effort to do that but seems to never go on with it but somehow manages to stay at the college? I couldn’t really figure it out. Will also struggles for money but it doesn’t particularly stop him drinking and self-medicating.

Obviously there’s also a lot about religion in this – Will is formerly devout, he found God and religion during a time when his mother was ill. She has recurring bouts of mental illness but Will has lost his faith and no longer really engages with it. Phoebe finds it with John Leal and from then there’s a lot about God and asking Him how they can serve Him – even writing that with a capital letter as it’s written in the book makes me very uncomfortable. I am not religious at all, staunch atheist and I have a lot of complicated feelings about people who engage in the sort of dangerous, blind devotion wrapped up as religion that John is pushing, with himself as some sort of Messiah figure.

I found myself waiting for the incident mentioned in the blurb and the fallout but honestly, it takes forever and then after it is where the book pretty much went downhill for me. Will’s perspective is messy and he does the most random things, he’s so steadfast in his belief about Phoebe but…we aren’t really shown why. From what we saw, Phoebe was a messy, grieving, easily manipulated person who left everything she knew behind for the group headed by John Leal.

Also towards the end, Will does something that slams him firmly into the “I’m A Nice Guy” territory and it’s gross and I completely lost interest in him as a character.


Book #88 of 2021

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