Review: The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

40739734Verdict: Ambitious, impeccably written, frustrating plot.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Virago, September 6th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

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. who lose what they love most.

I have many thoughts about this book and I am very conflicted about my feelings and my rating. As is customary in such cases, here are my thoughts, first in list form than more elaborated:


  • prose
  • the interesting way R. O. Kwon plays with perspective
  • the subversion of tropes


  • plot
  • characters

This book is told from three perspectives: Will, who has lost his faith in god and his plan for his life, his girlfriend Phoebe, who lost her faith in her piano talent and her mother, and John, the enigmatic cult leader whose cult Phoebe starts following. Or, more exactly, the story is told from these perspectives as Will imagines them. I loved the way this worked out and I love the extra layer of interpretation this opened up. Phoebe is for all intents and purposes Will’s manic pixie dream girl – but R. O. Kwon never lets the reader forget that he construct her in a way that suits himself, without much regard to the person she really is. I cannot help but wonder if this construction of Phoebe and the subsequent unfolding of events isn’t a direct reaction to a plethora of novels who treat their female characters only as a foil for the male character to develop.

There is something mesmerizing in the way R. O. Kwon’s language flows. She has a way of structuring her sentences that enthralled me. I was hooked with her writing style from the very first chapters. Whatever problems I had with this book, her language is incredibly strong in a way that I found unique.

But even though the novels hits many high points for me and I am so very glad to have read it (and cannot wait for more people to read it so we can talk about my more spoilery thoughts), ultimately it did not quite work for me. I found the plot and the character development to be fairly weak as well as not that original. Especially the last part of the book made me mostly impatient with Will and made me question if his characterisation was all that successful. His obsession with Phoebe (obviously meant to be a replacement for his lost faith), while believable in the beginning, became less so as time went on.

I also think that the book would have worked better without the added perspective of John (or more, what Will imagined John to think like), for me these chapters, while short, always took me right out of the flow. But nevertheless, R. O. Kwon is a major talent and I cannot wait to see what she does next.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Virago (Little, Brown Book Group UK) in exchange for an honest review.

5 thoughts on “Review: The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

  1. I’m so excited for this one, I’m hoping it will work for me since I tend to be ok with a weaker plot if the other elements are stronger? But, I’m not sure. I appreciate your balanced review. Hopefully I’ll read it within the week so we can talk.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s