REVIEW: The Incendiaries, R.O. Kwon #BLOGTOUR

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

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.

R O Kwon’s The Incendiaries is a searing examination of obsession, grief and the lengths that people will go to fill the hollow emptiness left behind by loss. And both Phoebe and Will have lost a great deal but primarily, they have lost their guiding lights; the ideas and ambitions to which they were going to dedicate their entire lives. This leaves them floating, directionless, removed from what they love. Will has lost his faith in God and the way of thinking that has guided his entire life; Phoebe, her ambition and passion for music, something that earlier filled her every thought and, more heartbreakingly, her mother.
They both need something to fill up the space left behind, leading them to just replace one singular obsession with another. And, anyone who knows anything about true crime and cult psychology, know that people at stages like this in their lives are, on-average, the most vulnerable to cults.
But, can you imagine?
A young college girl, not unlike myself two or so years ago, being taken in by a cult leader that, to anyone reading, raises some alarm bells. But being in her head, reading her thoughts and realising that she and I are both so similar, makes the global boogieman seem more like a logical next step in Phoebe’s life. With the two of us being so alike, it made me question whether it could have been me — if, in a similar situation, I would have been willing to give up all of myself and hand myself over to the way of thinking.
Before reading The Incendiaries, it would have been a near-automatic no. But now? Now I understand why Phoebe, and so many people like her around the globe, are taken in by charismatic psychopaths. Someone online compared it to Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, a contemporary reworking of Antigone that portrays a young man’s descent into jihadism, and the parallels are unmistakable. In a world where the average person is so removed from cults, it takes just a reading of both these books, to understand just how many people are taken in by such ideologies and how they are looming at the peripheries of our experience.
This is made even more evident by the behaviour of Phoebe’s new boyfriend, Will, whose abandoning of organised religion only leads him to direct that left-over religious fervour towards their relationship. It shows that, yeah, first love is nice and all but, it is also a little too obsessional, too singular, too dedicated and that sometimes, something that we nearly all experience, is similar in-nature to a way of living that so many of us fear. The cultish feelings that Will expresses for Phoebe are simultaneously relatable and incredibly unnerving, with R.O Kwon creating parallels throughout the novel between the two, at-first very different, patterns of thought.
It’s unflinching. It’s thought-provoking. It’s masterful. And it makes R.O Kwon one of my new favourite authors of 2018. Watch this space, guys, she is going to do incredible things.

Thank you, thank you, thank you to NetGalley and Little Brown Book Group and Virago for sending me a copy of this book in exchange of an honest review. And for allowing me to partake in this blog tour (I love you)

Head on over to for this book, as well as all of the others featured in my reviews, complete with the added bonuses of free worldwide shipping and bringing a little joy to my life.

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