The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon | Book Review 77/2019

Meet Phoebe. The teenager is recovering from a lifetime of devoting herself to piano and realizing that, no matter what her mom says, she will never be great at it. While Phoebe is driving home, there is an accident and her mother is killed. So how does she process the grief? By blaming herself and looking to sacrifice her life for a purpose bigger than herself. Her religious father hasn’t been able to convince her that God exists but maybe someone else can introduce her to faith.

Meet Will. When the boy’s father abandoned the family, he witnessed his mother’s slow spiral into physical and mental illness and increasingly desperate financial status. Yet Will knows that if he pursues his college education he can do more for her in the future. Meanwhile, he’s given up his faith in God since he’s asked for a sign and gotten only silence in return.

Phoebe and Will meet and begin a college romance even though they only have their fractured selves to offer but it isn’t long before Phoebe meets John Leal, a revolutionary with a Korean background and he’s an acquaintance of her father. John Leal’s charismatic personality woos her and involves her deeper into his Jejah cult than her faithless background prepared her for, while Will desperately hopes that the love they share will be enough to bring her back.

The Incendiaries is told in snippets following the characters so the story is reported from the three characters perspectives although there is a central focus on Will trying to understand the progression of events after a violent act has been committed. While their backgrounds and influences are described, the characters are not presented as very likable yet it doesn’t so much impact the novel as it creates the perfect backdrop for the reader to remain objective about the events and each character’s role. There are multiple acts of violence, and while the investigation focuses on a public act of terrorism, it contrasts really well with the more private acts of terror that the characters endure in their relationships, and the author cleverly projects deeper meaning into the intertwined cause and effect alliances.

This isn’t a book that I considered fun reading but it explored some important themes of religion and faith, the cycles of abuse and fanaticism. While the book has a North Korean association, it appears as an unproven claim from one of the characters and the inability to prove or disprove his claims cleverly represents  the shroud of secrecy that cloaks much about that country.

3.5 stars for this one.

I read this as a contender for a round of the Booktube prize and I came up with a series of questions to help me rate the 6 books I was judging.

On a scale of 1 to 5:

  • On a scale of 1 to 5:
    • Literary – are there references to other works (fiction or non fiction)  – 2
    • Social commentary – are there political or historical references 5
    • Allegorical – did the characters represent something bigger than themselves 4
    • Readability – was it a page turner? 4
    • Pacing – did it move along to share info but not dwell on anything? 4
    • Would I recommend this book to other people as a drop-everything-and-read? 3


The Incendiaries Tally – 22/30



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