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The Incendiaries

3.24  ·  Rating details ·  19,655 ratings  ·  2,596 reviews
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 de
Hardcover, 214 pages
Published July 31st 2018 by Riverhead Books
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R.O. Kwon Hello, and thank you for the question! I have distant family members I’ve never met who live—or lived—in North Korea. For years, I kept reading nonfic…moreHello, and thank you for the question! I have distant family members I’ve never met who live—or lived—in North Korea. For years, I kept reading nonfiction accounts of North Korea to try to fill that longing, that gap in knowledge. But so little information makes it out of a country with such closed borders. Eventually, slowly (I worked on the book for ten years), I found that my novel's cult leader started taking on a North Korean past. I realized that, with my writing, I wanted to spend time, imaginatively, in that place of unknowing.(less)
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Jessica I think he's waiting for Phoebe. His obsession with her, and his theory that she's still alive, shows how stuck his life is. I couldn't stand Will, th…moreI think he's waiting for Phoebe. His obsession with her, and his theory that she's still alive, shows how stuck his life is. I couldn't stand Will, though. Felt some sympathy for Phoebe but wasn't really a fan of her either. And John Leal felt like a ludicrous afterthought as far as his chapters were concerned. (less)

Community Reviews

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Average rating 3.24  · 
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 ·  19,655 ratings  ·  2,596 reviews

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Lauren Halster
Aug 05, 2018 rated it it was ok
"Hip-hop pulsed, rolled. Pale limbs shone." "The room clattered into motion." Inanimate objects verbed. So many inanimate objects did so much verbing. Limbs throbbed. Fingers flew over keyboards. Eyes rolled. Pages flipped. My brain wondered why everyone liked this book so much. Reviews bought it and slobbered. Prose purpled itself into oblivion. Plots did not happen. Sentences sparkled themselves to death. Character motivations made no sense. Hemingway's grave was rolled over in. ...more
Aug 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
This novel about a young woman becoming immersed with a cult is beautifully written and full of propulsive tension. Will, as the primary narrator, is a fascinating character. It is clear he sees the world in a very narrow way, to his detriment and also Phoebe’s, his girlfriend for most of the novel. When focused on Will’s POV the novel soars. It is uneven though when focusing on John Leal and Phoebe and that’s a shame as they are both integral to the novel’s climax. I would have loved to see Pho ...more
Jessica Woodbury
I don't know if I can actually write a review of this book because all of my feelings about it (and there are so many) are extremely personal. My experience with this book is unlikely to be universal, but it's the only one I have to write about.

It wouldn't be fair for me to start off with all of my own stuff that I bring to this book, so I'll start with the most objective review I can provide (which is admittedly not very objective for all the reasons below). This is an ambitious and impressive
Apr 20, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
i was being too generous last night with my three star oops... tbh, i thought this was an interesting take on a cult story as we get to see phoebe fall into the cult through her boyfriend's eyes. overall though, i found this book so hard to connect with. the writing was stagnant and choppy with no variety in sentence structure, and for a book that was covering so many emotional topics (grief, rape, etc.) it felt...robotic? idk i just know this story and characters aren't going to stick with me t ...more
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 then 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, th
Elyse  Walters
Aug 06, 2018 rated it liked it
Intriguing, tragic, odd....

Will, (white), no longer believes in God. No longer believes in Christianity. He left his Bible College for Edwards University. He’s struggling with identity.

Phoebe ( Korean), no longer believes in playing the piano. “Why continue if can’t be a ‘brilliant’ pianist?”

Will meets Phoebe at Edwards. He ‘does’ believe in Phoebe. Rather he becomes obsessed.

Enter John Leal, leader of the Jejah - a religious cult - group. Phoebe gets drawn in. Will is worried for Phoebe.

It's possible I just Don't Get It.

In fact, since the average rating of this is 3.24, maybe it's possible that we at large here on Goodreads just Don't Get It, and this book is doing something incredible that is just flying straight over our heads.

Regardless, whether that something is there or not, it is not present for me and I did not like this book.

I do not like the treatment of sexual assault. I do not like being trapped in the gross pick-me-boy head of our narrator. I do not care for any oth
Aug 03, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
While The Incendiaries presented an engaging story, it is bogged down by the writing. Ornate descriptions and archaic word choices detracted from the storyline. Passages like: “Now that I had time, the hours felt like a wasteland. I crossed it, back and forth. Old ambitions flopped like stranded fish.” “It could be a sign; a Daedalus thread, the implied promise of return.” “The coarse hair strewn in Phoebe’s sheets, bijou rays of gold”. Instead of enhancing the imagery, the pretentiousness of th ...more
May 20, 2018 rated it it was ok
I’ll start by saying the version I read is an arc so maybe a lot has changed or will change in publication, but I’m a bit confused by all the glowing reviews of this book. I kept looking to the back cover re-reading the description waiting for the story I’ve been promised to occur. Finally, with about 30 pages left it happens. Sort of. The bombing happens, true, and Will does look for Phoebe, for like a day. Most of the book is spent developing Will & Phoebe’s not so amazing relationship. I’d th ...more
Sep 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I wanted to grab a copy of this book as it sounded so, so good, but I somehow managed to not download it time, and it was archived on NetGalley before I could get it. I knew I still wanted to read it, so I decided to purchase it, and having now read it, I am pleased I didn't just move on. This book blew me away. One of the best books of the year, in my opinion. I absolutely loved it! Because of that I didn't mind purchasing my copy, it will take pride of place on my bookshelf! An astonishing deb ...more
Aug 28, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2018-read, usa
Also available in German: Die Brandstifter
Why do people believe in God? This question lies at the heart of R. O. Kwon's debut novel, which dives into the psyche of two college students in turmoil. Our main narrator is Will, a former evangelical Christian, who mourns the loss of his faith (yes, he has a telling name). Coming from a humble background and trying to support his ailing mother, he has to work at a restaurant to finance his studies. At college, he falls in love with Korean-born Phoebe,
Ron Charles
Jul 31, 2018 rated it really liked it
“The Incendiaries” is a sharp little novel as hard to ignore as a splinter in your eye. You keep blinking at these pages, struggling to bring the story into some comforting focus, convinced you can look past its unsettling intimations. But R.O. Kwon, the 35-year-old Korean American author, doesn’t make it easy to get her debut out of your system.

At its core, “The Incendiaries” is about religious fervor, which has long functioned as America’s nuclear fuel: useful and energizing, except when it me
Emily B
Apr 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
3.5 rounded up
Parts of this book was beautifully written and the story was interesting. However I enjoyed individual parts more than the novel as a whole.

‘I ate pain. I swilled tears. If I could take enough in, I'd have no space left to fit my own’
Aug 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is an incredibly strong book, but it's also deeply uncomfortable to read.

This book follows one character's descent into a cult, told from the perspective of her boyfriend. Kwon does an AMAZING job of simultaneously capturing what draws Phoebe towards the cult's leader, John Leal, and highlighting how creepy and invasive the cult leader is. It forces you to empathize with Phoebe while maintaining awareness of how manipulative John Leal is. Because of this, you can never write Phoebe's decisi
LeAnne: GeezerMom
Jan 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Wow. This thing started with a detonation, but the real fuse to the story is sparked when we note that of all the jubilant rooftop celebrants toasting the massive smoke, there is one who is not overjoyed. She is Phoebe, the object of our narrator's deep affection. Immediately, we want to know how she got involved with - guerillas? freedom fighters? terrorists? - and if she'll somehow get herself away from them.

Because I walked into this knowing nothing about its plot (a review compared it to som
Aug 03, 2018 rated it it was ok
For me, this was the case of a poorly written blurb inciting false expectations. Prospective readers are told that the novel's narrator Will "struggles to confront the obsession consuming [his girlfriend Phoebe], and the fundamentalism he's tried to escape." This is true. In fact, this is where the blurb should end, in my opinion. But it goes on, saying that after a bombing executed by Phoebe's religious group, "Will devotes himself to finding [his girlfriend]...seeking answers to what happened ...more
Sep 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: best-of-2018
I don’t know how to review this book! It’s odd AF but an impressive debut nonetheless. Kwon places three characters at an elite American university and uses their stories to explore the relationships between faith, love, loss, guilt, grief and zealotry.

3.5 rounded up to a 4 for the splashy, vivid writing.
Feb 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
10 out of 5 stars. Wow wow wow are we all discovering a talent in Ms. Kwon. The book is eerie, and unsettling, but also sweet and beautiful... and you read the story from the outside... then all at once a simple narrator change grounds everything, makes it a story you or I could be part of. The genius here is the author's ability to pull you in, then push you all the way out to be an observer, or vice versa. I sympathized with Phoebe until it was time to see her from a distance, which was clever ...more
The Incendiaries is a sophisticated, unsettling debut novel about faith and its aftermath, fractured through the experience of three people coming to terms with painful circumstances. Will Kendall left his California Bible college when he lost his faith. Soon after transferring to Edwards in upstate New York, he falls for Phoebe Lin at a party. Although he’s working in a restaurant to pay his way, he hides his working-class background to fit in with Phoebe and her glitzy, careless friends. Phoeb ...more
Whispering Stories
Sep 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
Book Reviewed by Stacey on

The Incendiaries follows the lives of Will Kendall, Phoebe Lin, and John Leal. The book is written in the third person and in alternating short chapters. Will is an American student studying at Edwards University in New York, he has recently transferred there after dropping out from his Bible College in California after losing his faith.

Not long after transferring he meets Phoebe who is also a student there. She is originally from South Korea b
Feb 08, 2019 rated it liked it
I expected to like more than I did, because at surface level, it ticks a lot of my favourite boxes. The Incendiaries is told in sparse, carefully crafted prose, is driven by exploration into the psyche of its characters, and asks big questions about big ideas like faith and violence. Unfortunately, all this potential was a bit unrealised for me. Although interesting at times, the pacing was uneven, and the best parts of the book arrived too late and were too brief. Kwon is undoubtedly a talented ...more
Elaine Mullane || At Home in Books
The Incendiaries by Korean-American author, R.O. Kwon has been called one of the most highly anticipated debuts of 2018 and rightly so.

In this small but razor sharp book, three Korean-American students' lives are intertwined while attending a university on the East Coast. Will has recently transferred from Bible College, having rejected both religion and fundamentalism, and Phoebe is a campus sweetheart still grieving the loss of her mother. Both come under the influence of John Leal, a charisma
Aug 10, 2018 rated it it was ok
This is one of those books I wanted to love but unfortunately missed the mark for me. The concept itself was interesting enough, but I found it difficult to engage with the characters and plot development. It is possible that there were formatting issues in my advance reader copy, as I had a hard time deciphering whose point of view it was, as well as distinguishing between dialogue and narration. Hopefully those issues became more clear in the final copy of this book. I know many others did enj ...more
Aug 04, 2018 rated it it was ok
Bland and aimless. For a book about a fanatical religious cult, The Incendiaries is surprisingly boring. Many meandering walks and angsty, unconvincing love. The writing is ambitious, but heavy handed, and while I can appreciate the effort to create dimensional characters, they are as weak as wisps of smoke on the wind. It was the mention of North Korea in the description that drew me in, but it was disappointingly minor.
This wasn’t a bad read at all but I had a lot of trouble getting into it, and honestly I did not find the characters very likable. The book was odd but it does stay with you after you close the finished book. I really do not know how to review this book. At a loss really.
Nov 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Both concise and disturbing, The Incendiaries may lack the depth needed to tell its story convincingly, but there's something magnetic about it nonetheless. In only 200 pages it follows Will and Phoebe who meet in college; Will has recently lost his faith in God and latches onto Phoebe as a replacement, while Phoebe blames herself for the recent death of her mother and finds herself drawn into an extremist cult.

The entire story is narrated from the perspective of Will, though chapters supposedly
Campbell Andrews
Aug 04, 2018 rated it it was ok
Really disappointed in this one.

The story is worthwhile, the themes are even better. But it fails in almost every respect of the telling.

First-person was a mistake. Both the primary characters frequently sound like mouthpieces. And why are they telling the story in this way? The form is unimaginable; are these confessions? Who’s taking them down, God? Now there’s irony for ya...

The prose is extremely mannered, and, even, I proffer, unintelligible in places. (See what I did there?) And the dictio
Roman Clodia
Aug 14, 2018 rated it liked it
A short book and a fast read but the writing style is fuzzy and imprecise so that the whole thing has a foggy, opaque feel. As others have said, the publisher blurb talks this up and gives away the whole plot, such as it is. The idea is good but the book feels oddly detached, more cerebral than the material warrants.

What is smart, though, is telling the whole thing through Will's eyes, even the sections marked Phoebe and John Leal, so that we see his imaginings and fantasisings after the end.

A dark, eerie, oddly intimate, profound little book!

Lots of the novels I’ve been reading lately seem to be revolving, in some way or another, around faith, in all its complexities. Occasionally it’s overtly stated in the blurb, but there are times when even that cannot dampen the impact.

Having been warned prior to reading The Incendiaries that it features a religious group, John Leal’s character and his extremist cult still managed to make me really uncomfortable. I don’t mind, if it’s one
Read By RodKelly
Aug 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
The Incendiaries is a haunting debut by a writer I will definitely be following with high expectations. It is an intimately told story about loss and the choices we make as a result of our grief. The writing is sharp and propulsive, and the themes are quite brilliantly tackled. I'm left thinking that people are narrow-minded when I comes to love and faith, and often it's to our detriment when we are blind sided by the actions of those closest to us. For me, that is biggest takeway from this nove ...more
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Play Book Tag: The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon - 2 stars 3 9 Jan 22, 2021 01:03PM  
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R.O. Kwon’s nationally bestselling first novel, The Incendiaries, is published by Riverhead (U.S.) and Virago/Little Brown (U.K.), and it is being translated into six languages. Named a best book of the year by over forty publications, The Incendiaries was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award for Best First Book, Los Angeles Times First Book Prize, and Northern Califo ...more

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