The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

According to the Internet, an “incendiary” is either someone who starts fires (in a military context) or someone who stirs up conflict. Probably both of these definitions makes sense for this novel.

Before I get into anything, I’m about to tell you now that this post will have spoilers. I just can’t talk about this novel without actually spoiling it, so look away if you haven’t read the book yet!

Here’s more about the book

36679056Phoebe 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.

To be honest, this book description doesn’t match the experience you have when you actually read the pages. I spent a good chunk of my time reading and deciphering the book. For only 200 pages, this book packs a punch and it requires a little bit of literary prowess to fully understand what is going on. If you do decide to read this one, I would be cautioned that it’ll be a little tough. It’s not traditionally formatted so it was confusing to know what was dialogue and what was description. However, when I think about it in hindsight, it all makes sense.

In my opinion, I feel like this is Will’s story and not Phoebe’s. The main plot is about Phoebe meeting John Leal and joining this group that does bomb a building and kill five people. All that is incorporated into the story, but this isn’t what you’re getting when you’re reading it.

Instead what you’re getting is the story from Will’s point of view. Will almost feels like this schlub of a human just trying to get by day after day. He’s the third wheel to Phoebe and John who’s stories both sound interesting. But you know what he’s thinking. You know what he’s doing. You know everything you would normally need to know from reading a book.

For Phoebe and John Leal, it’s a different perspective. Their stories felt like fragmented pieces of a bigger story. RO Kwon takes a really interesting formatting here to share with you that information. And I wondered for a while why she would do that. Why try to confuse the story for the reader?

Then I thought explicitly about Phoebe’s story. Whenever you read a chapter of hers, there seemed to be some confusion with the point of view. It was moving from first to third. It was very strange. Then when Will found the confession diary she kept, I pondered if what we were reading was actually the confessions from her diary?

John Leal’s portions of the story also felt like third-hand material. It was as if the stories about him were the exact same ones you’re reading when you google him. It was what the police were able to gather from their interviews during their investigation. All those clues combined made me come to the realization that this book is from Will’s perspective because Will is the only person in the end.

It’s strange, but it makes sense. It’s almost like reading the story from the perspective of someone who wasn’t raptured. I imagined Will to be very much like one of the leftovers pining for wherever Phoebe and John Leal went to. However, with the story coming from Will instead of Phoebe, you’re only getting one perspective with whatever clues you’re able to find about the other characters. From this view, you can paint anyone in any light.

I did want to bring up that I loved Will’s story when it came to religion. It really mirrored mine at some of my low points in life. He was always asking that classic question on if God existed, then why didn’t He show any signs of it? Why is it all blind faith? He keeps looking for a sign, looking for Him to make him a full believer. It truly understood my relationship with religion in my past and my present.

Finally, this book is not without its flaws. While I found the writing style and formatting to be interesting in helping tell the story, I think that this could confuse a lot of people. It confused me at first and put me off a little. I almost thought I didn’t like this book because of the style. But once I started thinking about the components of this book, the subject of the story, and how it ended, then I started to see the bigger picture.

This is the story of a young woman who falls prey to a cult seen through the eyes of her lover. R.O. Kwon lays down all the clues. Your job is to take those pieces and connect them together.

I received a copy of this book from Riverhead for free in exchange for an honest review. My opinions have not been influenced by the publisher or the author.

Simone and Her Books is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to This in no way affects my opinion of the above book.


2 thoughts on “The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

  1. I’ve seen such mixed reviews for this book, and your post helps to explain that! I’m going to try this one on audio – it’s available on scribd! – and see how that goes. I’m wondering if the voices will help with knowing what’s dialog and what’s not.. or if audio will make it that much more confusing. TBD!


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