The Incendiaries is a complex, compulsive novel about faith, love, and extremism in a prestigious university. Will Kendall—awkward scholarship student who has transferred from Bible college—meets Phoebe Lin, a glamorous Korean American girl who is secretly racked with guilt about her mother’s death. Will falls in love with Phoebe, but Phoebe is being drawn into the orbit of John Leal, a former student with a complex past involving North Korea. Leal has started a Christian group and Phoebe is looking for something to belief in. Will starts to see that the group is a cult with fundamentalist concerns, but his attempts to save Phoebe expose his own flaws and issues with his own Christian past.
At its heart, The Incendiaries is a love story about extremism told by an unreliable narrator. Will and Phoebe’s relationship is depicted in a careful, engrossing way, showing the unhealthiness and the way that Will purposefully ignores this. The unreliable narration is key, showing how Will puts his faith in Phoebe and how he blinds himself to his own actions. Though the novel is quite short, the fundamentalist cult is a slow burner, giving it extra ominousness. Alongside this, R. O. Kwon focuses on sexual assault on university campuses, abortion protests, and North Korean prisoners, making the book a complex one that shows how these issues do not exist in a vacuum.
At the start, The Incendiaries feels very similar to The Secret History, with a lying narrator dealing with bigger things at a prestigious university. However, what it turns into is something else, a powerful novel that shows flawed people and dangerous issues set mostly within the bounds of the campus.