This book is a sneaky bastard, in the very best of ways! It was actually the first book I read during my vacation but because there’s just so much contained within these two covers, my review took a bit more time. I picked this out mostly because I loved the cover and while I hadn’t heard much about it, every review I had read was glowing. And then, like other readers before me, I fell head over heels in love with this brilliant debut.
DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE
by Joan He
Published: AW Teen, 2019
Ebook: 416 pages
Standalone (for now!)
My rating: 8,5/10
Opening line: A well-conceived costume is a new identity, the father used to say as he put on his commoner’s cloak.
Tyrants cut out hearts. Rulers sacrifice their own.
Princess Hesina of Yan has always been eager to shirk the responsibilities of the crown, but when her beloved father is murdered, she’s thrust into power, suddenly the queen of an unstable kingdom. Determined to find her father’s killer, Hesina does something desperate: she engages the aid of a soothsayer—a treasonous act, punishable by death… because in Yan, magic was outlawed centuries ago.
Using the information illicitly provided by the sooth, and uncertain if she can trust even her family, Hesina turns to Akira—a brilliant investigator who’s also a convicted criminal with secrets of his own. With the future of her kingdom at stake, can Hesina find justice for her father? Or will the cost be too high?
In this shimmering Chinese-inspired fantasy, debut author Joan He introduces a determined and vulnerable young heroine struggling to do right in a world brimming with deception.
Hesina’s father has just died and she is the only one convinced that it was not because of natural causes. Without any proof however, she takes a dangerous step and commits treason by seeking the help of a soothsayer. With the bits of information gained this way, she plans for a trial to prove her father was murdered and to find out who the killer was. For that, she needs the support of a convicted criminal but also lots of help from her brother and her two adopted siblings.
This book starts out like your standard YA fantasy fare. The Chinese-inspired setting is intriguing, there is a sort of magic system to discover – although magic in the form of soothsayers has been outlawed for many years – and there’s a whole fictional country’s history to learn about. So I liked the book right from the start. But then Joan He slowly reeled me in with new ideas, secrets within secrets, tangled plot strings, and characters that are so amazing and come in all shades of morally grey, by about a third of the book, I absolutely loved it!
I almost don’t want to tell you anything about the plot because discovering all the twists and turns for yourself is part of what makes the reading experience so great. But the story has a lot more to offer than just a great plot. Hesina makes for a phenomenal protagonist. She is a good person at heart and deep down, she disagrees with the rule that says all soothsayers must be killed because they were used for evil during the war. She sees them as people but she is unable to state that opinion because that would get her executed as well. Then there’s the fact that she is to become queen and the responsibility weighs heavy on her. Add to that the strained relationship with her brother Sanjing, and the even worse relationship between him and their adopted brother Caiyan. While Hesina is trying to find her father’s killer and keep her treasonous actions and thoughts secret, strange things happen at Yan’s borders and it looks like the new queen will also have her hands full preventing a war.
I can’t really explain to you why this book worked so well or which aspects convinced me of its brilliance first, because it all kind of snuck up on me. I started as an interested yet somewhat distant reader, then a hundred pages later I wanted to strangle certain characters, I gaspedin shock at other characters’ betrayals, I marveled at the wonders this world holds, and I wanted Hesina so very, very badly to be okay! Let me just give that girl a hug. And I can’t put my finger on how or when that happened, but by the end, I was so damn into this story that I still can’t believe the author wasn’t immediately asked to write a sequel or twelve.
For a debut novel especially, I was impressed with how well Joan He juggled the various aspects of this book. I mentioned great world building before but I haven’t told you that most of it is worked organically into the plot. There are no expositions, no characters explaining to others what they should already know. The picture we have of Yan and its history simply grows clearer and clearer the more we read. It helps that every chapter begins with quotes by One of the Eleven and Two of the Eleven – two of the heroes who saved the kingdom and created a system for society that appears like a pretty solid democracy. I say “appeared” because we all know no utopia is actually a utopia and while Yan’s political system is mostly quite fair, it has its pitfalls.
“The masses may be misguided, but their hearts are true.”
Even without the added bonus of a rich history, Yan was such an intriguing place to discover. And since we see it through Hesina’s eyes, we also understand that everything is political. Whether it’s the people’s fear of and hatred for soothsayers or the way they strictly adhere to the rules set by the Eleven, I loved every aspect of it. Not because it’s necessarily a perfect, happy kingdom but because it felt so realistic! Humans can be shitty and full of prejudices but that doesn’t mean they are all bad people. Hesina learns this lesson over and over again as she navigates the court and has to make the most difficult decisions. She also has to learn that sometimes the ones you mistrust are actually on your side while a trusted friend may be working against you… I’m not saying that is the case here but, yeah, it totally is the case and you still won’t be able to guess who is who. That’s probably what made the many twists so much more painful.
I also enjoyed the writing style. I’m not sure if this is marketed as YA but I thought the style definitely had that quality where the text just seems to flow, letting you concentrate completely on the images in your mind. There is also a bit of romance, although I appreciated immensely that it’s never the focus – Hesina’s got much more important stuff to deal with – but it evolved throughout the story almost as a side note. And it felt all the more real and important for that. The same goes for the relationships between Hesina and her remaining family: her seemingly cold-hearted mother, her twin siblings, and her blood brother. Each of these characters is a different person at the end of the book than they were at the beginning and Hesina’s relationship to each of them grows. That is such a rare thing in any kind of book, but especially in YA, where side characters are often rather bland and the focus lies more on the protagonist and the love interest(s).
“What is truth? Scholars seek it. Poets write it. Good Kings pay gold to hear it. But in trying times, truth is the first thing we betray.”
By the end of the book, Hesina has been through a cascade of ever more dangerous and harrowing situations, she has dealt with moral dilemmas, and she has to come to terms with the truth about her own beliefs and her country’s past. And while I got some satisfaction out of this story and it definitely has a finished story arc, quite a few questions remain unanswered and many problems unsolved. When I closed this book I let out a long breath and immediately googled when the sequel would come out. Alas, none is scheduled just yet. The author has plans to write one if the publishers deem the first book a big enough success. So I urge all of you to pick up this book and go on that emotional journey with Hesina because (a) it’s awesome and (b) I really need a second book!
MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!