YA Cli-Fi Done Right: Joan He – The Ones We’re Meant to Find

I was always going to read Joan He’s enxt book after the amazing Descendant of the Crane, even though this is a total departure from that book in content. I’m glad it has such a stunning cover because I believe that made lots of other people aware of this book as well and the more people get to enjoy this fantastic book, the better for everyone. Can you tell that I’m about to be all fangirly and gushy? Because I am.

ones were meant to findTHE ONES WE’RE MEANT TO FIND
by Joan He

Published: Roaring Brook Press, 2021
eBook: 384 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: I wake on my feet, wind tangled in my hair.

One of the most twisty, surprising, engaging page-turner YAs you’ll read this year—We Were Liars meets Black Mirror, with a dash of Studio Ghibli.

Cee has been trapped on an abandoned island for three years without any recollection of how she arrived, or memories from her life prior. All she knows is that somewhere out there, beyond the horizon, she has a sister named Kay, and it’s up to Cee to cross the ocean and find her.

In a world apart, 16-year-old STEM prodigy Kasey Mizuhara lives in an eco-city built for people who protected the planet―and now need protecting from it. With natural disasters on the rise due to climate change, eco-cities provide clean air, water, and shelter. Their residents, in exchange, must spend at least a third of their time in stasis pods, conducting business virtually whenever possible to reduce their environmental footprint. While Kasey, an introvert and loner, doesn’t mind the lifestyle, her sister Celia hated it. Popular and lovable, Celia much preferred the outside world. But no one could have predicted that Celia would take a boat out to sea, never to return.

Now it’s been three months since Celia’s disappearance, and Kasey has given up hope. Logic says that her sister must be dead. But nevertheless, she decides to retrace Celia’s last steps. Where they’ll lead her, she does not know. Her sister was full of secrets. But Kasey has a secret of her own.

I’m going to nominate this book for a Lodestar (the YA not-a -Hugo-Award) next year because it not only tells a great science-fictional story but also shows what YA literature can be. That it is so much more than love triangles, dystopian societies with random factions or tales of political rebellions led by teenagers. Not that I don’t like that kind of story, I do. But there is a lot more to explore than the same old themes that keep coming back. Joan He is an author who dares go there, who puts her characters through terrible ordeals that don’t necessarily have to do with physical obstacles, but rather with ethical or moral decisions. The Ones We’re Meant to Find was everything I had hoped for and so much more. Let me warn you, though: When you pick this up, expect to stay up late for the “just one more chapter” routine. Probably until you’ve finished the book.

We first meet Cee stranded on an island with no idea how she got there or even who she really is. She does know some things, however. She has a sister named Kay and she desperately needs to get back to her, so Cee’s island life consists of collecting scraps for building a boat to take her out to sea. Her dreams (or are they memories? Visions?) show her a city in the sky, her beloved sister, and a world in color, as opposed to her greyscale island existence. But occasionally, very very occasionally, flashes of memory come back to Cee and she’s hoping to unravel the secrets of her past and find the way back to her sister.

Kasey does indeed live in a city in the sky but life hasn’t been the same since her sister Celia disappeared several months ago. Kasey isn’t exactly what you’d call an emotional person and that very fact makes her feel guilty, different from the others. She loves her sister, so why doesn’t she cry when it’s a near certainty that Celia is dead? Why didn’t she cry when their mother died years ago, for that matter? Kasey’s only really passionate about science and while she knows the odds are ridiculous, she keeps looking for her sister, for any sign of life, or at least for closure. In the process, she discovers some secrets of her own. Things Celia kept hidden, people she knew, and memories she lived.

This is one of those twisty books that’s super difficult to talk about without spoiling, so I shall tread carefully. I loved many, many things about it, starting with the most obvious: the mystery of Celia’s disappearance, life on the island, and what exactly happened in the girls’ past. In addition to a missing sister, Kasey has another secret, one that “took science away from her” and it’s a good while before that bit is revealed. But there are enough intriguing questions right from the start to glue anyone to the pages and make them ignore reasonable bed times. There are hints everywhere but Joan He did a fine job holding just enough back to keep her readers guessing.

Unravelling slowly, the world building was one of the coolest I’ve ever read. I’m not a big cli-fi reader (yet) but I found the ideas presented here very interesting. People – well, some people – have retreated to floating cities in the sky where they are not only somewhat protected from the Earth’s terrifying climate (tsunamis galore, earthquakes, poisonous air and water, you name it) but where they are also taking measures to not make things worse. That involves spending a considerable amount of time in virtual spaces, lying in a tank. There are many more details to discover, like who gets to live in a floating city in the first place, how people are ranked (because of course they are) and what the implications of such a system are. Technology is much advanced from our standpoint and society functions differently, all of which are aspects that you discover kind of on the side while following an exciting story. There’s also the problem of much of humanity still living outside such cities and the climate getting worse and worse…

illustration by Eduardo Vargas

Although this book is gripping from the very first page, there are clear kick-off points for both Cee and Kasey’s stories and they each involve the appearance of a boy. Now don’t go thinking you’ll get half a sci-fi book and half a romance. That’s not how Joan He rolls and if you’ve read Descendant of the Crane you’ll know. But whether there are romantic feelings involved or not, meeting someone and maybe kind of befriending them opens entire new worlds to them. For Kasey, it’s a boy named Actinium (or so he says, his personal data is clearly hacked and fake) who can help her find out more about Celia’s past and why she went missing in the first place. He also appears to be just as driven by logic and perceived as cold as Kasey herself is.
Meanwhile, Cee’s lonely existence (well, except for the little robot) is interrupted by a nameless boy who has even less of a clue how he got to the island than her. On the one hand, that makes them kindred spirits, on the other… let’s just say it’s not entirely clear what his deal is.

Very similarly to her debut novel, I loved, loved, loved the characters and the immensely tough decisions they have to make and the way they grow over the course of the story. Joan He effortlessly shows us who her characters are and makes us feel for them, even when they do stupid things or make decisions we wouldn’t agree with. It’s like a masterclass in writing three-dimensional multi-layered characters without ever telling us outright what kind of people they are. After reading this book, I feel like I know them and could tell you how they’d act in a given situation. And although I definitely don’t agree with them on certain things, I wanted them to achieve their hopes and dreams. I wanted the sisters to find each other, I wanted them both happy, I wanted them to magically find a way to save the world. But things aren’t that simple, even on a fictional Earth, and the shocking revelations keep on coming.

The ending was as perfect as it could have been for a story like this. I suppose I’d call it dramatic and emotional and that will get across what it’s like without giving you any hint as to whether things end well or badly or something in between. The Ones We’re Meant to Find cements my opinion of Joan He, namely that she is an author to follow closely, especially if you like YA but would like it to go in new and fresh directions. This book will be haunting me for a while yet. In a good way.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Best of 2020: My Favorite Books of the Year

What a year this has been. At times it felt like we fell into an actual science fiction novel. We lived (and are still living) through a pandemic, the US answered the murder of George Floyd and many others by protesting against police brutality and a broken system, the US also elected a new president, there was a terrorist attack on my city, my partner lost three family members, and we spent most of the year working from home, isolated from friends and family, and trying to keep it together somehow.

But 2020 also had its good sides and I think it’s important that we keep reminding ourselves and each other of that. People came together while staying apart in a multitude of creative ways, they stood together against violence, they used their democratic right to vote, we support and lift each other up, and those of us who are readers found solace in our hobby and the fantastical worlds into which it lets us escape.

I have read so many amazing books this year. Award season will be a horror show because how can anyone pick one favorite among so many brilliant, original, heartbreaking works? As every year, a few books stood out… except this year “a few” is a higher number than usual. This list will be rather long but it’s not my fault authors published such exceptional stories this year.


Favorite Books Published in 2020

Novels

This year has been phenomenal when it comes to SFF novels (even if everything else was pretty terrible). Granted, there are still many 2020 publications I haven’t read yet but out of the ones I have read, there was just a single one that I think of as merely good. All the rest were stellar and make me dread Hugo nomination time. Which ones do I leave off my ballot?

 

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin is an obvious choice. Jemisin has been producing brilliant work for years and although this is her first foray into Urban Fantasy, I knew I would love it. I just didn’t know how much. When the city of New York comes to life through avatars of its burroughs, they have to come together to fight an ancient evil. That may sound simple, but  Jemisin’s way of painting the city as a living, breathing entity, turns this into a proper adventure with diverse characters, lots of social commentary, and – as always – great writing.

Alix E. Harrow‘s latest novel The Once and Future Witches took me a while to get into. Its three protagonist sisters had too many POV jumps for my taste, but Harrow found her rhythm eventuall and delivered a beautiful, heartwarming tale of sisterhood, the fight for women’s rights, and witchcraft. A love of stories and fairy tales and women working together permeates this whole book. And the way the characters are allowed to grow just made me warm and fuzzy inside. I may have started sceptical but I ended up adoring this book.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is the author’s long-awaited second novel after the mind-blowing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell although it has nothing to do with that book. Piranesi lives in a labyrinth of halls, lined with statues. This book is best read without knowing anything about it because it is a riddle and a mystery, poetically told, with a twist along the way. This is clearly an accomplished, amazing short novel but the emotional resonance is definitely fading over time.

The First Sister by debut author Linden A. Lewis wasn’t a perfect book. There were some character and plot aspects that could have been done better, but ultimately, I just enjoyed reading this so very much that I mostly ignored the things that didn’t make sense. An interstellar war between Gaeans and Icarii (Earth/Mercury people and Venus/Mars people) is shown through three POVs, who are all intriguing and face very big problems. Points for diversity (including the nonbinary audiobook narrator for the nonbinary POV character) as well as setting up a world I want to return to.

Another debut was The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson. This multiverse story delivers plot twist after plot twist while we follow protagonist Cara as she visits neighbouring universes that are similar to ours but not quite the same. Her lower class status and her unrequited love for her superior doesn’t help but over the course of a very exciting Mad Max-esque plot, it’s wonderful to watch Cara grow and find her place in the world(s).

I’m so glad I loved Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia. I was in the minority finding her Gods of Jade and Shadow only okay but now I can finally join all the other fans in squeeing about her foray into gothic horror. Set in 1950s Mexico, Noemí visits the isolated house where her cousin lives with her husband. Needless to say, strange things happen there and the family is anything but welcoming. I loved the atmosphere and the setting, Noemí’s character growth and the slow burn romance… Seriously, everything about this book was amazing and I highly recommend it for someone looking for a spooky read that offers more than just scary moments or monsters.

Is anyone surprised that Martha Wells’ Network Effect made this list? No? Didn’t think so. It’s the first full length Murderbot novel and while you get much of the same stuff we’ve come to expect and love from a Murderbot story, this one goes deeper. I particularly enjoyed Murderbot’s voice and its reunion with ART. What really made this into a favorite was the tender moments between Murderbot and its humans or even Murderbot and other AI characters. As much as it’s not human, it is through its humanity that we connect to Murderbot and care for it.


Young Adult/Middle Grade

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko is the kind of YA debut that every YA author should aspire to write. It defies the tropes I find annoying and plays with the ones I like. Young Tarisai has been raised by her mother who is only called the Lady, and she has been raised for one purpose only: To get close to the prince and then kill him. But Tarisai finds the prince totally nice and doesn’t want to kill a kid. The premise makes you assume certain things (romance between her and the prince, magical solution to this “you have to kill him” problem, etc.) but let me tell you that you will not see anything coming. Ifueko plays with the readers’ expectations, throws in a lovely found family, beautiful world building and an ending that promises an even more epic sequel.

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson seems to be a divisive book. I wouldn’t have thought I’d like a witchy story set in a puritanical village at all, but Henderson’s story telling is so engaging and her protagonist so easy to like that I couldn’t put it down. For a debut novel especially, I was impressed with the way relationships between the characters were portrayed. I’m not a big romance reader either, but I adored watching the people in this book come together slowly and bond over important things. There’s none of the cheap YA tropes here. Plus, the witches are properly scary and the curses Immanuelle has to deal with are pretty gruesome. A perfect Halloween read.


Novellas

The standout novella for me this year is P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, a book that immediately grabbed me, kept me engaged and entertained throughout, and has a powerful story to tell. I was all the more impressed with how fleshed-out the characters were and how much world building was put into such a slim volume. Clark is definitely an author to watch and I hope this novella gets him a Hugo Award.

Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings is Australian Gothic and captured me with its tark fairy tale vibe. Ignore that first over-the-top flowery chapter and just roll with it. You’ll get a tale of interconnected stories that seem very weird at first but all make sense in the end. This was an incredibly atmospheric read that shows how Jennings is not only a great illustrator but also a writer that I’m going to watch.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo doesn’t need any more recommendations. Everyone who’s read it loved it and for good reason. The way Vo chose to tell this story – in sort of flashbacks inspired by objects – is one reason it was so good. But the actual story it tells is also breathtaking. The plot itself isn’t all that epic but it makes you think about how we deal with history, whose stories get told (and whose should get told) and what happens to the people on the sidelines of a war.


Favorite Audiobooks

I swear it is a coincidence that all my favorite audiobooks of the year are written and narrated by Black authors and narrators. I didn’t even realize it until I listed them up here. My challenge to read more Black authors definitely contributed to me picking these books up, but this is where I want to share the amazing work narrators did with these stories.

N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became was one of my top books of the year but the audiobook turned it into something else. Not only does Robin Miles do a brilliant job when it comes to different voices and conveying emotions, but this audiobook also has a few sound effects and music mixed in. Don’t worry, it only happens occasionally but it did help me get immersed in the story. I would have loved this as a paper book as well but if you’re still unsure which version to go with, definitely pick up the audiobook.

In The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson, we follow three very different female characters living in very different time periods and settings. I never thought I would love this book as much as I did but I should have known better. Hopkinson effortlessly weaves magic and Caribbean myth into her tale, and there’s even a real historical figure in this one. Bahni Turpin switches characters beautifully, which includes accents and timbre, and really helped paint a picture of this story in my mind.

Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts is a challenging book for any narrator to do but Cherise Boothe did a brilliant job. Nnot only does she have to switch between characters of different genders, protagonist Aster is also neurodiverse and thus delivers certain lines in a manner that seems almost cold to other people. Yet Boothe managed to make Aster lovable while maintaining her speech pattern. It’s also just a great story.

Rosewater by Tade Thompson is a difficult book to follow because of its jumping around in time. Not having a paper book to read along makes this even harder, but Bayo Gbadamosi did his very best to help us keep the timelines and characters straight. This very different alien “invasion” story may not have the most likable lead character but I found it enthralling from beginning to end and I can’t wait to find out how the trilogy ends.


Favorite Books Published pre-2020

Without a doubt, the three books that touched me the most in 2020 were Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I’m noticing a concerning similarity in my favorite books this year. Almost all of them managed to make me cry…

I read Doomsday Book right whent he first lockdown started in Austria and when it hit home all around the world that this pandemic was, indeed, a global thing that meant nothing would be as it was before. The book is about an incredibly realistic epidemic (I could literally compare the fictional government’s reaction to real world goverments) as well as the plague. Time-travelling historian Kivrin visits the Middle Ages but things don’t go exactly as planned. Connie Willis made me fall in love with her characters only to put them through hell. At the same time, she shows the best of humanity and the reason there is always hope. I cried a lot reading this book.

The Sparrow was something else entirely. A first-contact story that sends Jesuit priests and scientists to an alien planet in order to find the creatures whose singing has been received on Earth. This beautiful tale of a found family sets you up for disaster right from the start. Told in two time lines, you follow the mission itself as well as its aftermath through the eyes of sole survivor Emilio Sandoz. I’ll be honest, I felt like crying throughout the entire book because it’s just got that tone to it. But by the end I thought I had prepared myself for certain things. I was not prepared. This story had me sobbing by the end and left me with a massive book hangover.

Much more hopeful, albeit also dystopian, was An Unkindness of Ghosts. This was one of my five star predictions and I must say, I totally nailed it. Aster lives on a generation ship that is organized vaguely like the Antebellum South. Social injustice, terrible conditions for the people on the lower decks, and Aster’s unusual personality made this an engaging read. Add to that fantastic world building, a mystery to be solved, and Aster’s relationship with her friends and colleague, and you’ve got a book that will stick with you. Rivers Solomon effortlessly adds discussions of gender and sexuality, neurodiversity and class difference into an exciting tale which – thankfully – didn’t leave me crying at the end, but rather with a sense of hope and satisfaction.

Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Fate was long overdue. If you’ve read the Tawny Man trilogy you can guess why I stopped reading after The Golden Fool. I was a little worried that I had forgotten all the important plot points but Robin Hobb is a skilled writer who reminded me of everything important in the first chapter, all without info dumping. It was like I had never left. And so I followed these characters I already loved onto a quest that promised doom for at least one of them. I did cry when certain events came to pass but Hobb managed to deliver an ending that felt both realistic and hopeful – something that’s not exactly the norm for Fitz. No matter how many years pass between books or which series you follow, you just can’t go wrong with Robin Hobb. She is a master of the genre.

Now Kindred by Octavia E. Butler was only my second Butler book but it made me want to go and read everything she’s written. This story of a young Black woman who is randomly transported back in time to a slave plantation does everything you expect plus a little more. Butler doesn’t waste time exploring the time travel mechanisms of her story – they don’t matter – but rather focuses on character and setting. Dana suddenly has to deal with a time when people like her were seen as little more than animals, so this book is exactly as hard to read as you think. It was a powerful story, though, that showed all characters as faceted, believable human beings, as well as highlighting aspects of slavery that especially impact women. This was not a fun read but I can’t recommend it highly enough!

I’ve had some starting problems with Laini Taylor but this year, I gave The Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy another chance and promptly fell into it and read all three books. Daughter of Smoke and Bone still wasn’t a complete hit but worked better for me on the re-read. Days of Blood and Starlight showed that Laini Taylor can expand her fictional world without losing sight of her protagonists, and Dreams of Gods and Monsters brought the tale to its epic, bittersweet conclusion. What I love most about this series is the feeling of myth and lore and history that pervades it all. Even though we learn a lot about Chimaera and Seraphim, it always feels like there’s more hiding just around the corner. The relationships in this story were amazing, both the romantic ones as well as the friendships and found families that are made along the way. Oh, and of course, it’s written in beautiful, lyrical prose.

I also used this year to finish the Strange the Dreamer duology by picking up Muse of Nightmares and, boy, did that book rip my heart out. Again, Laini Taylor expands an already intriguing fantasy world and shows us just how much more there is out there. She also adds some new characters that put me through an emotional roller coaster. What I love most about these two books is probably the villains – or lack thereof. There are antagonists but as we get to see the world through their eyes, it becomes clear they’re not Evil. For the entirety of the book, I was sure things would end in tragedy and there couldn’t possibly be a happy end. And I’m not saying things end all that happily (at least not for everyone) but again, there is a tone of hope as well as the satisfaction of having read a complete story. The prose is otherworldly. Serioulsy, I could put quotes from this duology all over my walls.

Francis Hardinge’s Deeplight swept me off my feet a little unexpectedly. I knew Hardinge was a good writer with very original ideas but then she just goes and delivers a YA novel with truly complicated characters and relationships, set in a world with dead underwater gods, with a deaf character, multiple twists, and an exciting plot? Count me in for more Francis Hardinge because this was a pretty perfect YA novel if you ask me. I’m still thinking about some adventurous moments from this book and then I’m impressed yet again at how well constructed it was.
The Lodestar Award went to Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer which I also adored, so shoutout to that book.

Descendant of the Crane by Joan He was a twisty emotional rollercoaster that definitely stands out from other YA novels in that it doesn’t focus on the romance, puts its protagonist through seriously difficult choices, and delivers great solutions to its core mysteries. If you want a fast-paced book that nonetheless takes time to develop its characters, pick this up. Unfortunately, it ends a bit abruptly and as of today, there’s no sequel in sight. Here’s to hoping we’ll get one eventually.


I don’t know about you, but I’m going to call this a pretty successful reading year. I don’t think I’ve ever had this many favorites, especially among the new publications. Many of these books will end up on my Hugo nomination ballot – I’ll post it when the time comes. And who knows, until then I may have caught up on even more awesome books.

If you’ve posted a best of the year list, let me know in the comments. I love looking through other people’s favorite reads of the year. I’m especially interested in 2020 publications that I might have missed or should prioritize. 🙂

A Breath-Taking Debut: Joan He – Descendant of the Crane

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!