3.75/5 Stars

Joan He
Published April 2019

*review by Alexa*

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.

Descendant of the Crane has long been on my list of most anticipated releases.  From the synopsis and cover I was expecting a layered and intelligent book full of mystery, magic, and maybe a bit of betrayal.  It is with absolute delight that I report that Craneis all of this and so much more.  Set in a world influenced by traditional Chinese culture, Crane is a murder mystery cloaked in politics, betrayal, magic, and family; however, at its core it is a story about growing up, making choices, and realizing that no one is perfect and things are rarely black and white.

A dead king,” said the convict. “A deceived populace. A truth seeker. Sounds like a story that could end very well or very poorly, and I want to spectate.

The world building of Crane is fantastic, as is the mythology and the magical system. The world feels lush and full, and the mythology and magical system is at once familiar and unique.  Joan He puts her own spin on a world that most of us are at least a little acquainted with, so I felt comfortable in her world immediately, but I never felt bored.  I enjoyed all of the descriptions in the book as well, especially of the luxuries in the palace.  I swear sometimes I could feel the silk beneath my fingertips and smell the persimmons in the air.

Most of this story is firmly within the realm of gray area, and the characters are no exception.  He does a magnificent job of allowing the characters (everyone of them flawed) to speak on their own behalf, which allows the reader to decide for themselves if anyone is “good” or “bad.”  I loved that there truly are few such easy distinctions, and that characters can vacillate between the two.  Few people in life are truly one way or another, and I think He captured that beautifully.

What is truth? Seek it. Write it. Good kings pay gold to hear it. But in trying times, truth is the first thing we betray.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the main character, Hesina, is a capable, intelligent, and relatable person.  She is flawed, she can act rashly and harshly, and she is often torn between the world she thought she knew and reality…things that all of us have experienced.  What I enjoyed so much about her character is that she learns from her mistakes, she makes difficult decisions, and—despite the tremendous amount of turmoil she endures—she never feels angsty.  Her inner monologues were interesting and full of doubt, but, thankfully, never tiresome. Hesina is strong, and fierce, but she relies on others.  She pushes herself, but knows her limitations. She makes difficult decisions, and she acknowledges when she’s made an error.  I found her to be so much more nuanced and layered than most YA heroines, and her arc was a joy to read.

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There are a few small issues that I had with the book, but most of them come from needing just a little more finesse with certain aspects. For instance, the beginning was clunky and I found it difficult to immerse myself in the story initially. The pacing was a little off at the beginning, although the second half was paced well and flowed very nicely. While I enjoyed Hesina and the other characters very much, I did keep hoping for a few—namely Akira, Lillian, and Caiyan—to be more fully formed so that they would have a stronger presence. My biggest issue with this story (and, even though it is the biggest, it is still relatively small) is the two large exposition dumps in the middle of the story.  I won’t go into specifics in order to avoid spoilers, but I will say that twice I found myself wishing that information had been spread out more deftly throughout the story rather than in one lump in a few paragraphs.  Lastly, I realize this is YA, but I need a little more sex appeal in my romance than this book gave me, although I have a feeling the next installment will be a little heavier in that arena.

Tonight, we fell victim to fear. We let it blind us. We thought we were hunting monsters…”
She stared out into the sea of flame-washed faces. It took all her strength not to look away. But we were monsters.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this book!  The political intriguing is fun and not stuffy, the mystery is truly mysterious (I was guessing right up until the end), the characters are engaging, and the story is multilayered and intelligent.  The underlying message that He presents, but never shoves at you, is one of the dangers of paranoia and fear of the Other, and how quickly such fear can lead people—even good people—to violence and hatred. It’s a message that has always been important, but is even more imperative now.  It’s obvious that He thinks highly of her readers, and she has written a book that’s so much more than the typical YA fantasy.  The cliffhanger left me clamoring for the next book, and I certainly hope He doesn’t make us wait to long to continue Hesina’s journey with her!


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