Happy Tuesday, bibliophiles!
Descendant of the Crane and The Ones We’re Meant to Find made me an instant fan of Joan He, and so I was immediately hooked when I found out that she was cooking up another piece of folkloric-feeling historical fiction! And now that I’ve finished this novel, I can safely say that Joan He has never once let me down. Fingers crossed that it’s consistent.
Enjoy this week’s review!
Strike the Zither (Kingdom of Three, #1) – Joan He
Zephyr has spent her whole life mapping survival out strategically. It was necessary after she was orphaned while she was still young, but as the strategist of the warlordess Xin Ren, she now holds the fate of a warring country in her hands. Three factions are fighting for dominance under a figurehead of an empress, and any sudden moves could mean that one faction takes over the entire Xin Dynasty.
When Zephyr is sent on a mission to infiltrate the ranks of the enemy to ensure the safekeeping of Xin Ren’s loyal followers, she collides with Crow, an enemy strategist with an agenda of his own. But the boiling point of all three factions is fast approaching, and Zephyr must do anything in order to make it out alive—even if it means exposing herself to the enemy.
TW/CW: death, blood, war themes, violence, torture, animal death, vomiting, abuse, body-shaming, xenophobia (fictional)
I’m not sure why I’m so hesitant to say that Joan He can do no wrong at this point. She’s never missed. Not with Descendant of the Crane, not with The Ones We’re Meant to Find, and certainly not with this novel. Her first two books were already works of art, and I’m glad to say that He is consistent in the quality of her writing, and consistent in her ability to put out so much unique media into the world of literature.
Each Joan He book is memorable in its own way, but what stood out to me about Strike the Zither was how wonderfully cinematic it was. It wasn’t frustratingly quippy or overtly self-serious; He knew just when to hit the balance, juxtaposing war with well-placed zither solos and political intrigue. He seems to do political intrigue especially well—there’s a way to make it genuinely interesting without having the entire focus be on court drama, which happens so often in YA, and with both this novel and Descendant of the Crane, she teases each development just enough to continually keep my attention. With the stylized art on the cover, I could honestly imagine this novel being adapted into a darker Laika Studios stop-motion film, but no matter the medium, Strike the Zither feels like it was born for the screen.
He also has an awareness of her characters that not many YA authors do—she knows that Zephyr and all of the other supporting characters are over the top, and she absolutely rolls with it. Again, Strike the Zither was a master class in balance; Zephyr neither fell into the all-too-common self-seriousness of YA, nor did she constantly break out into the dreaded Marvel Funny personality. She’s theatrical, but in a fun way that doesn’t mire itself in angst unnecessarily. Given this novel’s roots in Chinese classics and folklore, it’s the perfect way to write it; He mentions that the original epic of the Three Kingdoms had a tendency to put historical figures on a godlike pedestal, and this felt like a tongue-in-cheek response to that style.
The pacing of this novel also sealed the deal for me; although it was a little difficult to get into right out of the gate with how the world and its characters were so rapidly introduced, once it got going, the pace never faltered. Every action felt calculated, like the strategist that Zephyr is, and each choice elevated the plot to heights that I didn’t expect Strike the Zither to reach. The main twist was so deftly executed, and it had me grinning from ear to ear when I came across it, and my excitement never waned over the course of this novel. This one’s a must-read, trust me.
All in all, an impressive display of Joan He’s talent on all fronts. 4 stars! I can’t wait for the rest of the duology!
Strike the Zither is the first book in the Kingdom of Three duology; the sequel, Sound the Gong, is set for release in October of 2023 (!!!). Joan He is also the author of Descendant of the Crane and The Ones We’re Meant to Find, both of which are standalones.
That’s it for this week’s Book Review Tuesday! Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!