Book review: Descendant of the Crane by Joan He


Tyrants cut out hearts. Rulers sacrifice their own.

Princess Hesina of Yan has always been eager to shirk the responsibilities of the crown, dreaming of an unremarkable life. But when her beloved father is found dead, she’s thrust into power, suddenly the queen of a surprisingly unstable kingdom. What’s more, Hesina believes that her father was murdered—and that the killer is someone close to her.

Hesina’s court is packed full of dissemblers and deceivers eager to use the king’s death for political gain, each as plausibly guilty as the next. Her advisers would like her to blame the neighboring kingdom of Kendi’a, whose ruler has been mustering for war. Determined to find her father’s actual killer, Hesina does something desperate: she enlists the aid of a soothsayer—a treasonous act, punishable by
death, since magic was outlawed centuries ago.

Using the information provided by the sooth, and uncertain if she can trust her family, Hesina turns to Akira—a brilliant investigator who’s also a convicted criminal with secrets of his own. With the future of Yan at stake, can Hesina find justice for her father? Or will the cost be too high?

RATING: ☆★☆★

Me, while sipping apple juice out of a champagne glass and gazing dramatically into the distance: I’ve had enough of cliffhangers…

What an ending! Such a succession of shattering revelations that sent a wave through my room so strong that I felt its ripple and was rocked on its mooring. Such was the churn and whirl of my thoughts and feelings that I was genuinely incapable of putting two ideas in a row, let alone come into any kind of conclusion—other than that I desperately need a sequel.

So, what’s this book about?

Hesina finds herself thrust into a tale she hardly understands when news of the king’s death—her father’s death—burst wildly and messily into Yan. Then, too soon, it is neatened, pressed and cast away without a slight crease in it. But the truth of it had already sunk into the center of Hesina and broken open, flooding her with a new certainty: her father has been murdered and the need to seek justice for him sang bright in her. With the rage and terror in her heart, the limits of her knowledge and her experience so miserably evident, Hesina turns to a Soothsayer who puts her on the path of Akira, a convicted criminal whose past and motivations are cloaked in secrecy.

But in doing so, Hesina risks treason. Some things, it seems, run too close to the bone to change no matter how much you want them to.

See, centuries before, the gnarled hand of oppression loosened its grip on Yan’s throat when the relic emperors were overthrown by the Eleven—a legendary group of outlaw saviors. The Eleven, later, gathered their philosophies into a book they called the Tenets and etched them into permanence. By then, the fear of Soothsayers—the relic emperor’s henchmen—and their magic had knitted itself into the bones of Yan and seeped through generations, and so the Eleven expunged everyone with Sooth magic in their blood from existence.

Now, one truth unleashes another and another and having torn open the vault of secrets her father took with him into the ground, the hope for a better Yan, that had leapt in Hesina’s chest, crashes all at once. And all that is left is the plaintive specter of a child who had loved and trusted her father so wholeheartedly, her illusions now forever dashed and broken.

“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 premise Joan He lays out in Descendant of the Crane isn’t shockingly original, but the relatively familiar contours of the plot do not make it any less elaborate.  I had hardened myself to wonder before I started this book, but my knee-jerk skepticism was quickly knuckled under by my admiration for the way He has craftily drawn on several familiar tropes and recast them into something altogether fresh and memorable.

Descendant of the Crane does flounder somewhat until it settles into a groove. I think the novel could have been better curated, as it sometimes feels less like a story and more like a haphazard sequence of things happening. The characters could also be more deeply realized—the purpose for existing in the story for some characters is merely the degree to which they advance Hesina’s arc without settling into one of their own, and they barely have enough personality to make that existence worthwhile, others start with interesting arcs but are eventually reduced to cogs in a jarring plot twist that almost flattens them as characters.

Moreover, when it comes to Akira, the love interest, my list of likes decreases dramatically. There’s something about him that doesn’t quite synchronize with the rest of this world, like his character had been spliced in from a different story. Akira appears so infrequently that it feels like the novel is frustratingly adamant on keeping the reader at arms’ length from him. His inclusion in the story scarcely makes sense, and Akira quickly loses the thin, undefinable edge that made him interesting to begin with. It made me want to poke at him until he gives me something more, something more exciting, somethingat the very leastworth rooting for.

Nevertheless, the book successfully breezes past many of its flaws, and He’s own boundless creativity eventually finds its footing. Once it does, Descendant of the Crane doesn’t let go. As Hesina’s investigation into her father’s death deepens, so does the book’s scope. I had not managed to organize my puzzlement into a question before the plot begun eddying around in a speedy, gasp-out-loud, page-flipping style—each new certainty leading not to the next steppingstone but into a quagmire. Revelations were so laden with dread and dismay that they fell into the novel like a rock into a quiet pond, and my astonishment quickly turned to horror. The climax was a virtuoso performance, leading to a poignant epilogue with just enough bread crumbs to set the ground for future installments.

I really liked Hesina’s arc. I love how nothing in this story yields resignedly to her desires despite her many effortful attempts. The court is not some simple engine that applying pressure here, pressure there, could propel in the direction of her wishes. Hesina realizes that she can no longer grasp after the tail end of her father’s memory, clinging doggedly to his teachings; she needs a lot more foundation stones before she can start building this tower. At the same time, Hesina must reconcile with the river of spilled blood between her forebearers and the downtrodden Sooths and find a way to lead her people out of their fear and hatred. Most of the time, the task feels like trying to run up the side of an avalanche, and the novel doesn’t elude the reality of the weight residing on Hesina’s shoulders.

I also love how He mercilessly probes her characters’ underlying motivation, and explores the lines between good and evil, who monsters are, and what makes them so. By the end, her antagonists’ villainy illuminates the morality of each character, and the reader is still a long way from sundering villain from hero.

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.

Overall, Descendant of the Crane is a lovely, assured debut and a formidable addition to the growing body of diverse teen literature!

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