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, 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 and alluring 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?
Disclaimer: I received this book for free from NetGalley and Albert Whitman Company in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
I want to start off this review by refuting the claim that it’s a Chinese-inspired Game of Thrones. I honestly believe that got me in the wrong mindset from the beginning, because that comparison left me wanting so much more. Descendant of the Crane features a fairly messed up royal family, but otherwise, this is its own thing.
The opening of the story is great. We start just after the death of the king. The atmosphere is gloomy and unpredictable, even dangerous. The main characters steal into a disreputable district to seek forbidden magic. It’s a great beginning. It pulled me right me. The characters we meet are distinct and interesting – the desperate princess, her cautious adopted brother, and the sarcastic adopted sister. They’re well-matched and interesting together. After the opening scene, my interest started to wane.
Characters that were interesting at first failed to develop. For me, Lillian was the most interesting of the collection. She spoke with a more unique voice than the others, and added a bit of lilt to the dialogue. The main character, Hesina, waffled back and forth between what she believed and what she wanted. The ultimate betrayal was so flat that I couldn’t bother to be surprised. It was all so… underwhelming.
If I had to pick, it was the plot that really lost me. The story is supposed to follow the king’s murder trial, but the scenes in the courtroom are few and far between. The way the trial is treated and manipulated made the whole thing feel like a joke. At its core, the trial didn’t matter anyway, because Hesina was always off doing her own thing and getting her own answers. In fact, the entire plot of this novel was about the young queen and a greedy advisor having it out behind the scenes and pulling the strings of the system to get what they wanted. It was petty and uninteresting.
What was interesting was the magic. I wanted to know a lot more about the magical system, and I wanted to see more of the sooths. The sooths were central to the story, and yet, they only seemed to pop up when there needed to be a moment of political hysteria. All the interesting bits of the story surrounded the magic-users, how they had been hunted, and the future different rulers wanted for them… but Hesina was all over the place. And because of her uncertainty, the plot was all over the place. Sometimes she was looking for murderers, sometimes she was having spats with siblings. Sometimes she was parading for her people and sometimes she was lecturing about the history of her kingdom. I wish the story was more focused, because a lot of things were happening, but most of them felt very irrelevant.
Also the ending? The ending was anti-climatic. It may work if this is intended to be a series, but honestly, I don’t know if I would read on? If you’re looking for an intense Chinese inspired fantasy about war and magic and injustice, I suggest The Poppy War.
It’s not all bad, but I think my main takeaway from Descendant of the Crane was that it could have been so much more. And I feel like kind of a jerk leaving a less-than-favorable review. This debut is getting overwhelmingly positive reviews. And I am so so glad readers are enjoying it. But I’m also seeing that a lot of these reviews are from critique partners and the social media squad, so go in with in open mind, and you’ll probably like it more than if you go in expecting the next George R. R. Martin.
What’s your favorite Asian-inspired fantasy? I know a lot of people are participating in YARC this year and I’d love to hear about other diverse books! Tell me your favorites in the comments!