‘Descendant of The Crane’ by Joan is a YA fantasy novel with influences from Chinese culture and mythology. It is a debut novel and currently has an average rating of 3.71 on Goodreads.
‘Descendant of The Crane’ by Joan He follows the story of Princess Hesina of Yan as she’s thrust into power after her father’s sudden death, the queen of an unstable kingdom with threats at the border and growing hatred towards soothsayers from within. Despite this, Hesina believes her father was murdered and is determined to find justice and turns to Akira, a convicted criminal, in hopes of him finding the truth in his investigation. Joan He introduces us to a world rich and full of mythology, but also one where political deceit is hiding behind every corner.
“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.”
I actually really enjoyed Hesina as a female protagonist, as whilst she fit the mould of a typical YA female protagonist by being a princess and therefore ‘special’, she wasn’t perfect – she was tricked and fooled and was often naive, and she didn’t win every battle she faced. She clearly had obvious faults, she was ignorant at times and she could be very cruel – particularly towards Ren as she chooses to blame him for her father’s past actions rather than her father, however she does grow throughout the novel and she does begin to regret her actions and past behaviour towards her half brother. She’s all these things but also intelligent, brave, determined and kind and does risk her life for other’s. She’s a character that feels real and is very easy to sympathise with.
Hesina’s journey as a leader felt realistic, as despite wanting to stand by her convictions and what she believed in, she learnt the difficult lesson that sometimes you have to lie and be deceitful for the greater good. She also had to learn that even though she wanted to see her people as good and be a representative for good people, no one is good all the time – and she really had to wrestle with the idea she ruled over a group of people who could be hateful and violent. Hesina wanted to see the best in everyone, and whilst there’s nothing wrong with that, she learnt that’s not all you can see in a person – nor should be.
There is also quite an in-depth exploration of sibling relationships between Hesina and her four siblings in this book. Each of the relationships are unique but all feel like accurate portrayals of sibling relationships. I was surprised by the inclusion of this but it was a welcome inclusion and I think it really helped the reader to empathise with Hesina’s struggles as they often included the siblings. However, it did feel sometimes like the characters and relationships only existed for Hesina and her arc rather than as standalone characters. Her sister, Lilian, felt particularly like a flat character in comparison to other characters and was only there to help propel Hesina forward in her arc; another character who suffered from this fate was Akira, I thought he was an interesting character and was a little different from the rest, and I wanted to know more about him. I think if he had been flushed out a little more I would have enjoyed the book and Hesina and his developing relationship more.
There are a lot of twists to this story and some of them were unexpected and some were fairly expected. The idea Hesina’s mother and father were one of the two original Eleven felt very obvious and very much a ‘YA twist’, but it wasn’t poorly done – you could just see it from a mile away. Also, it was an interesting twist and it’s raised a lot of questions on morality and whether everything Hesina had been taught her whole life was wrong or not, the author didn’t brush the questions that were raised by this under the rug but faced them head on. Similarly, with Caiyan, it was obvious he was not what we thought he was or loyal to Hesina, however I admired how He flipped that concept on it’s head and revealed how Caiyan saw it as helping Hesina in his own twisted way. That plot twist helped to really blur the lines of morality with the character, and you were left wondering if what he did was right or not.
Overall, the good vs evil commentary in this book is phenomenal. No character is good or bad, they all have their own motivations and are brilliant for it, everyone feels believable in that sense. The lines are constantly blurred between hero and villain, good and bad, moral and corrupt as everyone’s motivations feel real and often valid – you can understand each of them for it. Th’is coupled with all the political games that are played within the court makes it a very morally grey book, it makes you question as a reader what is right and wrong; something that is only further explored with quotes from the two of the original Eleven who are the base of moral teachings in the country. They at first portrayed as statements that are the absolute truth and must be the morally right thing to do, but as the novel progresses it throws into questions these teachings and you begin to wonder if what they say is always morally the right thing to do. If you’re a fan of ‘The Good Place’, you’ll probably be a fan of this.
I loved the world-building in this book, I thought the history of Yan was fascinating (but I am a bit of a history nerd). It was built on a revolution that took place three centuries prior and now the whole country followed the teachings of the Eleven that led that revolution, and hunted down Soothsayers, users of magic, into what was believed to be extinction. This again threw up a lot of moral questions, The Eleven saved the country of Yan from tyranny but also committed genocide to do so – so how can the reader ever see their teachings as valid or morally just? There were also a lot of fantasy elements mixed in with the history, there were stories of Cranes and their significance but also hints towards alchemy and immortality. Whilst I think the world He built was fascinating, I don’t think we got to see enough of it, and I know this is a personal tastes issue, but one of the things stopping me from giving this five stars was the exclusion of some parts of the world, and at times shallow looks into the mythology and the magic of the country.
This book did have slight pacing issues and could feel a little disjointed at times, but it settled into a fast-paced groove after a while. However, not enough time was given to the reader to process events or plot points before the next thing happened, and whilst that works a couple of times in a novel it shouldn’t happen every time something is revealed otherwise your reader can feel a little disillusioned, and struggle to keep up. Although this never stopped me from turning the page and craving to know what would happen next, the plot is incredible and it’s easy to look past the pacing issues as a reader when you’re constantly surprised, and impressed with how the author has managed to craft a plot so complex that it leaves you wanting to know more.
Now, if you’re not a fan of cliffhanger endings stay far away from this book. It doesn’t have a conclusive ending and more questions are left unanswered than answered, and it’s really frustrating. But admittedly, it was also nice to see that Hesina didn’t succeed, she wasn’t victorious in her struggles against everyone in the political court.
Honestly, this whole review can be summed up with: this book needs a sequel. A lot of the problems I’ve outlined such a shallow look into some of the aspects of the world, or a lack of depth in certain characters could be easily resolved with a sequel, they’re only a problem if this is a standalone. The author has said on Goodreads she doesn’t have plans for a sequel, but has plans for two companion novels that continue the same story featured in this; and she better write them and they better be picked up for publication – I want to know more. Also, part of me wonders if this would have been more realised as a book in the adult fantasy genre, the world building could have been expanded on more if this was the case and perhaps we would have seen a more in-depth glimpse and realisation to our main characters.
Overall, this is a stunning YA debut and I will be watching this closely to see if He decides to follow it up with an sequels or companion novels.