Genre : YA Fantasy
Date Published : April 9, 2019
Publisher : Albert Whitman and Co.
I read Joan He’s debut novel, Descendant of the Crane, for this week’s blog post and (spoiler alert) I absolutely loved it. It came to my attention when I was searching up-and-coming YA novels, and the cover – which is so beautiful – immediately caught my eye. Then there was the plot description – magic, assassinations, secrets and lies, political turmoil. You name it, this book has it, and it accomplishes everything that it sets out to do.
I almost don’t even know where to start for this review, because there are so many good things to talk about, but He’s ability to weave words together and create a story and a picture to go along with that story deserves to be praised first and foremost. I started reading the book while I was at the pool, lounging in the sun, and He’s prose pulled me in so effectively that I sat there reading for an hour without even realizing it (and got an impressive sunburn on my leg as a result). In just the first couple of chapters, He introduces the plot, the characters, builds the world and the history of that world, and does it all in such a seemingly simple way. Everything flows together beautifully, and I felt as if I knew the characters so well even though I had just met them a page or two ago.
Speaking of the characters, the ones that are brought to life in this book are some of my favorite characters to date. They all feel so real and so alive, and each of them have their own distinct personalities that you come to depend upon and look forward to throughout the story. At the forefront is Hesina, the protagonist of the novel and whose POV the book is told from. Then there is Sanjing, Hesina’s younger brother who commands the Yan military. Caiyan and Lilian, two twins that Hesina’s father adopted when they were young, are two of the most delightful characters of the story, with Lilian never failing to make me laugh out loud, and Caiyan having one of the more surprising character arcs in the book. Then of course there is Akira, the convict turned representative as he tries to assist Hesina solve the mystery surrounding her father’s death. And these are just the main characters – there are countless side characters who have just as much depth and importance to the plot!
The death of Hesina’s father is what drives most of the story. He was ruler of the kingdom of Yan, and when his death appears more suspicious than natural, Hesina sets out to find the true cause, and the person behind it. And she has to do all of this while preparing to become queen. If that doesn’t sound stressful enough, it quickly becomes clear that the royal court is full of liars and power seekers who do not have Hesina’s best interests at heart, and Hesina finds that she can’t even trust those who are supposed to be closest to her. And her conflicted feelings over the sooths – people who can use magic to see the future, and are therefore scorned and feared for their abilities (asking for their aid is a treasonous act in itself) – makes all of this even more complicated for Hesina.
Her father had filled her nights with shadow puppets, dress-up, and maps of secret passageways. Year after year, he boosted her onto his shoulders – her very own throne – and together they’d watch the queen’s carriage fade into the mist.Chapter 3, page 35
While the plot of Descendant of the Crane revolves around politics and morality, there is the underlying plot of family and loyalty that is just as impactful. Even though we never get to see Hesina and her father interact, He does an amazing job of utilizing flashbacks or brief memories to show readers the deep bond the two shared, and how losing him has affected Hesina greatly. That loss is what makes Hesina’s remaining family so important to her. It was reading about those relationships that really kept me turning the page (and of course the couple of plot twists that occur throughout the story), because I couldn’t wait to get more background on these characters and what they mean to each other. Whether it was seeing how Hesina’s somewhat broken relationship with Sanjing would turn out, or experiencing more comedic scenes between Liliana and Caiyang, or seeing if Hesina and her half-brother, Rue, would ever move beyond the bitterness that Hesina felt towards him for being a reminder of her father’s infidelity.
As I said before, there are endless things to praise about this book, and I wish I had endless time to talk about all of them. Joan He constructs a beautiful and detailed world, and fills it with characters I couldn’t get enough of! I almost wish that the book had switching POVs, just so I could get into everyone’s heads, but then again, following Hesina on her journey step by step is not something I would want to miss out on – she’s such a strong character, and I was rooting for her the whole way through. And I suppose multiple POVs might give away a few of the major plot twists that had me gasping out loud.
Descendant of the Crane is a masterful debut from Joan He, and while it doesn’t seem like she has a sequel in mind for it, I would definitely be one of the first in line to buy it if she does (especially with that ending, I mean come on!). However, He does have a second book set to be published in the fall of 2020, The Ones We’re Meant to Find, which follows the story of two sisters – one stuck on an island with little memory of who she is, and the other fighting to save the earth with no clue that her sister is alive. It sounds like it is going to be just as big of a hit as Descendant of the Crane was, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it!
Rating: 9 Crane Hair Pins out of 10.