Descendant of the Crane by Joan He

A Review by JC Kang

One of my favorite parts of writing reviews is coming up with a snappy tagline that compares the book in question to iconic stories. The publisher has promoted Descendant of the Crane as a Chinese-inspired Game of Thrones, and while it does have an intricate plot and luscious world building, its single Point Of View and limited scope of conflict (at least in Book 1) does not quite fit the juggling of agendas and sweeping scope of George RR Martin’s masterpiece. Perhaps it is more akin to Netflix’s Marco Polo, minus Mongols and a whiny protagonist. At the risk of sounding self-serving, I would say it is similar to my own Dragon Songs Saga; but with more textured characters whose vibrant interactions I can only aspire to.

A lesson in Idealism vs. Practicality in governance, Descendant of the Crane follows Hesina, the daughter of the recently-deceased Emperor. Thrust into the role of ruler, she breaks the laws she is mandated to enforce: namely, she secretly enlists the aid of the magic-using Sooths to prove her father was actually murdered.  The ensuing investigation requires her to navigate sycophants and backstabbers as she tries to play by the rules, and also manage an imminent invasion by foreign aggressors.

To accomplish this, the author crafts a fleshed-out world based on imperial China. Painted with vivid prose, it feels real, textured, and lived-in.  The magic system, while not complex, has clear rules regarding strengths and limitations that make sense within the larger history and current story.

 Copious amounts of Mandarin vocabulary find its way into the narrative, perhaps bordering on the excessive: for whereas most of these terms can be inferred through context—which I appreciated in the third person close narrative distance—I sometimes felt that I could not visualize what item was being described. As a non-native but fluent Mandarin speaker who has watched countless period dramas, I imagine the average reader would have a harder time.

Where Descendant of the Crane truly shines is Hesina’s relationships with her siblings. Each is vibrantly crafted with distinct personalities and their own agendas. She has something of a contentious relationship with Sanjing, her half-brother and military leader; while she leans on her brilliant adopted brother, Caiyan. Meanwhile, I could not quite put my finger on what made her interactions with adopted sister Lilian so enthralling.

Less compelling to me was the romantic arc. Based on illegal prophecies, Lilian seeks the help of a convict, the enigmatic Akira, who has a wide variety of talents—whether it’s swordsmanship or legal expertise, he could be compared to the tall, dark stranger that a Young Adult protagonist is destined to develop feelings as a relationship evolves from belligerent to mutual attraction. In this, the romantic tension felt like an afterthought instead of a core part of the plot.

As a whole, the story is part murder mystery, part political maneuvering, part international conflict. Two brilliant twists at the 75% mark I didn’t see coming, and the final twist was brilliant.  Taking all this in consideration, I rate Descendant of the Crane an 8.5 out of 10.

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