Descendant of the Crane by Joan He
★★★☆☆ // 3.5 out of 5 stars
Descendant of the Crane was one of my most-anticipated reads for 2019! To my surprise, I was lucky enough to receive a digital ARC of this book form Netgalley, so thank you to the publisher for providing me the chance to read this early! Also thanks to Joan He for providing an updated copy on top of that 😀
1) I received an ARC from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Changes might be made in the final, published version.
2) This is a non-spoilery review.
3) Banner art by Feifei Ruan
Now, let’s get down to business!
- Man, Caiyan is my fave after all.
- The reveals in the last 1/3 were good, but it took forever and too many flashbacks to get there.
In short, the pacing was a little shaky in some parts of the book, but the twists, reveals and themes behind the book were amazing. Not all the characters are deep, but they don’t have to be. The characters that make it worth reading to the end if you’re unsure to continue part way through are Hesina’s father and Caiyan. The worldbuilding is hit or miss depending on where you are in the book.
The layers of the characters peel back as the story progresses because the plot revolves around a mystery, but I found the cast to lack depth and/or characterization for the majority of the book. Hesina seemed naive at first, but she does grow on you as she learns more about the mystery of her father’s death. However, Hesina also seemed to lack a distinct personality and much of what we know about her is related to her family (understandable) and presented in the form of flashbacks. Li Lian is an example of having the opposite problem: she has distinct characterization, but it would have been nice to see more of her by herself. This also applies to Caiyan to a lesser extent in the beginning, but that is remedied later on.
The plot was slow to get into for 2/3 of the story – I wasn’t partial to the court procedures. The inclusion of Akira’s character didn’t seem particularly relevant outside of the court besides being the designated love interest, though he has potential for growth if there are more installments in the series. I can’t say too much without spoiling the juicy bits of the story
Note: I’m an OwnVoices reviewer (Chinese-American and Canadian), but I speak for my experiences only.
I love that this is a Chinese-inspired fantasy, I can’t get enough of it. The food descriptions are great, and overall I find that if you’re into period C-dramas, it’s no problem in envisioning what this world is like plus the add-on fantasy elements. In the same vein, if you are familiar with C-dramas the worldbuilding outside of the established setting of Yan may be lacking.
On the surface level, the choice of which Chinese terms to keep as is and which ones to translate into English was odd, and some italicized terms were repeated too often even when the audience was already introduced to the meaning. For example dianxia, hanfu, and wansui are perfectly fine to keep as is, but other terms like yuejing (menstruation) seems oddly placed when the English term would have been acceptable to use. This may just be nitpicking on my part, but I would say it’s to evoke a sense of aesthetic in the reader’s mind that “this is ye olde Chinese” if they are unfamiliar with period C-drama/historical aesthetics. I honestly prefer retaining certain terms untranslated in Chinese, but the logic for each individual choice in DOTC is unclear, especially when there are examples like pai fang archways (memorial archway-archways).
EDIT: I will note that Joan has made a twitter thread about her thoughts on romanization and pinyin usage (with regards to names). For those interested, please check it out HERE.
The writing doesn’t make learning about the outside kingdoms and international releations interesting because it’s mixed in with the court trials, which is by far the most boring sections of the book for me. There are a few chapters where Hesina meets with the crown prince of another country, and the incorporation of the soothsayers in these scenes is intriguing and well done.
The strongest aspect of DOTC is the thematic leanings within the text in relation to the revolutionary changes in the kingdom of Yan brought by the Eleven. It plays into the perceptions and fear the public can hold when they are not privvy to the truth or are unable to handle it, leading to persecution based of beliefs and alignments to sooths (though this can be applied to other groups for IRL parallel). This is all very compelling. It’s woven strongly in some parts of the book more than others, but always manages to resurface at the right times, which is when I enjoyed DOTC the most. I only wish Hesina as a main character had a better grasp of handling this sort of large scale understanding of her people, but I suspect she will grow into it if this continues as a series.
I’d think more focus on international relations and the soothsayers (basically anything outside the imperial palace where Hesina and co. reside) would have done this book wonders in keeping my engaged. However, we don’t see enough of the world ouside of Hesina’s home to actually *see* more of the sooths, their magic, and the history and mysteries regarding the Eleven who ushered in a new era in the kingdom. We get some of this content, but I don’t feel it’s nearly enough to build up to the great ending we got, since instead we are shown a plethora of scenes where Hesina is getting lost in flashbacks, doing paperwork and repeating the words ‘truth’ and ‘lie’ like buzzwords.
I know Descendant of the Crane in the end is about Hesina and her family, and the ending revelations about them all is worth reading the next book (if there are more!) and keeping an eye on Joan He’s work as she grows as a writer.