ARC Review: Descendant of the Crane by Joan He

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Princess Hesina of Yan has always been eager to shirk the responsibilities of the crown, dreaming of an unremarkable life. But when her beloved father is found dead, she’s thrust into power, suddenly the queen of a surprisingly unstable kingdom. What’s more, Hesina believes that her father was murdered—and that the killer is someone close to her.
Hesina’s court is packed full of dissemblers and deceivers eager to use the king’s death for political gain, each as plausibly guilty as the next. Her advisers would like her to blame the neighboring kingdom of Kendi’a, whose ruler has been mustering for war. Determined to find her father’s actual killer, Hesina does something desperate: she enlists the aid of a soothsayer—a treasonous act, punishable by death, since magic was outlawed centuries ago.
Using the information provided by the sooth, and uncertain if she can trust her family, Hesina turns to Akira—a brilliant investigator who’s also a convicted criminal with secrets of his own. With the future of Yan at stake, can Hesina find justice for her father? Or will the cost be too high?

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This book came onto my radar simply because so many of my fellow bloggers loved this so much and were just so excited to talk about it. And then my two dear friends Charvi and Nandini buddy read this too (please include me next time you read something together) and they couldn’t stop gushing. That settled it and I had to pick it up next and despite it taking me three days to finish (I was in a bad mood ppl), it was such a fascinating book and I’m still reeling from that ending.

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I enjoyed the world building here a lot. I really like it when we get a little bit of history about the world throughout the story and the author does a great job of it here. We get to know a lot about the kingdom of Yan and how it came to be. While there are three more neighboring kingdoms and there is ongoing conflict with one of them, we don’t know much about them and I have a feeling that will be remedied in the sequel. We also get some details about the soothsayers and their magic, but because they are the oppressed class, we only get bits and pieces of how the magic actually works and more about their lives and the hardships they face.

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The plot is definitely the best part of this book. The author thrusts us smack dab in the middle of the story after the King’s death and it’s just twists upon twists after that. There are not a lot of action packed scenes but this book is full of court politics and intrigue at its best. You never ever know who to trust, what anyone’s motives are and I felt totally baffled when revelations happened. I’ve heard a lot about this book being called Chinese inspired Game of Thrones and it definitely has that feel to it. The pacing is actually quite slow throughout, with some very unexpected situations thrown in between, but I never got bored and felt very interested all through the story. The book also has a couple of intense and absolutely wonderful trial scenes and I thought the author did such a brilliant job in them. I also loved the usage of Chinese language words throughout the book and I always enjoy it when POC authors do this. And that ending —— wow did those two chapters stun me. Within the last few pages, everything that I thought I knew was upended and I was left flabbergasted. I never saw that coming and the direction the story seems to be going next is so unexpected, it’s just excellent plotting.

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There are so many interesting characters here and it was such fun figuring them out. We get Hesina’s POV, so she is the only one who’s motivations we are sure of. She unexpectedly becomes the Queen after her father’s death and she thinks she is prepared because of his teachings and his trust in her. However, as she sets on the path for truth and justice, so many of the truths that she thought she knew are shattered and she feels overwhelmed. She constantly has to battle her longing for her father with the revelations about his identity, she has to be the queen for the people who are seething with hatred for an entire community and hell bent on mob justice, and she has to learn who to trust every step of the way. What I loved most about her is the way she questions the oppression of the sooths that has been going on for three centuries and her desire to bring about an end to it, though she doesn’t know how. She is strong in her own way, compassionate and thoughtful, but definitely needs some more caution before trusting people – that’s her good quality but also her downfall.

There are a host of other characters but they are not as developed as Hesina. Caiyan and Lilian are her adopted siblings – her constant companions and support systems, with whom she feels the most safe and wants to protect them. While Caiyan is stoic and reserved and very smart about political situations that Hesina never thinks through completely, Lilian on the other hand is feisty, bringing a little cheer to gloomy situations and always there whenever Hesina needs her. I loved their dynamic a lot. Hesina’s relationship with her brother Sanjing is slightly more antagonistic, owing to years of non communication and jealousy and just hurting each other with words. Akira is the mysterious stranger who is her representative at trial and while there is a developing romantic dynamic between the two, I would have loved to see them together more. There are also other players in the court and outside and it was very fascinating to know the intent behind each of their actions and betrayals. None of the characters are evil just for the sake of it and while it doesn’t erase their wrongdoings, it’s always interesting to know why they are committing those acts.

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Finally, I just want to say that this is a wonderful debut novel with an interesting world and fascinating characters and all the twists and turns that you never asked for. It’s slow paced and more of a political fantasy story than an action packed one, but it still packs a punch and will leave you wanting to know immediately what happens next. It’s not going to be an easy wait.

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