I was expecting wonderful things from this inventive YA fantasy, which seemed to have such a fresh perspective. Unfortunately, I barely got through it. Two stars for a bland, clunky read.

“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?”

Friends, I was so excited when I was approved for this one. I saw a bunch of glowing reviews come across my feed, and it really sounded like exactly my jam–YA fantasy, non-Western-inspired world, complex and badass teenage Queen! Better yet, it’s not the first of a trilogy with the standard post-Hunger Games stock plot. (Hey, I loved Red Queen, but there’s only so many times I can read that same plotline before I combust.)

Descendant of the Crane really had everything going for it except being an enjoyable book. It eventually delivered on the promised twists and turns, but it took several hundred cringe-inducing pages to get there.

There was a lot of potential to the world, and some of the settings were marvelous. I loved the Chinese-inspired but still totally original world. I keep seeing this world comped to Game of Thrones, but I got vibes closer to Red Queen and Avatar: The Last Airbender… except that RQ and A:TLA make an effort to justify a world where teenagers dominate the story, and then fill out the rest of the cast with interesting adult characters. DotC had me always laughing whenever a new teenager rocketed into the story without care.

Book cover: Descendant of the Crane
*to the tune of Death of a Bachelor*
What a beautiful cover…

But honestly, that’s pretty nitpicky of me. My real problem is this: with such an engaging setting and exciting story, how can this book be the blandest thing I have ever read?This was a book about power and murder and romance… and friends, I was bored.

I think the best word for it is flimsy. The whole thing was so thin… sure, the settings had beautiful and interesting imagery, but the bottom of the cultural iceberg just wasn’t there. I didn’t really understand how this society was any different from mine beyond aesthetics. The characters all have creative names and wild backstories, but they’re paper thin. They all felt like slightly tweaked stock characters. I didn’t feel that any of them, least of all Hesina, were real. I mean, look at this:

“Hesina squirmed, well aware there was nothing impressive about her appearance. She lacked the hunger for knowledge that flamed in Caiyan’s eyes, the mirth of Lilian’s lips.”

Joan He, Descendant of the Crane, eArc on Kindle, 143/4332

Tell me that isn’t straight out of a YA parody twitter account. (Yes, I’m hesitant to quote from the ARC–I will check this against the finished version when available.)

I didn’t read the synopsis until after the book, but I wish I had–the story might have made a lot more sense. The information in the first half of the synopsis is revealed in narration and flashbacks. The story actually starts by dropping us into Chapter 1 with Hesina off to see the Sooth. If I were already acclimated to the world, I might have understood why this was extraordinary and the scene might have had tension… but that was my intro to the world and the characters, so I had no reason to care about any of it.

Perhaps if I had ever seen this Hesina that had “always been eager to shirk the responsibilities of the crown, dreaming of an unremarkable life,” I might have felt some connection to the character, but we only ever see Hesina after this supposed turnaround. The result is a completely incongruous character; everything we are told (no, never shown) about Hesina’s past doesn’t at all square with the hyper-focused, almost robotically determined character in the actual book. She doesn’t feel like a character who changed, she feels like a flimsy character with a backstory that makes no sense.

I desperately wish the story had started with the dramatic scene of Hesina witnessing her father’s death and discovering the poison. Maybe then I would understand these people and care about Hesina’s mission. This is probably the first time I’ve read a book and been annoyed that it started too late, and it seems to fly in the face of conventional writing advice, but here we are.

All told, Hesina baffled me until the very end. I still can’t really describe her as a person. From the first chapter, her choices made no sense to me (not in a “what a stupid teenager way,” in a “how does A lead to B” way). There are glimmers of hope in more interesting characters (like the King’s consort, for instance) but they take a backseat to the love interest, an inexplicable teenage outlaw-turned-attorney (teenage. outlaw. turned. attorney. he has a flute and swordfights.) that I am still so confused by.

This has been an awfully long rant, so let’s wrap things up. This book had a lot of potential, and I’ll be interested in more from this author. She may write some amazing stories when she gets over the debut hump. For now, I’m just not a fan. Joan He seems to be trying so hard to be poetic that the book ended up a choppy, confusing, strangely-paced mess that felt like work to read.

I received an advance reader’s ebook copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley with the expectation of an honest review. All opinions my own.

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