As far as Princess Hesina knew, life in her father’s kingdom of Yan was mostly perfect. Lonely at times and resoundingly predictable, but comfortable, just, and peaceful. When he dies unexpectedly and the crown is passed to her, Hesina learns about the turmoil roiling just under the surface. Centuries ago, the Eleven ripped Yan from the death grip of arrogant, cruel emperors and built a new society founded on their Tenets. But in order to secure their country and eradicate the last of the emperors’ traditions, they turned against the soothsayers, humans with the ability to magically manipulate matter and see the future. The Eleven had the sooths executed by the thousands, and only those who escaped into the bordering countries or who hid amongst the lowest ranks of civilians survived.
Now that Queen Hesina knows the truth about her kingdom’s origins, she can either maintain the status quo or acknowledge the crimes of the past and change the future. There are powerful men on both sides who will do anything to secure the version of Yan that best represents their interests, and she will battle them all to do what’s right… whatever “right” means. With the help of her adopted siblings, her brothers, a couple of soothsayers, and a roguish criminal-turned-attorney, Hesina must right the wrongs of her ancestors while protecting her people from their worst instincts, all while rooting out her father’s killer and preventing a war with a neighboring country.
Joan He’s debut novel is largely plot-driven. Hesina spends much of the novel reacting to ever-changing circumstances rather than setting her own course, or, more accurately, she thinks she’s doing her own thing and only later learns that her actions were predicted and planned for by the people who set the plot in motion. No matter what the men around her think, she refuses to be their pawn. Hesina has her own reasons for lying, stealing, and betraying, and she pushes back against those who want to make Yan their playground.
It’s so plot heavy, however, that it often comes at the expense of character development. Hesina gets most of the page time, for obvious reasons, but everyone else—Akira Lilian, Caiyan, Sanjing, Rou, Mei, Xia Zhong, Hesina’s parents, and Consort Fei—suffers by comparison. What little we know of their personalities comes from their plot-motivated reasons for interacting with Hesina and the sparse descriptions He offers of one or two particular quirks. We get just enough to distinguish the characters from each other and to make the plot work, but not enough to understand them as people independent of Hesina. Most of the time it’s fine. But the moment each character makes a life-altering choice to either help or hurt Hesina, it comes off feeling like a plot-driven action rather than natural behavior because we barely know them.
Where Descendant of the Crane truly shines is in description and setting. He takes “Chinese-inspired fantasy” to new heights. Everything about the setting is rich and vivid. In particular she delves into fashion, language, and culture. He plays on what Hesina wears or doesn’t wear, and when and why all have deeper meaning. Even the parts of her clothing Westerners might not even notice get highlighted in meaningful ways. With a language based on characters rather than letters, He can explore all the ways characters form a phrase, and how complex or simple those characters are might affect the plot. I can’t really go into more detail without spoiling one of the subplots, but it’s pretty cool to watch it all unfold.
As for culture, Queen Hesina is as bound by the same social covenants as a commoner. She wants to do what’s right, but the rules laid down by the Eleven, though ostensibly meant to create a just society, limit her flexibility as a monarch. The Eleven imposed order through force of will and the genocide of soothsayers, and from that forged a new set of cultural and social traditions that eventually become as immutable as those from the relic age. By the time Hesina takes the throne, those in power have learned to shape the Tenets to their own whims and the commoners have come to think of the Eleven as legendary, all-knowing figures. At first Hesina tries to work within the parameters set by the Eleven, then she must work against the Tenets, and finally she realizes they’re just an arbitrary set of rules established by flawed people. The Tenets benefit the people of Yan, true, but at this point they function more to justify and reinforce the rule of the Eleven. Taking on the system means upending her people’s reverence for their founders and shattering the documents that form the basis of their identity and a country, a people, a culture.
If I had to change something, I’d axe Hesina’s romance. It never felt necessary to the story, and shifting the two characters from lovers to friends would give more depth to their actions. That being said, the romance is done well. If you like slow burns, you’ll love this. My issue isn’t a narrative problem, but a personal annoyance. It’s blatantly obvious that Hesina will hook up with [redacted], not because they work well together or have similar interests, but because she is the protagonist and this is a book about straight people and her beau is the only male in her life that is close to her age and isn’t related to her. As much as it bucks tropes, Descendant of the Crane, like an overwhelming majority of young adult fantasy, stumbles face-first into one of the most common. Again, the romance isn’t a bad thing and doesn’t detract from the novel overall, but I also don’t think it adds anything.
If it just had sumptuous prose and a gorgeous setting, Descendant of the Crane would be an impressive undertaking. But it also wields an intriguing mystery, an appealing cast of characters, a fascinating protagonist, and a tricky, shifting plot, making Joan He’s novel a marvel to behold. I hope He returns to this world she’s created; there’s so much more to see and understand. And with that heart-pounding cliffhanger, I hope she returns sooner rather than later.
Descendant of the Crane is available from Albert Whitman Teen.
Alex Brown is a high school librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.