I think I’ve found my first favorite read of 2019.
Well, that’s kind of debatable because I’m unsure of whether I would classify The Gilded Wolves as one of my favorites? (It was really good, but I don’t know whether or not it was amazing-amazing-aMazInG).
My five-star rating of this is partially subjective because the book did have some flaws, including an unrealistic twist and an unappealing love interest, but… I’m still wholly obsessed with it? Wild.
Anyways, this will be a spoiler-free review except for the small toggle-able spoiler section at the bottom! I HAVE THOUGHTS, OKAY. The toggle section might not work on older browsers, like Firefox (it will show the spoiler section & won’t be toggle-able), but it definitely works on Chrome!
I’ll be placing the spoiler section after the end of my review, and before I list other ownvoices reviews.
Thank you so much to Albert Whitman & Company for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for a review!
Also, some of the links provided are affiliate links meaning that if you purchased from them I would get a small, but helpful (!) sum of money.
Descendant of the Crane by Joan He
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?
I don’t know how to start off this review, except by acknowledging that damn beautiful cover. I would like to print out photos of it and hand them out in the park like they’re pamphlets. It might be illegal but my love for this book is bigger than the law, ok.
Also, the cover is so… gloriously Chinese? I showed my copy of the book to my mom and at first she was like “why r u here, what are you thrusting at my face” and then she squinted and was like “Wait… is this Chinese?” and I was like “YEAH” and then she said “cool” and went back to playing poker.
By the way, as someone Chinese and an ownvoices reader, it means a lot to me to see an ownvoices Chinese-inspired novel being published by a mainstream-ish publisher and being so hyped up.
Also, it will forever remain my belief that Joan He deserves to be on that NYT bestselling list. I mean, seriously. It was literally sold out on Book Depository and there were so many issues with printing and so many people’s orders were canceled by BD and it was just… a huge mess overall. 0/10. I feel so bad for Joan He, especially considering all of the hard work she put into her preorder campaign?? Have you seen the bookmark she gave out?
We will all be reborn as equals.
— ONE of the ELEVEN on the new era
First, the old must go.
— TWO of the ELEVEN on the new era
Anyways. Descendant of the Crane follows Hesina, a princess whose father suddenly dies from poison, but the kingdom is led to believe that he died a peaceful death. Hesina is determined to rule the kingdom successfully while leading an investigation to find out how he died and who would kill him.
While her desperation to figure out the mystery surrounding her father’s death becomes almost obsessive, she’s accompanied by steady people she can rely on, mainly consisting of her friends and family.
- Hesina, the headstrong and partially naive princess. She has an optimistic view of the world that slowly falters the more she finds out about her kingdom.
- Caiyan, the intelligent and calculating adviser of Hesina. He’s a damn genius, Hesina’s stepbrother, and always thinks five steps ahead.
- Lillian, Hesina’s fashionable stepsister and Caiyan’s bickering twin. She’s honestly not a large character for most of the novel, but I still appreciate her.
- Sanjing, the brother of Hesina and also commander of the army. I superimpose Li Shang’s image onto him and I haven’t regretted it since. He’s just as stubborn as Hesina, if not more, and has always been favored by their mother.
- Akira, the robber-convict and clever investigator. He’s Hesina’s love interest and um… I am not a fan of his hair. He’s a very closed-off person and I didn’t really see the chemistry between him and Hesina?
My preference of the characters, in order of favorite to least favorite, is Hesina – Sanjing – Caiyan – Lillian – Akira.
Is it bad that I found the brother more attractive than Akira? I JUST LOVE SANJING A LOT. And when his loved one was in danger, he literally vaulted over the counter and rolled to save her life. I was lowkey fawning??
Like I said earlier, I didn’t really see the romantic chemistry between Akira and Hesina! I felt like there was so much more room to explore tension between them, but we really only saw Hesina’s attraction towards him; I never saw really anything that indicated any reciprocation of her feelings.
My other problem with the novel was one of the specific plot twists that occurred during the novel that I seriously just wish didn’t happen. It felt unreal and seemed too out-of-proportion to everything else? It was like I was reading the first chapter of my Wattpad story that I had written in early 7th grade, where my main character’s entire family went through intense tragedy.
I was not a fan.
Wow, anyways, back to screaming positively about Descendant of the Crane.
Besides those two things, I absolutely adored EVERY SINGLE THING IN THE NOVEL. The world that Joan crafted was just so tangible and real to me, and the magical system within it was so beautiful and whimsical-but-not. Just like the cover, everything within the novel felt so distinctly Chinese to me, including the makeup of the courts, their setting, and how the story was written.
Hesina’s struggle as someone trying to accept the death of her father and the true characters of the people around her was so unflinchingly realistic. She was so desperate to cling to this image of her father and was forced to realize exactly who he was: a killer.
The corruption of the court is also unveiled and Hesina finds out just how much the court truly doesn’t care about the Tenets, the book of law written by the Eleven that the government is supposedly based off of.
(Also, each chapter opened with two quotes from the Tenets by One and Two of the Eleven, which was such an amazing touch on the political intrigue to the novel.)
Institutionalized and built-in oppression are also discussed in this novel, and those themes comes to real life in the kingdom of Yan in a very literal way, which I thought was so wonderfully done and honestly? It was done really subtly. I didn’t realize the cleverness of it until I thought about the oppression and was like “JOAN.”
I really loved that legacy was so present and joined with the themes of oppression; the original ruler of Yan’s legacy will always remain tied with his mass killing of the soothsayers, and that is something that can never change.
Overall— this was a heartbreaking book that’s going to leave you reeling at what’s happening. It was gritty, but not in a bloody way. It was so realistic and raw that it was painful.
Trigger and content warnings for death by poison, slavery, drowning, blood, cutting oneself, (institutionalized) oppression, parental neglect, death by fire, and strangulation.
/ SPOILER SECTION /
I’m genuinely questioning the artistic value of Lillian’s death. I mean, there was… no point to it? I AM SO SALTY ABOUT THIS. Lillian’s whole reason for death was the most unreasonable thing I had ever read, and her claim that “the kingdom needs someone to scapegoat” was so stupid. It’s not as if we saw real threats that could occur if there wasn’t any scapegoat? There wasn’t even proper time for their grief, and it really wasn’t handled that well. It was only there for shock value & just to BE A PLOT TWIST.
Also, Caiyan’s plot twist completely took me by surprise and I was just… WHOA. I hated Caiyan and I thought that it seemed a little unrealistic until I read the epilogue and I was like “CAIYAN WOAH” and yeah. I’m forever in awe about him.
I felt like I saw the king’s faked death coming and yet… I was still so shocked at the reveal scene. Is the king still alive?? I’m so confused, they dug him from the grave and then we never heard from him again. But he technically can’t die, right?
Some other ownvoices reviews by Chinese readers:
(finding more reviews besides these was a struggle and a half… I’ve been searching for four months and it’s so hard when people are super ambiguous about their ethnicity)
(I’m sorry for only providing you guys with five star reviews. Is this propaganda?)
Also, CW made some phone wallpapers for this book, and the one w/ Hesina in the center is totally my iPhone lock screen. I love it so much, and I’m greeted by Hesina’s beautiful face every time I turn on my phone?? What else is there to life???
Have you read this book & if so, what did you think about it? Do you agree with any of my thoughts, especially on Akira? Don’t you freaking love CW’s phone wallpapers? How do you feel about the cover?