Reading this after THE GIRL KING turned out to be a really weird experience because they are both very similar stories. Dare I say that "Asian-inspired" fantasy novels in kingdoms where magic is forbidden seems to be the new trend? But, like, seriously, both are about royal siblings who must struggle to learn to manage their kingdoms in times of severe political upheaval. These kingdoms are also utterly opposed to magic - in THE GIRL KING, magic comes in the form of shape-shifters called the "Kith," and in DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE, it comes in the form of mages called "sooths." Both kingdoms are on the brink of civil war/foreign war, and about to implode from all the factions of unrest stirring up drama within the community.
Hesina is forced to take up the royal mantle when her father dies under mysterious circumstances. Her mother, who dislikes her for unknown reasons, abdicates very reluctantly, leaving Hesina to manage the kingdom and lead the trial to find her father's murderer, all without her help.
Luckily, Hesina has several siblings to help her out. Caiyan and Lillian are twins, and her half-siblings; Sanjing is her full brother; and Rou is the son of her father's favored mistress. Despite knowing that it is high treason, she seeks out a sooth to help set her on her path, who tells her the path she should take to find her father's murderer. It points her towards a criminal imprisoned in the dungeons, a foreign man named Akira, who is brilliant, powerful, and mysterious.
I liked DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE a lot more than I liked THE GIRL KING, for several reasons. The world-building was more cohesive and there were many direct parallels to actual elements of Chinese culture (the writing/characters, the religion, historical allegories (I was thinking of the Cultural Revolution specifically, as the rebellion of the eleven and the persecution of the sooths reminded me of that), culture, and clothing). It did not feel quite as nebulous as THE GIRL KING did. The actual magic was a little vague; I'd like to learn more about sooths in the next book. Still, we did see some examples of sooth-saying and what I did see was compelling (blue fire, though).
This book's biggest weakness was its pacing. There were some elements that moved quickly, that I couldn't page through fast enough. This has one of the best "trial" scenes I've seen in a book, like Joan He was the John Grisham of YA fantasy authors. Then there are other parts that move very slowly and/or feel almost repetitive. It was frustrating for me because I initially thought that this was going to be a four-star read, but then it got too tedious and my enjoyment of it lessened over time.
The book's biggest strength are its twists. Several of the grand reveals in this book were excellently done. I found myself looking forward to seeing how the other mysteries in this book would be resolved and finding myself pleasantly surprised each time.
Hesina is a flawed but compelling character and it is interesting to see how the choices she makes in the book end up changing her. She is a very different person by the end of the story than she was in the beginning. I am curious about the names, and why some are Chinese but Hesina's is, I believe, an alternate spelling of a Muslim name, and Lillian is a very Western name. I'm also confused by the ending, which was very strange to me. The author had already proven she was very good at twists, but that one, for some reason, felt especially extra. Maybe it will make more sense in the sequel.
Hopefully this review helps you decide whether you want to read this book without giving too much away. I am totally in love with the cover and was surprised by how much I enjoyed DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE. Hoping the author continues the story on even stronger footing in the sequel.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars