I don’t know what category to even begin to place Joan He’s Descendant of the Crane in. A lot of the time it feels like a historical fiction, but then there are things that place it within fantasy. It’s got some amazing courtroom drama moments, but it’s also full of political intrigue. It’s a mystery story, but also has some elements of romance in there too. There’s so much going on in the book that it’s hard to pin it down as anything other than wonderful to read. It kept me engaged throughout and I was always guessing as to what was going to happen next, or what twists the next chapter would bring.
The story follows Hesina, a young woman who is not only having to deal with the sudden death of her father, but also with the fact that she now has to become the new ruler of her kingdom. Rather than just make the story about her grief over her father and all of the new trials and tribulations she as to contend with as a ruler, Joan He makes things so much more complicated for her. Not only is the kingdom on the verge of war with one of their neighbours, but an investigation into the king’s death begins; an investigation that turns Hesina’s carefully planned life upside down.
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Hesina thinks she knows how the world works, she thinks that she has an understanding of her kingdom thanks to the teachings of The Eleven, a group of revolutionaries that changed her country three hundred years ago and built a fairer, better society. Well, unless you’re a Sooth and have magical powers, then you’ll be slowly murdered on sight. Hesina thinks she understands how searching for the truth about her father’s death will play out because of the laws put in place by The Eleven. But then she begins to see that despite these teachings, despite people seeming to follow this way of life, there are corrupt people not just in the world, but within her own palace, who will use this investigation to further their own political and financial ends.
The trial that comes from the investigation is one of the best parts of the book. The various accused that are brought in, who are all being framed by corrupt officials, must be defended by Hesina and her investigator Akira. Akira is a hugely interesting character, and it’s fun to learn more about him over the course of the book and try to figure out what kind of person he is, but seeing him in court was hands down my favourite thing. He approaches the witnesses and the evidence with a calm detachment, pointing out holes in testimony, and revealing false evidence with logic and deduction that made me think about Sherlock Holmes and his methods. Akira becomes something larger than life in the court, trampling over the fakery to reveal the corruption beneath, acquitting the accused with the undeniable truth. He’s simply brilliant.
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The rest of the story seems to play out somewhat like these court scenes. The reader is given something as fact – that Yan is a kingdom built on fair rules and order – but then reasoned and logical investigation begins to reveal that this is a false veneer, that what we, and Hesina, are led to believe is nothing more than a convenient lie.
Over the course of the book there are so many twists and revelations that just when you think you’ve reached an understanding of what’s really going on you’re thrown completely again. I’m strugglinging to really describe the book in any real, meaningful way, because I’m still trying to figure out what I thought of it. I know it was excellent, and that I loved the journey, but there was so much crammed into the pages that I feel like I’m still catching up. It’s like thinking you’re going for a nice stroll in a garden, only to realise you’ve wandered into a hedge maze part way through. Suddenly there’s more there than you expected, and you have to navigate the twists and turns to reach the end.
Descendant of the Crane was written as a standalone story, though it does seem like there’s more to come, and Joan He has said that she’s considered a companion book or two to go with it. I really hope that more books come out that carry this story on, as I’m desperate for more answers, to see more mystery uncovered, and to find out what happens to these characters. If there is no more, and it’s just this one book, then it’s a hell of a book, and there being no followup won’t detract from my enjoyment at all.
Whether returning to this world, or exploring something new, I’m excited to see what Joan He does next. This book showed quite clearly that she’s an author worth watching, one that can craft interesting and layered characters, an imaginative world, and a plot that will keep you hooked throughout. An amazing debut work from a woman sure to become a household name.
Descendant of the Crane is out now from Titan Books.