From New York Times and Indie bestselling author Joan He, comes Strike the Zither, the first book in an epic YA fantasy duology about found family, rivals, and identity, inspired by Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Classics of Chinese Literature.
Here’s the summary…
The year is 414 of the Xin Dynasty, and chaos abounds. A puppet empress is on the throne, and three warlordesses each hope to claim the continent for themselves.
Only Zephyr knows it’s no contest.
Orphaned at a young age, Zephyr took control of her fate by becoming the best strategist of the land and serving under Xin Ren, a warlordess whose loyalty to the empress is double-edged—while Ren’s honor draws Zephyr to her cause, it also jeopardizes their survival in a war where one must betray or be betrayed. When Zephyr is forced to infiltrate an enemy camp to keep Ren’s followers from being slaughtered, she encounters the enigmatic Crow, an opposing strategist who is finally her match. But there are more enemies than one—and not all of them are human.
It’s always a good time starting off a review with a definition, right? So, what does make for a good re-imagining anyways. Well, in so far as how much demand there is, often times the hope is that the author expands on the original and/or injects it with a modern sensibility; authors write in the time in which they exist after all. Adaptations and retellings, not-to-distant-cousins, presuppose much of the same posturing in so far as what’s the point of this re-imagining in the first place. This is a current hot topic as Amazon’s Rings of Power just wrapped up its first season with many fans feeling not only disquieted but frankly, a little confused. Point is, these are often tricky waters to navigate, and it takes a steady hand and one willing to be bold if the outcome is going to be efficacious.
Why am I talking about this? Well, if you didn’t already know and/or didn’t read the intro, Strike the Zither (Kingdom of Three #1) by Joan He is in fact a re-imagining of one of the Four Classics of Chinese Literature, specifically the dude-heavy Romance of the Three Kingdoms, published in the 14th Century. And while there are countless ways one can “re-imagine” something, Joan’s focus, aside from a short list of details ranging from minor to significant, has been to drastically alter the point of view. She’s done so by gender swapping a good chunk of the cast, most importantly the lead characters.
Listen, in a normal world where everyone treated everyone else with empathy and respect, changes like this just wouldn’t matter, and I suspect it won’t to Joan’s readers. But, to any would-be aggrieved fellas out there, get the fuck over it. Strike the Zither is both entertaining as hell and culturally poignant, and whether you enjoy it or not, Joan’s efforts to refurbish long past boring patriarchal paradigms is worthy of your time and attention. And while Strike the Zither does feel less like a manifesto and more like wish-fulfillment, Joan addresses this important shift in a thoughtful and extensive author’s note where she has this to say…
“My story doesn’t unpack the patriarchy as much as it imagines an alternate universe where societal roles are open to anyone, regardless of their gender assigned at birth.”
Sounds sybaritic, don’t it? Where do I sign up?
An important side note before we go any further, you DO NOT have to have read, or even have some level of competency when it comes to the Three Kingdoms to enjoy or understand this book. Don’t feel like a Chinese historical literary nincompoop (like me) because you’re not versed, well or otherwise, in these classics. While it’s perhaps important to appreciate the unpredictability of the environment and how that’s often incompatible to the chief responsibilities of a strategist, and how that affects their relationship with their boss, don’t fret too much over not having read it. And to take my straightforwardness to even further heights, Strike the Zither is your NEW CANON, so enjoy the fact that you are now part of the revolution!
Another important side note is that Joan drew inspiration from some of the adaptations as well, namely the 2008/09 film duology Red Cliff, directed by John Woo, and the 2017 television series The Advisors Alliance, directed by Zhang Yongxin. I only mention this because both are fucking awesome, and you should definitely invest some of your time into seeing them.
The summary gives you just enough to get you out the door, and when we first meet Zephyr and this rogue’s gallery, they are on the run. This fury road takes you all the way to the books end, rarely settling down, not allowing the characters to experience any sense of comfort or complacency. Whether or not this carries over into Book #2, we’ll have to wait and see, but I think you’ll agree that by the books end, certain things are set in motion which cannot be undone. This side of Joan, putting her characters through the ringer, is a common characteristic of her novels, one we fans have come to expect, and enjoy. But she hurts them because she loves them so, we’re okay with it.
Another commonality to Joan’s books is shenanigans and twists, but I’m not going to get into that because I don’t want to spoil anything. But what I can say is that Zephyr, living up to her sobriquet, puts into motion a scheme so delicate and dangerous, that it will take divine intervention (something that annoys her) to pull off. We’ll see what happens, but I bet, regardless of your reading prowess, you won’t see all of it coming. This path puts in her in the company of Miasma, the current Prime Ministress and mandated future ruler…allegedly.
I say allegedly because while she claims to have been God-touched, Zephyr’s chosen golden calf, and longtime foe of Miasma, Xin Ren, has the advantage of lineage. This is something that backdrops most of the action, who will replace the “puppet empress”, providing the entire motivation one would need to cynically, and strategically, align themselves with the right people. So yes, many of the choices Zephyr and others make is entirely predicated on who they think is best suited to lead. Don’t let this mostly binary set-up fool you as the lines between good and evil are most certainly blurred, especially if you’re a consequentialist, and even based on actions alone, it’s a veritable minefield as violence is commonplace. But, on the issue of Miasma vs Ren specifically, well, let’s just say one enjoys decapitations a little too much (look up the definition of “miasma”), and the other has swords named “Virtue” and “Integrity”.
Stockholm syndrome is always on the table in stories like this, learning the true motivations for one’s actions is always a delicate proposition, even folks we sometimes mischaracterize as “evil”. So, a good chunk of the story is Zephyr navigating these waters, masquerading as a traitor, someone who’s lost faith in Ren, gaining access to Miasma’s inner trust circle. And when Miasma forces Zephyr to work with her strategist, an enigma named Crow, Joan uses this forced proximity to inject a little light romance into the story. But like almost everything else in Strike the Zither, it’s not a straight line, nor is it conventional.
Even though I find Crow to be a little milquetoast (sorry #TeamCrow), I do see potential, and Joan hints at something that should turn things around for me if I’m right. But this slight is in actuality a backhanded compliment, because in a sea of divergence, he’s a like-minded island for Zephyr, not only being a fellow strategist, but someone who also lacks the physical wherewithal to do anything else. So, heaping praise upon Zephyr while not acknowledging Crow’s similar desirable traits would be dishonest. Listen, Joan has written an incredibly dynamic cast of characters, and I’m afraid Crow just doesn’t really stand a chance against the likes of Miasma, Cicada, or any of the Swornsisters. I could go on, but I don’t want to spoil anything because there are details about Crow that are compelling, it’s just when you’re sharing the screen with these women, it’s an uphill battle…more on that in a bit.
Anyways, the journey heads South and in the “great characters are falling out of trees” category; we meet the aforementioned Cicada, the Lordess (call her Queen!) of the Southlands and boss to November, her strategist. Now, the less I say the better about these two but true to form, there’s more going on here than meets the eye. What I can say is that anybody who is anybody wants a piece of the South, and Cicada, while perhaps young, is no dummy. And her strategist, equally compelling and equally young, is also more than up to the task. Yes, you’re not likely to see two more capable mid-teens, certainly not in North America where recognizing the period of adolescence isn’t the same as what’s expected of them, something that differs across the globe. And Cicada’s endgame is purposefully indistinct, with a revenge-plot hanging over this part of the story; it could also be a backdoor grab for power, we just don’t know quite yet. But one thing for certain, she’s not to be under-estimated and is easily one of my favorite characters from the book.
The effectiveness of these characters, and the many more you’re going to meet, cannot be understated as Joan, through dialogue/action, gives them each something profoundly useful, aptitude and intent. There’s no questioning Joan’s intelligence and linguistic sensibility, dazzling us one minute (recalcitrant) and making us laugh (fart) the next, both driving home the point, that this world, while certainly and wildly fantastical, is actually quite accessible, something you can put your hands on. And don’t even get me started on the names she uses (or doesn’t) to tell this story. Why some have a sobriquet and others don’t? Why some hide their birth names? Why some names are weighted down by progeny, while others are mandated by the gods? There are good answers to all these questions I’m sure, some we know, some yet to be revealed.
And so, as this first chapter draws to a close in what can only be described as reckless abandonment by Joan (seriously, it’s torture not having book two in my hands), including an end scene between two individuals that will raise any hair you have on your body, the board is more than set. It’s hard to discuss any of these particulars for fear of spoiling too much, but it’s easy to see that any world Zephyr and the rest create out of these ashes will bear the scars of their actions, for eternity.
Take a breath…
Strike the Zither is in the first person told from the POV of Zephyr, a deep thinker and strategist, who rarely sees the fruits of HER efforts, which are done in the preamble to most things. True to Joan’s own character, to develop a kinship with Zephyr, she gives us the same treatment. We, as the audience, get the preamble (the good stuff), and not always the recital. This makes for a better read overall obviously, if Strike the Zither was told from the POV of Lotus, well, I shudder (delightfully) to think what that story would look like. I would read the fuck out of that book because I love her, but it would be wall-to-wall war cries, mass consumption of ale, and bloodshed. Wait, that actually sounds pretty great?!
As a character Zephyr is very interesting to me in that her mantra is basically, “control what you can control, and the end result should be favorable”. This came the hard way as she’s had to redefine competence, helping others do great work by setting them up for success. We’re talking about the left side of the brain here, memorization, analysis, and she calculates, using all the variables she has available to her, a strategy that will hopefully grant Xin Ren a victory. And despite a Force Majeure type situation, she’s earned a reputation of being right a supernaturally 99% of the time. Yes, she’s a critical thinker who also happens to be very self-aware, unavoidable facts that these schemes often times require a team effort to carry out, something she reluctantly acquiesces to. And she’s very aware of her own physical limitations, something that comes up every time she nearly dies (often), especially as she’s forced to transition to a more self-reliant type of person, and certainly when compared to strike-first types such as Cloud and Lotus.
Imagine how frustrating it must be to rely on others to implement the strategy you yourself put in motion? That the only way to regain a sense of control is to, paradoxically, let go of it? Yes, accounting for human error is both an art and scientific method for her and letting go for others to execute is a great source of distress. If she could do it all herself, she would, but for Zephyr, her current station, while wildly important (she’s prone to self-congratulation), is in fact, primarily a spectator sport. And these shortcomings in the field are a constant source of both amusement and ire from those closest to her, and this is never more on display than with the Swornsisters, Xin Ren, Gao Yun (Cloud), and Huang Lianzi (Lotus), all (except for Ren), sources of great temple rubbing for Zephyr.
None of this, besides her supreme arrogance, is the fault of Zephyr. Unbeknownst to her she was recruited into a company led by mortal women who act like anything but, and rightfully so. I doubt there’s a project manager on earth who could infuse Cloud and Lotus, Ren’s most trusted and feared commanders, with some unenthusiastic propensity, so we shouldn’t expect the same from Zephyr. And I’m not being purposefully callous or attempting to make Zephyr seem contemptible, I mean, the book literally starts out with her comparing herself to the Gods…
“Some say the heavens dictate the rise and fall of empires. Clearly, those peasants have never met me.”
Cocksure to be certain, but what do you expect with someone who has nicknames like “Dragon’s Shadow”, “Tactician of Thistlegate” and “Rising Zephyr”? No, there’s no imposter syndrome going on here, especially for someone as contextually peculiar as her, she’s basically a vegetarian in a time when meat is part of all four food groups. The good news is this has ZERO effect on her likeability, and despite probably benefiting from some “How to Work Well with Others” seminars, she’s a wonderfully layered main character who has amiability to spare.
Broadening out, Joan’s tapped into something here with these women. And don’t be fooled into thinking they are caricatures of well-trodden tropes, they are in fact, each unique in a way that has nothing to do with chromosomes. Yes, any gender bias or role incredulity (which is refreshingly absent here) will only manifest itself externally, and I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to read a story where any demoralization that occurs is performance based, as funny as that may sound. This is why there is ZERO gender blowback with regards to Zephyr, who knows how to flex and be assertive, and is only surrounded by likeminded women who don’t feel the need to conform to society, and who only display any rancor when it’s deserved.
These are women (Miasma and Cicada included) who have strength available to them, not because they walk in a world that underestimates them, but because they’ve developed a resilience and authority by just being really fucking great at what they do. Sure, unyielding when called upon, but in order to elicit true loyalty through civil resistance, proving you are a worthwhile person, is far more successful in creating broad-based change. Ruling by fear is unsustainable, and if a riot is the language of the unheard, then voices can be as mighty as any ax (Lotus’ being the exception!), and these women have unique voices, they have something to say.
And while opinions will inevitably vary, I find this group, the Swornsisters in particular, endlessly fascinating. To put a cap on this, there’s no relationship more important in the book than that of Zephyr and Xin Ren. Their bond isn’t merely one of servitude, but it’s not quite discipleship either, but its close, with Ren being the living embodiment of everything Zephyr sees as good in this world. Yes, no one person’s opinions matter (for now) more to Zephyr then Ren’s does, and this is a constant throughout the book, even after a dramatic shift occurs about halfway. While their relationship is the beating heart of this first book, it’s not my favorite relationship, however. That belongs to Cloud (I’m #TeamCloud) and a certain someone who I won’t name…spoilers.
Oh, and hey, what’s a zither anyways? Simply put, a zither is a stringed instrument that apparently goes back so far in Chinese history they still don’t know of the earliest origins. The word “zither” doesn’t actually refer to one single instrument, rather a broad category of many different stringed instruments, but for the sake of this story, a zither is a zither, singular. What is important, for a strategist, the zither isn’t just simply a music expression, it’s a language, and it conveys thoughts and emotions. A way for two capable like-minded individuals to have an intimate conversation, one only the two of them are privy to. And guess who else plays the zither? You guessed it, Crow.
So, after all that rambling, what’s the bottom line?
If I’m being honest, not EVERY author gets better with each book, some regress while others find comfort in reiteration. Not Joan, she’s gotten better with each release, finding new ways to challenge herself, which WE are the benefactors of. An obvious way is her willingness (and ability) to define her plot and characters, not in isolation of one another, but through one another. This makes her books feel fresh and interactive, not derivative or contrived, they feel unpredictable and capricious. It gives her characters and story room to wander, a freedom, a three-dimensionality we just don’t see all the time. This is a minor storytelling miracle since; and again, it is a re-imaging of a pre-existing story.
And unlike her previous book, the amazing The Ones We’re Meant to Find, which is so beautifully intricate and baroque, Strike the Zither, despite all the lefts and rights, is a more straightforward read. That’s mostly thanks the books singular POV, but it’s also because Joan isn’t using compelled language like the exact speech required in a science-based narrative. All the more impressive that she’s able to switch gears without cloistering her audience, which I certainly don’t think she will, nor do I think she does with intent. This isn’t some ill-conceived litmus test after all, it’s her life, and she’s illustrating her truth, I for one feel honored to be granted access.
I believe the general appeal is that once you zoom out, Joan’s stories mirror humanity, often providing allegorical evidence that people, when treated with empathy or respect, and in turn act, accordingly, can do great things that benefit personkind. After all, we coexist with one another in a state of commensalism, ideally benefiting from each other symbiotically. In this “alternate universe” she speaks of, if you believe certain people’s gifts or talents are purposely created not just for themselves, but for the benefit of personkind (I do), then you must subscribe to the theory that storytellers like Joan were put on this earth to do just that, tell stories that make us better human beings. But this isn’t that “alternate universe”, its real life, and she doesn’t owe me or anyone else a damn thing.
And so, when she chooses to challenge herself, when she chooses to let us bask in this glory, writing with a clarity and focus that just isn’t mass produced across publishing, we directly derive gratification, a buzz, from her books. Don’t make the mistake of dismissing this book, or any of her books, for simple breezy escapism, there’s a message here, a good one.
Personally, I can rest easy knowing that by book three; it’s become clear that Joan is Joan, someone with the impudence and obstinacy to keep pushing herself…
…the only hope is that she doesn’t decide to retire any time soon, after all, the world needs more Joan He’s, not less.
Strike the Zither is out now, click HERE to order a copy today!
Cover art by Kuri Huang.
About the Author
Joan He was born and raised in Philadelphia but still will, on occasion, lose her way. At a young age, she received classical instruction in oil painting before discovering that storytelling was her favorite form of expression. She studied Psychology and East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Pennsylvania and currently writes in Chicago. She is the New York Times bestselling author of The Ones We’re Meant to Find, Descendant of the Crane, and Strike the Zither, the first book in the Kingdom of Three duology.