The political Chinese-inspired YA fantasy I've longed to read

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I had exceptionally high expectations for this book and Joan He absolutely delivered. With clever gender role reversals and a fierce protagonist, Strike the Zither is an intensely plotted retelling of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms that grabs you by the first battle scene and doesn’t relent, down to the very last sentence. He’s signature plot twists are on full display–I had no idea what to expect because the intricate tapestry of alliances was in full flux (plus, I should have read the blurb a bit more closely haha). The entire cast of characters pay homage to their inspirations from the source material while completely standing on their own, and I really loved how much He wove in the original narrative down to the continuity between the ending and beginning lines of each chapter.

The only bone I have to pick with this book is that the midpoint plot twist felt a bit under foreshadowed. I picked up on many of the clues early on, but I didn’t feel like they didn’t completely justify the actual reveal. I knew there was going to be divine intervention with all the various zither references and wuxia genre conventions, but the reveal of Zephyr being a god felt very abrupt. I understand that He meant to emphasize that even Zephyr didn’t know the truth of her identity, but her life as a god and the introductions of Dewdrop and Nadir felt a bit plot dump-y.

Strike the Zither marks He’s return to imperial Chinese-inspired fantasy after Descendant of the Crane (which I also enjoyed), and I’m confident in saying this book is her best yet. I loved every aspect of it, down to the wuxia motifs and evocations of zither playing–they made my little Chinese-American heart happy. With a fully realized cast of characters and an unrelenting pace, Strike the Zither struck all the right notes and left me with a song I won’t soon forget.

Recommended for wuxia lovers and anyone looking for a cutthroat political fantasy full of intelligent, complex characters.

4.5/5 stars