ARC/Audiobook Review: Strike the Zither by Joan He

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The year is 414 of the Xin Dynasty, and chaos abounds. A puppet empress is on the throne. The realm has fractured into three factions and three warlordesses hoping to claim the continent for themselves.

But 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.

An epic YA fantasy about found family, rivals, and identity, from New York Times and Indie bestselling author Joan He, inspired by Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Classics of Chinese Literature.

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I never did manage to read the author Joan’s second book coz I wasn’t much into sci-fi at the time of its release but I remember loving Descendant of the Crane when I read the arc and hoping so badly for its sequel despite knowing it was probably never gonna come. But when I saw the announcement of this book, I was totally over the moon, I had sky high expectations, and I’m honestly more relieved that it did live up to all the hype in my head.

I had such plans in the runup to the release of this book. I begged the author for an earc which I rarely ever do in DMs. I kept talking about it whenever I could on the blog. I wanted to read the original Three Kingdoms – atleast the abridged version – but it just proved to be a bit of a task for me and I also had so many shiny new releases to compete for my time. I also tried listening to the amazing podcast but that was a huge commitment too which I abandoned after about 7 episodes. Ultimately I had to satisfy myself by watching a few YouTube videos which summarized this classic novel for me in a couple of hours. But atleast I was glad that I knew a tad bit more than I knew before. And it was time to dive into this future favorite of mine.

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The book starts off with swag and that’s the only word I can think of. That first line is instantly captivating and the rest of the book remained so for me. Joan is pretty known among us fans of hers for really tormenting her characters and having stunningly unpredictable plot twists, so I was dreading every page expecting that betrayal to happen. And when they actually did, I heaved a sigh of relief because I also knew that the writing would pull those characters back up after the twists and we’ll get more of their amazing story. But I have to say, I never saw the actual twists coming and they were such delightful and jaw dropping surprises that I needed a moment to gather myself. Even when there were moments which felt slow or maybe even fillers, there were layers to the silences, and they also gave me breathing room. The plot is not overly complicated as soon as we get a hang of the world and it’s main players, and then it’s a lot of fast paced fun. But, this is also a book which is on a constant dangerous journey just like our main character.

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I have not read a protagonist like Zephyr in a while. I guess I’m used to my heroines underestimating themselves or being more modest about their achievements. Zephyr has no such false modesty. She is arrogant in the best ways that a young well learned person can be, is confident about her skills as a strategist, and has the accomplishments to back it up, alongwith some cool sobriquets to call herself. While this may make some readers feel that she is an unlikable character, I only found it refreshing. And it also helped that her loyalty to Xin Ren is unwavering despite an almost futility of their rebellion. Whether this is because their association is fated, Zephyr has no other choice, she wants to stand by the person with the right surname, or she truly believes in the righteousness of Ren’s cause – whatever might be Zephyr’s reasons, her loyalty is very commendable and I loved her for it.

Because we only get one pov, we don’t really get too many scenes with the three sworn sisters but even the limited amount is enough to see the depth of affection and trust they have among each other – it goes beyond just loyalty and friendship and I absolutely adored their dynamic. I don’t know much about the source material but I definitely know about this particular sworn brotherhood and enjoyed its depiction in the Dynasty Warriors movie, so it was nice to also read a similar dynamic in a YA fantasy book. I definitely loved Ren a lot more because she is this filial, virtuous leader who is determined to help her empress, and all the people along the way even if she has to suffer too many hardships for it. I can’t completely say I liked Lotus’s totally impulsive personality initially but it was interesting to explore her dynamic with Cloud in the second half of the book.

Now how can I not mention Crow when he and Zephyr are almost like birds of the same feather – they are strategists, there’s natural mistrust between them but also a mutual respect and the way their relationship develops is almost inevitable. I was actually glad it didn’t develop into a full blown love story because that’s not the kind of people they are but there’s so much unspoken between them that the yearning is spectacular, and very signature Joan he if I’m being honest. And the less I say about their zither scenes together, the better, because I found myself lost in the beauty of those scenes and just wanted to listen to such soulful zither battles irl (the scene from Red Cliff which inspired the author definitely helped my craving).

Miasma on the other hand is still an enigma in my head because while she might be very stabby and power hungry, there was just something about her that made me intrigued and interested in her. Cicada is a total revelation because I absolutely did not expect either the way she is introduced or the later reveals about her plans – she is definitely one to look out for the most in the next book.

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I don’t know if I actually have been able to articulate how much I adored this book. I actually abandoned my audiobook as well as my annotation of the hardcover a quarter way through coz it was all slowing me down, and then rushed through the ebook coz I always read faster on my kindle – I just wanted to know what was gonna happen next and I couldn’t wait. But I still have to mention the excellent Nancy Wu’s beautiful narration and how she has quickly become one of my favorite audiobook narrators.

In the end, I can only say this book felt absolutely written for me and I adored every bit of it. If you enjoy fantasies which are inspired from or are reimaginings of classics, then you should totally check this out. Even if you know nothing about Three Kingdoms, this book will still give you a fun and adventurous YA fantasy with a whole host of unique female characters, a memorable protagonist, and enough twists and turns to keep you hooked throughout. And if like me you are a guzhuang drama lover, then I think you shouldn’t miss this one. I’m very very excited to see where this story goes next, but I’m also very satisfied. And now that there’s probably an year before we get the sequel, here’s hoping I’ll get to the original book or watch Red Cliff in the meantime, maybe even be ambitious and aim for the 95 episode Three Kingdoms drama from 2010. Who knows..???

5 star

PS: Thank you to the author for providing me with an eARC and Tantor Audio for providing me an audio advance copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.

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