Fantasy Novel Review: Strike the Zither by Joan He

This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Strike the Zither will be released on October 25, 2022.

I’ve heard a lot of great things about Joan He, so when I saw that her newest book was a YA fantasy centering a brilliant strategist—a trope that usually hits nicely for me—it was an easy decision to request an ARC. Strike the Zither is inspired by the Chinese classic story of the Three Kingdoms, with a few important changes. Most obviously, most of the key figures are cast as women. It is written to be accessible for those who are not familiar with the original, as I am not, and so I will be reviewing it on its merits as a distinct work, and not on its merits as a retelling. 

Strike the Zither opens in a fantasy analogue of China that has been split into three territories—the Empire itself, with its base of power in the North, and territories of varying loyalty in the South and West. But our heroine doesn’t belong to any of these factions, rather attaching herself to a landless rebel leader trying to restore the power of an empress who has become nothing more than a puppet of the Empire’s lead warlordess. And it will take every ounce of guile she possesses for the brilliant teen strategist to deliver her warlordess to victory. 

As is so often the case, the first impression here is the prose, and it impresses from the get-go. That’s not by being stunningly beautiful or exceptionally ornamented—this is aimed at younger audiences, after all—so much as simply describing both action and introspection in a clear, fluid manner that makes the story both easy and pleasurable to read. She writes in a way that fosters investment in the story while generating plenty of forward momentum to keep the pages turning. It’s clear, but never simplistic, evocative without being bogged down in description. It’s a difficult balance, and the storytelling walks it admirably. 

Also worthy of note was the complexity of the main character, fiercely loyal to a leader whose strict ethical code doesn’t align especially well with a strategist’s willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve victory. Unfortunately, the second half of the story introduced a supernatural element that distanced the lead from many of the relationships that were so valued at the outset, making for a second half that didn’t have the interpersonal intrigue of the first. 

But while He’s reputation as a writer made me expect a quality interpersonal plot, the thing that drew me to this book was the strategizing. And that’s the one place where Strike the Zither never really managed to deliver. After an opening gambit undercut by someone else’s failure, we move to another whose success relies on an opponent’s baffling underestimation of the heroine. And this is followed by a plan that any veteran reader will see coming a mile away (admittedly, the presence of this one in the original Three Kingdoms story may be part of the reason that it was so predictable). The book never convinced by that the lead was in fact a brilliant strategist, which made it hard to immerse in what was supposed to be a key aspect of the story. If the interpersonal storylines were good enough, perhaps Strike the Zither could’ve underwhelmed on the strategizing and still been a terrific read. But with underwhelming strategy and interpersonal conflict that fizzled in the back half, it took skilled storytelling to maintain any tension at all. That quality of storytelling still made for a decent read, but not one that has me lining up to grab the sequel. 

Recommended if you like: Non-Western YA.

Can I use it for Bingo?  It’s hard mode for Revolutions and Rebellions, and I suppose you could argue the morally flexible lead makes it hard mode for Anti-hero. It’s also a 2022 Release by a BIPOC Author.

Overall rating: 12 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads.

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