It’s been some time since a work of YA fiction has riveted me as much as Joan He’s Strike The Zither, a feminist reimagining of the 14th century epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, brimming with intricate politics and delicate bargains.
He has swapped the original leading warlords for equally durable warlord-esses: Ren, level-headed and magnetic, who boldly secedes from the Xin empire with the aim of liberating its sovereign; prime ministress Miasma, a cut-throat and fond-of-carousing conservative; and Cicada, noblewoman of the wetlands, steely and fiendish despite her youth.
Striving to manipulate fate as it brews is 18-year-old Zephyr, sole strategist to Ren, who you will likely find enthralling even if (like me) you don’t typically read fantasy. Owing to her vocation, nature and tragic past, Zephyr is an island of a protagonist: ‘All my life, I’ve been a home for knowledge,’ she thinks, ‘but no place has been a home for me.’ Going down in history for her misadventures is, she gradually realises, possibly a form of compensation. An antihero of sorts, her aplomb is obvious from the novel’s opening lines: ‘Some say the heavens dictate the rise and fall of empires. Clearly, those peasants have never met me.’
In her itinerancy, Zephyr is flanked and goaded by Lotus and Cloud, the most trusted members of Ren’s army. Discord between coarse, hot-blooded warriors and discerning, removed strategists is critical throughout Strike The Zither. To interesting ends, Zephyr’s frustration with her peers underscores that her fealty is secured by Ren alone, an ‘honourable’ leader, but also Zephyr’s only stand-in for family.
As in any coming-of-age story, the complexities of identity suffuse the text, never getting lost in its otherworldly framework. He’s balancing of genres is most masterful in the relationship between Zephyr and her sister, Ku, which involves higher forces as well as a painfully real assessment of priorities.
Zephyr meets her match in Crow, a cryptic and needling strategist from an enemy camp. At the outset things seem primed for a grand slow-burn, but what unfolds between them feels a bit rushed and rote. I ascribe this largely to Crow’s characterisation, which may leave you wanting. There is a fine line between keeping a character shadowy and reducing them to a shadow of what they could have been.
Strike the Zither distinguishes itself most in its vivid and poetic comparisons: ‘Teeth clicking like summer cicadas’, ‘dissonant notes [that] surge upward like a flock of hunted pheasants’ and ‘moonlight […] minting the trail with silver coins’, to pick just a few from a trove. On the other side of the spectrum, He’s snapshots of the brutality of war are not for the faint-hearted.
The novel contains a plot twist that I’m glad does not nullify its mortal dilemmas, all of which may reverberate in you, like a chord of a zither, long after you finish it. Beyond her point-blank assertions of her own brilliance, Zephyr is complex and repressive. If not her abilities, something on the horizon seems geared to challenge her spirit, which could prove all the more dire. I’ll definitely be reading the sequel to find out what.
Strike the Zither by Joan He
Kingdom of Three: Book one
Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 368 pp
Publication date: 1 November 2022