Review: DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE by Joan He

Review:  DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE by Joan HeDescendant of the Crane by Joan He
four-stars
on April 9, 2019
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 416
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE Review

 

I was initially drawn to Joan He’s debut novel Descendant of the Crane because I heard it described as a Chinese-inspired Game of Thrones.  The promise of a Game of Thrones-style, action-packed epic fantasy set in a Chinese-inspired world just sounded way too good to pass up.  When I dove into the novel, however, I realized that it had a lot more layers to it than I was expecting.  Descendant of the Crane is equal parts epic fantasy, coming of age story, and murder mystery all rolled into one very compelling story.

In the kingdom of Yan, magic has been outlawed for centuries.  Seeking to use it for any purpose is a crime punishable by death.  Joan He grabbed my attention immediately by starting Descendant of the Crane on a most unexpected note, with the protagonist, Princess Hesina of Yan, knowingly committing an act of treason by seeking the counsel of a soothsayer, or fortune teller.  Hesina is willing to risk getting caught, however, because she desperately needs information that only a soothsayer can provide.  Her father, the King, has recently passed away, and Hesina is convinced that foul play was involved.  Hesina knows that while the soothsayer cannot see the past and provide her with the killer’s name, the soothsayer does have the power to see into the future and can thus point her on the path to bring her father’s killer to justice.

I admired Hesina right away, for her determination and bravery, and for her devotion to her father.  What I liked most about Hesina though is how much growth she undergoes throughout the story.  She determines that sitting on the throne will provide her the best opportunity to bring her father’s killer to justice, so she convinces her mother to let her go ahead and ascend to the throne to rule as Queen of Yan.  Descendant of the Crane is a coming of age story in the sense that Hesina really has to grow into the role of Queen and learns many tough lessons along the way.  When she first takes on the role, her main goal is just to avenge her father’s murder, but the longer she rules, however, the more she realizes her kingdom is unstable and fueled by its hatred of the soothsayers and their magic.  She becomes determined that it’s time to wipe out this hatred so that the soothsayers can just live in peace.  Undoing centuries’ worth of hatred is a tall order though, and Hesina quickly learns it’s not easy being Queen and that her decisions and actions sometimes have unintended consequences.

In addition to Hesina’s journey to figure out what kind of ruler she wants to be, Descendant of the Crane is also filled with plenty of political intrigue to keep the plot moving along.  Hesina quickly realizes that there are many potential suspects as to who killer her father.  Many within the palace have much to gain from the King’s death that Hesina is convinced it’s an inside job.  It makes her really examine each of those around her, looking for potential motives and whether or not they would have had easy access to the King.  And once there are actual suspects, there’s even some courtroom drama to mix things up a bit.  It reminded me of an epic fantasy version of Law and Order, which I thought was quite unique and very entertaining, especially since Hesina’s legal representative, in another unexpected twist, was a sexy ex-criminal named Akira.

While the pacing for the novel wasn’t the fastest, it still worked well for this story.  It’s kind of a slow burn to find out what really happened to the King, but there are so many twists and turns along the way that it really effectively keeps the suspense building. There were a couple of jaw dropping twists, in particular, near the end that have left me anxiously awaiting the next book in the series.

I think my favorite part of the story is the way the author has crafted her characters.  There are lots of complicated characters and relationships, and who’s good and who’s bad, isn’t always obvious.  Morally gray characters abound, which always makes for a great read for me.  There’s also some interesting sibling dynamics within Hesina’s own family that I very much enjoyed reading about.

Overall, I was very impressed with Joan He’s debut.  Equal parts epic fantasy, murder mystery, and coming of age story, Descendant of the Crane has a little something for everyone.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Princess Hesina of Yan has always been eager to shirk the responsibilities of the crown, dreaming of an unremarkable life. But when her beloved father is found dead, she’s thrust into power, suddenly the queen of a surprisingly unstable kingdom. What’s more, Hesina believes that her father was murdered—and that the killer is someone close to her.

Hesina’s court is packed full of dissemblers and deceivers eager to use the king’s death for political gain, each as plausibly guilty as the next. Her advisers would like her to blame the neighboring kingdom of Kendi’a, whose ruler has been mustering for war. Determined to find her father’s actual killer, Hesina does something desperate: she enlists the aid of a soothsayer—a treasonous act, punishable by death, since magic was outlawed centuries ago.

Using the information provided by the sooth, and uncertain if she can trust her family, Hesina turns to Akira—a brilliant investigator who’s also a convicted criminal with secrets of his own. With the future of Yan at stake, can Hesina find justice for her father? Or will the cost be too high?

four-stars

ARC Mini Reviews for THE SPY WITH THE RED BALLOON & UNSTOPPABLE MOSES

ARC Mini Reviews for THE SPY WITH THE RED BALLOON & UNSTOPPABLE MOSESThe Spy with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke
Also by this author: The Girl with the Red Balloon
four-half-stars
Published by Albert Whitman Company on October 2, 2018
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 368
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Siblings Ilse and Wolf hide a deep secret in their blood: with it, they can work magic. And the government just found out.Blackmailed into service during World War II, Ilse lends her magic to America’s newest weapon, the atom bomb, while Wolf goes behind enemy lines to sabotage Germany’s nuclear program. It’s a dangerous mission, but if Hitler were to create the bomb first, the results would be catastrophic.

When Wolf’s plane is shot down, his entire mission is thrown into jeopardy. Wolf needs Ilse’s help to develop the magic that will keep him alive, but with a spy afoot in Ilse’s laboratory, the letters she sends to Wolf begin to look treasonous. Can Ilse prove her loyalty—and find a way to help her brother—before their time runs out?

Review:

The Spy with the Red Balloon is the second installment in Katherine Locke’s imaginative series, The Balloonmakers.  I fell in love with the first book in the series and so couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy of this one.  The Spy with the Red Balloon employs the same magical system that we saw in The Girl with the Red Balloon, a unique combination of blood magic combined with a scientific element that allows the wielder to write equations on balloons which can then be used as a mode of transportation for people, objects, etc.  This time, however, we are taken to an earlier period in time, back to World War II, where Allies who are aware of the existence of this magic want to use it as a way to stop Hitler.

This series fascinates me with the unique way it infuses important historical events with magical elements, but what I loved most about this installment were the two main characters, Jewish siblings Ilse and Wolf.  Both siblings possess the ability to do blood magic but have been trying to keep it a secret.  When the U.S. government finds out, Ilse and Wolf are forced into service.  Ilse, a 16 year old with a brilliant scientific mind, was my favorite character.  She’s smart, feisty, and has an unbreakable bond with her big brother.  I loved their sibling relationship so much – the way they constantly worried about each other and had each other’s backs no matter what, even as they are sent to work in separate countries.  Ilse is assigned to a top secret lab in Tennessee.  Her job?  To come up with a way to use her magic to transport an atom bomb.  The challenge?  The bomb hasn’t even been developed yet, so she’s working blindly.  Wolf is a great character too.  While he’s equally as smart as Ilse, his smarts are of a more practical sort.  He, therefore, is trained as a spy and sent to Germany to try to sabotage Hitler’s efforts to develop an atom bomb of his own.  I thought the author did an incredible job of creating such a tremendous sense of urgency around the building and transporting of the atom bomb.  It’s basically a race against the clock, with Ilse and Wolf, each playing key roles.

In addition to the intense situation surrounding the effort to stop Hitler, The Spy with the Red Balloon also tackles other important issues, such as the ethical dilemmas that both Ilse and Wolf face.  Neither of them wants to be involved in something that kills people, but at the same time, as Jewish teens, they are torn because they would definitely love to be directly involved in crushing Hitler and his Nazis.  Diversity is also well done in this book, with both Ilse and Wolf being queer, and with one of the most brilliant scientists on Ilse’s team, Stella, being African American.  The diversity Locke incorporates into her story also allows her to touch on the fact that during the time period she is covering homosexuality was a crime, and racial segregation was still in place.

If you’re looking for a riveting historical read, infused with unique magical elements, and of two Jewish queer teens who are determined to kick Hitler’s butt, I’d highly recommend The Spy with the Red Balloon.  4.5 STARS

 

ARC Mini Reviews for THE SPY WITH THE RED BALLOON & UNSTOPPABLE MOSESUnstoppable Moses by Tyler James Smith
three-half-stars
Published by Flatiron Books on September 25, 2018
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

After accidentally burning down a bowling alley with his cousin and best friend, Charlie, Moses has one week as a camp counselor to prove to the authorities—and to himself—that he isn't a worthless jerk who belongs in jail, when Charlie doesn't get that chance.

Review:

Tyler James Smith’s debut novel Unstoppable Moses is a powerful coming of age story that explores what happens when boys just being boys takes a tragic turn.  Seventeen year old Moses Hill and his cousin and best friend, Charlie, accidentally burn down a bowling alley.  It is a prank gone wrong, but things escalate when the police arrive and Charlie is killed.  In the aftermath of this tragedy, Moses is left trying to pick up the pieces of his life and figure out how to deal with the loss of his beloved cousin.  Moses and Charlie had been nearly inseparable so without Charlie, Moses doesn’t even know who he is anymore.  In the midst of dealing with his grief and the legal fallout from the deadly prank gone wrong, Moses is court-ordered to serve as a counselor at a children’s camp.

I thought the author did a wonderful job of portraying the raw emotions of grief, confusion, and even anger that Moses experiences in the aftermath of this tragedy.  He’s angry at himself, he’s angry at Charlie, and he’s really just all around lost.  Being sent to work at the children’s camp is a blessing in many ways because it actually gets him out of his own head a bit and also gives him a clean slate where he can interact with people who don’t know him as the kid who burned down a bowling alley and got his cousin killed.

The character who actually stole my heart in this book was not Moses, however, and this is why my rating is a little lower than it would normally be.  For me, the shining star of Unstoppable Moses was a secondary character, a young camper named Lump.  Lump, whose real name is Allison, has struggled to make friends at camp in the past and so Moses is assigned the task of taking her under his wing and to look out for her.  Lump, whose hero is Amelia Earhart, is easily one of the most endearing children I’ve ever read about.  She’s clever, brave, and just has the biggest heart.  When a fawn goes missing from the petting zoo, Lump makes it her mission in life to find the fawn and bring her home.  Even though she’s tiny, Lump is a character who is just larger than life and, at times, I honestly found myself more interested in Lump’s story than I did Moses’.  While both of their stories were compelling, Lump was just a little easier for me to relate to than Moses.

Even with that issue, I still found Unstoppable Moses to be a riveting read and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to fans of contemporary fiction, especially if stories of how to cope with grief and loss are of interest.  3.5 STARS

four-half-stars

About Katherine Locke

Katherine Locke lives and writes in a small town outside Philadelphia, where she’s ruled by her feline overlords and her addiction to chai lattes. She writes about that which she cannot do: ballet, magic, and time travel. She secretly believes all stories are fairytales in disguise. Her YA debut, THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON, arrives September 2017 from Albert Whitman & Comapny.

About Tyler James Smith

Tyler Smith was born and raised in Royal Oak, Michigan. A lot of typical kid-stuff happened, then he went to college at Western Michigan University, where he studied Creative Writing under and around people who were much smarter and more talented than he could ever hope to be. Funnier, too.

He tried to write a book about zombies when he was in college, then he wrote a bad NaNoWriMo book, then he tried to write another NaNo book but it fell apart around 20,000 words, then he started reading YA and fell in love with the genre which caused him to write a book at the speed of one chapter per week, and then he wrote his debut novel, Unstoppable Moses, which took three years to edit. While all of that was happening, he worked at various times as a mailman, as a freelance writer, as a deli punk, at a book store, as a bartender, and eventually as a SECA in Chicago Public Schools.

He only brings all of this up to emphasize that the process can be long and weird, but it’s also really, really fulfilling and beautiful in its own screaming way, and that even some random schlub from a Detroit suburb can get this far along.

He currently lives in Chicago with his partner and an old Australian Cattle Dog named Dioji.

ARC Review: The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke

ARC Review:  The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine LockeThe Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke
Also by this author: The Spy with the Red Balloon
five-stars
Series: The Balloonmakers #1
Published by Albert Whitman Company on September 1st 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

MY REVIEW:

Katherine Locke’s The Girl with the Red Balloon is such a gorgeous and moving book that I’m nearly at a loss for words to convey just how good it really is.  I finished reading it a few days ago and just can’t stop thinking about it.   The Girl with the Red Balloon is not a light read by any stretch of the imagination – it deals with weighty subjects like the Holocaust, racism, homophobia, and what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain before the Berlin Wall fell. For the most part, it’s a dark and gritty dual time period read that shows how horrific it was for Jews during World War II as well as how difficult it was to live under the eye of a totalitarian regime in 1980’s East Germany. It’s not all darkness and horror though. Katherine Locke uses a hint of magic and a bit of romance to offset all of that darkness.  You see, not only is this novel historical fiction that deals with more than one time period.  It’s also a time travel novel.

The Girl with the Red Balloon begins in present day Germany where we meet one of our main characters, sixteen year old Ellie Baum, who has traveled there on a class field trip.  She sees a red balloon floating nearby while hanging out with her classmates and asks her best friend to take a photo of her with it for her grandfather.  It reminds her of a story her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, always tells her, about how a girl in a purple dress handed him a red balloon when he arrived at a concentration camp during the war, and the balloon floated him out of the camp and to safety.

When Ellie grabs the balloon, however, the unexpected and unbelievable happens.  She travels back in time to 1988 and finds herself in East Berlin and in imminent danger!  There she is found and led to a safe house by Kai and Mitzi, a Romani gypsy and a German lesbian, who are part of a magical resistance group who uses red balloons to float people over the Berlin Wall and into West Germany.  The catch?  These balloons, while magical, are not supposed to travel through time.  The balloon makers are stumped as to what has happened to bring Ellie to them and are therefore unsure of how to get her back to her own time period.  The resistance group vows to keep Ellie safe from the East German police and to do everything they can to find a way to get her home, but when dead time travelers start turning up with red balloons, it becomes clear that someone is experimenting with forbidden dark magic and time travel.  Why is someone trying to travel back in time and why are they so willing to do it, even at the expense of innocent lives?  If others are dying when they grab these balloons, how was Ellie able to safely travel back in time? It becomes a race against time to stop who is behind this before the bodies start piling up, even if it means Ellie loses out on perhaps her only way back to the future.

LIKES

This is another one of those books where I could just write pages and pages about what I liked.  I don’t want to give anything away though so I’m just going to list a few highlights.

The friendship between Ellie and her two protectors, Kai and Mitzi, was one of my favorite parts of the book.  These three become fast friends while living in the safe house together, and their chemistry is fantastic.  They’re immediately like The Three Musketeers, all for one and one for all.  I also loved the diversity that these characters represented – Ellie is Jewish, Kai is Romani, and Mitzi is a lesbian. This diversity further forges a bond between them since all three are considered undesirable in East Berlin during this time frame.  The police would love nothing more than to find a reason to arrest them, so they always have each other’s backs.

As I mentioned, there is also a romance in this book and even though on the surface it might sound like somewhat out of place since we already have time traveling, the Holocaust, magical balloons, etc., the romance actually worked well for me.  First, it’s not instalove, so yay.  No, instead, the relationship develops quite naturally as Kai and Ellie get to know each other better.  Kai is kind of dark and brooding at times and he sees Ellie as this softness and light that he needs in his life.  Ellie becomes attracted to Kai, not just because he is handsome, but because of how he puts himself on the line trying to help as many people as he can get over into West Germany.  Ellie is also touched when she sees how devoted Kai is to his younger sister, Sabina.  He would literally do anything to keep Sabina safe and it’s heartwarming to see.

I was incredibly invested in this relationship not just because I liked that it developed naturally and that their two personalities really complimented each other, but also because it just tugged at my heart strings.  What happens to their relationship if the balloon makers are able to figure out how to send Ellie back to her own time period?  Would she go or would she stay with the man she is falling in love with?

Other highlights for me were the completely unique premise and the major themes of the novel.  Seriously, it doesn’t get much more creative than the idea of using magical red balloons to save people.  In addition to the unique premise, there were also so many themes that resonated me with as I was reading.  With respect to those balloons, I loved the beautiful message that there were heroes everywhere, both during World War II and during the time of the Iron Curtain – people who risked their own safety trying to save as many people as they could.  Another darker message that resonated with me as I got further into the story was more of a question of ethics – if a person’s overall intention is good, does that excuse any unethical behavior he or she may engage along the way accomplishing that goal?  This was definitely food for thought for me as I was reading.

A final highlight for me was the way the story was presented.  It’s presented in alternating chapters from the perspective of Kai and Ellie in 1988 East Berlin and from Ellie’s grandfather, Benno, as a young boy during World War II.  I loved how presenting the story this way effectively moves Ellie’s time traveling story forward as well as her relationship with Kai, while at the same time, circling back and showing the origin of the red balloons.  Seeing Benno’s horrific experiences in the Jewish ghettos, surrounded by disease and death, served as a poignant reminder that without that red balloon, neither Ellie nor any of her other family members would exist in present day.  Ellie literally owes her life to that magical balloon.

DISLIKES/ISSUES

The only real issue I had with this book was that it took me a few chapters to acclimate to the three alternating points of view.  I’m not going to call that a dislike because once I got used to it and remembered, I thought it was a beautiful way to tie together what happened with Benno and a red balloon during the war and what happened to his granddaughter when she touches a red balloon over 40 years later.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Girl with the Red Balloon is a book that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, magic, time travel, romance, and even mysteries.  Not only does it have a little something for everyone, but it’s also just a beautifully written story that will be on your mind long after you read the final pages.

RATING:  5 STARS

Thanks so much to Katherine Locke, Netgalley, and the Albert Whitman Company for allowing me the opportunity to preview an advanced copy of this book. It in no way shapes my opinion of the book.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

When sixteen-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally time-travels via red balloon to 1988 East Berlin, she’s caught up in a conspiracy of history and magic. She meets members of an underground guild in East Berlin who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall—but even to the balloon makers, Ellie’s time travel is a mystery. When it becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to change history, Ellie must risk everything—including her only way home—to stop the process.

five-stars

About Katherine Locke

Katherine Locke lives and writes in a small town outside Philadelphia, where she’s ruled by her feline overlords and her addiction to chai lattes. She writes about that which she cannot do: ballet, magic, and time travel. She secretly believes all stories are fairytales in disguise. Her YA debut, THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON, arrives September 2017 from Albert Whitman & Comapny.