strike the zither

“I mouth ‘Battle hymn’ at the other zitherist, then nod. His cue to start playing. As his notes hum, I pinch the strings hard and drag my hands up and down along them. My fingertips burn from the friction, and I grit my teeth as the sound is birthed into existence.

These will be the screams of Miasma’s soldiers as they burn alive, the shriek of her junks as they fall apart at the seams. I slam a hand into the wood of the zither – a single, strained heartbeat – then throw my fingers out, cutting the screams short.

One ship sinks. Another catches fire. One lordess falls.

Another rises.”

Joan He, STZ, p.141-142

Joan He’s first in the Kingdom of Three duology, inspired by the classic Three Kingdoms story, focuses on the military strategist Zephyr. A young woman with a mysterious history, she works to help her lordess, Xin Ren, gain position on the in a war against their enemies to the north, led by General Miasma. (These names, sobriquets as they’re called, become the images in your mind as you read. Names like Cloud, Crow, and Lotus take on lives of their own. It’s wonderful.)

What follows is a series of twists and turns, with Zephyr doing whatever she can to remain steps ahead of her enemies, with only one goal in mind: Help Xin Ren.

Things take a turn, though, with a twist I didn’t see coming and one that completely upends everything Zephyr thought she knew.

The thing about twists, by their very nature, is you shouldn’t see them coming. Most storytellers, at least in the commercial space, understand that seeds need to be planted. You have to guide your audience to come along with you, see what’s been planed, and allow them to be excited when the pieces are put together.

He does not do that. The twist comes out of nowhere (unless you’ve read the 800,000 word epic Three Kingdoms, I presume) and it threw me for a loop in the best ways. Things became erratic, crazed, and I suddenly couldn’t read the winds.

A wonderful first entry and a second installment I’m happy to wait on.

“The dark is different now. It wasn’t always so threatening. Back then it could even be a relief. After a hot day, the shun would go down and there’d be a cool night. A moonlit swim in the ocean, a fire, looking for constellations…”

“That sounds…kind of nice.”

“It was.”

Tim Probert, Lightfall, p.122

I wish I had more to say about this, but felt extremely underwhelmed by it. I would have given this a lower rating based on the first 2/3 of the story, but that final act really seals the deal and brings it all home.

Bea is a quiet girl living with her adoptive grandfather, the pig wizard, in a land of fantasy. She meets a Galdurian, a once thought extinct species, named Cad, and the two set out together on a legendary adventure to find her grandfather once he goes missing.

All good, all “kids fantasy book.” The art is the real hook, as illustrator Tim Probert really takes the warm, fall color scheme to the max with each page.

At first.

This is all before the darkness settles in and you get a real grasp for the story he wants to tell. Things ramp in a hurry towards the end, and it really made me want to check out book 2. (Book 3, as noted on his Instagram, is being worked on.) A super slow start building to a satisfying conclusion. That’s enough to stick around.

Thanks for reading,

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