Strike the zither by Joan He

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This is an epic tale! Based loosely on a traditional story from Chinese literary culture it is re-imagined with a more contemporary gender exploration than the original patriarchal story of power, politics, and destiny. Set in 414 of the Xin Dynasty, Zephyr, the master strategist is working to raise the fortunes of her benevolent lordess Ren, who is the last of the regions’ rulers to maintain a loyalty to the Empress.  With conflict from many directions, Zephyr must keep twisting and turning to ensure that the more unscrupulous leaders in different regions do not usurp her lordess.  With conflict and warmongering as a given, there is also loyalty, strategy, devotion, potential romance, and allegiance woven through the subterfuge, distrust and deviousness of leaders and their supporters who are trying to wrest power from adjoining regions. Zephyr, is an unusual protagonist who uses her incredible intellectual ‘smarts’ to outwit and outmanoeuvre, despite her physical weakness and her impoverished background. But there is a twist in the tale and Chinese mysticism and fantasy also are interlaced throughout the drama. With the gods watching on and intervening into human destiny, romance and drama there are so many levels of intrigue.

This is first and foremost a fantasy adventure on an epic scale… and this is only book one of a duology. The intimations of Chinese cultural and historical influence are there, but have been envisaged and re-invented for a new YA readership by a Chinese-American author who was raised on the traditional stories of her parents’ homeland.  Strike the Zither has threads that have been drawn from the traditional story Three Kingdoms, with creative license exercised to reconfigure characters and mystery into a different tapestry with the same themes. The magical quality of the story is like the music of the zither – atmospheric and expressive, and completely foreign music to that known by contemporary teenagers. And yet, that difference and the charmed nature of the story, with entries into the mythological arenas of the gods, is an amazingly powerful hook to draw in avid fantasy readers. This will strike a chord with fantasy lovers and they will be keen to discover what happens next in the lives of the ‘Zephyr’ character, Ren and her swornsisters, and the other strategists and opponents who are all seeking to master their own destinies and land, while the gods watch on and occasionally intervene in the mortal world. The cross-cultural flavour is delightfully refreshing as an excursion into new fantasy worlds. This is a story to delight and captivate… it is highly recommended for fantasy lovers aged 15 – Adult. (Younger readers,  with stamina, might also enjoy this alternate fantasy world.)

Themes: Mythology, Fantasy adventure, Identity, Conflict.

Carolyn Hull