Summary: The year is 414 of the Xin Dynasty, and chaos abounds. A puppet empress is on the throne. The realm has fractured into three factions and three warlordesses hoping to claim the continent for themselves.
But Zephyr knows it’s no contest.
Orphaned at a young age, Zephyr took control of her fate by becoming the best strategist of the land and serving under Xin Ren, a warlordess whose loyalty to the empress is double-edged—while Ren’s honor draws Zephyr to her cause, it also jeopardizes their survival in a war where one must betray or be betrayed. When Zephyr is forced to infiltrate an enemy camp to keep Ren’s followers from being slaughtered, she encounters the enigmatic Crow, an opposing strategist who is finally her match. But there are more enemies than one—and not all of them are human.
Review: [Content warnings: serious injury and death for both secondary and major characters, abusive guardians, starvation/famine, animal death.]
Joan He’s STRIKE THE ZITHER takes inspiration from the Chinese historical fiction classic ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS, but readers do not need to be familiar with the latter to enjoy the former. I have not read RotTK, but I still devoured STRIKE THE ZITHER in one sitting and am eagerly awaiting the conclusion of the duology (October 2023, according to Goodreads).
Duologies aren’t nearly as common as trilogies or standalones in the young adult publishing landscape, and that means STRIKE THE ZITHER’s pacing is a little different from what readers might anticipate. It isn’t all setup—the book delivers on more than one major plotline, including a midpoint I loved that radically changes the story afterward—but it may require recalibrating some expectations on the pace of the greater scope plot.
Zephyr is a fantastic narrator. It can be very difficult to write a believably clever character from their POV, and as a war strategist, the bar for Zephyr is even higher. I thoroughly enjoyed watching events play out from her perspective, and her plots and schemes to further Ren’s cause felt appropriately difficult and the victories well-earned. I also appreciated how her ruthlessness came into conflict with Ren’s honor, and how Zephyr did or did not compromise her strategies for Ren’s sake.
I’m a little torn on the burgeoning relationship between Zephyr and Crow. From a purely “respect for a talented rival” perspective, I loved it, but I felt the romantic overtures happened faster than my preference for longer and slower burns. Still, their conflicts as rival strategists were a thrill to experience, and I’m definitely looking forward to what will unfold between them in the sequel.
Recommendation: Get it now if you’re a fan of fantasy and life-or-death intrigue. Joan He’s STRIKE THE ZITHER is an engaging story about a strategist determined to deliver victory to her warlordess while an empire threatens to fall apart around them. I’m looking forward to the conclusion of this story next year!