War has come to the Xin Empire, and the noble warlordess Xin Ren leads a small force to oppose Miasma, the prime ministress who claims to be the will of Ren’s cousin, the empress. In order to combat superior, well-supplied forces, Ren needs a master strategist, someone who will join her cause. Rising Zephyr, one of the most brilliant strategists in all of Xin, has filled that position—and is determined to lead Ren to victory. No matter what the cost.
If this description sounds almost familiar, it should. Joan He’s Strike the Zither is her reinvention of the epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a historical fiction saga credited to Luo Guanzhong. While the stories are incredibly familiar to Chinese readers, they’re less well-known to American audiences. At 800,000 words and with a cast of thousands that would make Golden Age Hollywood proud, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is justifiably daunting to a modern audience. But its core story—three friends who swear an oath to support each other through thick and thin, a strategist so gifted as to make it seem as if the weather obeys their whims, honorable warriors determined not to win by cheating, and an abundance of courtly intrigue despite those honorable attitudes—resonates well beyond its early origins. Which is why it’s so delightful that He draws on those tales here and then makes them entirely her own.
The story opens in media res, with Ren’s forces fleeing from the larger imperial army led by Miasma. Ren, in all her noble intent, has insisted that her forces also shepherd the peasants who sheltered them to safety. This complication is irksome to Rising Zephyr, to whom people are really just pieces on a game board; peasants cannot appreciate her brilliance, after all. When it looks as though all might be lost, Zephyr still has tricks up her sleeve: she sends Lotus, one of Ren’s swornsisters, to convince Miasma that their forces are much greater than the prime ministress expected. For awhile, it seems to have worked—but that dolt warrior Lotus botches things, and soon, it looks like Ren will be on the run again. Zephyr decides to take matters into her own hands: she feigns defection to Miasma, using the prime ministress to take her to the allies Zephyr has always planned to secure for Ren.
Zephyr believes in very little, but she believes in Ren. In her heart, she feels Ren is her one path to being remembered through all history as a brilliant strategist: if Ren can restore the Xin Empire, then the strategist who guided her will become a hero.
From the opening pages, Zephyr’s personality shines so brightly it dominates the page. Her first-person narrative is told in present tense, giving every moment a sense of immediacy. Zephyr’s skeptical outlook on the world—a denial of gods and ghosts, which she claims to be superstitions of the less intelligent—reveals a rich, vibrant empire of political intrigue, alliances, and betrayals. As the first-third of the novel passes, a sudden shift in the status quo upends almost everything readers have learned, in a way that only serves to deepen just how fantastic Zephyr’s world is. He’s twist is beautifully done, completed in a way that only makes Zephyr more likable and sympathetic as the story unfolds. Watching a character who views the world as a strategic game grow to better understand and care for those around her, despite her own intentions, makes following Zephyr’s journey all the more worthwhile.
He also makes beautiful use of the zither throughout, blending music and the spirit with stratagems and gods. The way that the music flows in different scenes, and the way that it’s emotionally described, gives the novel its own sense of a soundtrack. There’s so much revealed about the characters, not only by how they act and what they say, but by how they play and what respect they give to music, that it’s almost an added sense, a key that grants both Zephyr and the readers access to other characters’ motivations and desires.
While readers who know Romance of the Three Kingdoms will be able to use their own knowledge of the source material to enrich their experience of He’s novel, familiarity isn’t necessary. Zephyr guides readers through all the trappings of the story seamlessly, emphasizing what parts are important to her own worldview while letting other details slide by. And He takes the world in a different direction almost immediately—that most of the main characters are women instead of men, in a story so traditionally masculine-dominated, sets a more modern-feeling tone. And He’s story notes at the end help readers identify where she’s made changes and why, especially where elements of the gods are concerned.
Because the novel ends with the expectation of a part two, readers may use Strike the Zither as their excuse to finally pick up a translation of Guanzhong’s saga (in her social media, He recommended the Moss Roberts translation) or sit down and watch Red Cliff to better understand the inspiration behind Zephyr and the others. But even if the story doesn’t whet the appetite for other versions of the story, it will certainly keep readers looking forward to more of Zephyr’s adventures.
Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories, and many role-playing game supplements. She also edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including Bridge to Elsewhere and Never Too Old to Save the World. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.