Do the Ends Justify the Means? Descendant of the Crane Book Review


Thank you to Albert Whitman & Company for providing me with an advanced reader copy for review. Receiving this galley does not impact my opinion of the book.
"If you want to understand a person, peer at his heart through the window of his prejudices and assumptions."

Descendant of the Crane follows the journey of Hesina of Yan as she searches for her father's true killer. Now the queen, Hesina holds the power to order a formal investigation and trial to identify the murderer. Yet the young leader's pursuit of justice is not so simple. Hesina hides her own act of treason from the public: seeking the assistance of soothes, clairvoyants rejected by society. To complicate matters, Hesina's representative in court, Akira, is a criminal himself, and the court desires a quick answer rather than a fair trial. Even worse, other kingdoms, sensing the new court's vulnerability, near closer to war. With the help of her royal siblings, Sanjing, Caiyan, Lillian, and Rou, and her representative, Akira, Hesina must quell public dissent and mediate court politics to find the king's murderer and save her kingdom.

What most distinguishes Joan He's debut novel is its characters. Hesina's siblings are flawed and nuanced, which make them all the more interesting. Sanjing, while a bold soldier, grapples with the implications of murdering the innocent and his weak relationships with his siblings. Caiyan is loyal to his sister, but his motivations are unclear. Lillian, too, is loyal, but less tolerant of Sanjing than her twin brother Caiyan. Hesina's mother is perfectly gray. Wracked by grief, she attempts to dissuade her daughter from taking the crown. Hesina herself acts in ways not easily classified as good or bad. Only a teenager, she struggles to reconcile the public image she must maintain with the consequences of her decisions.

These characters' actions and moral conflicts illuminate one of the novel's core questions: do the ends justify the means? The protagonists face demanding situations that force them to choose between losing the consensus of the public and hurting potentially innocent people. To preserve peace, Hesina would have to compromise her values. Should she choose to punish no one, however, a revolt could ensue, leaving her powerless to address her kingdom's greater problems. Descendant of the Crane's portrayal of difficult and even decision issues enhances the complexity of the characters and examines to what extent pain is forgivable if the decision-maker's intent was not malicious.

The court intrigue and gossip explore the effects of mob mentality and supplement one of the most enjoyable parts of the book: the trial to punish the king's murderer. In the informal (albeit entertaining) court proceedings, a rigid director presides over what can only be described as a search for a scapegoat. Rather than enforce a just trial and discover the true identity of the killer, many courtesans are willing to lie to achieve what is accepted within society, even if what is popular is wrong.

"What is truth? Scholars seek it. Poets write it. Good kings pay gold to hear it. But in trying times, truth is the first thing we betray."

In the highlight of the middle of the book, Akira's dramatic counterarguments meet the antagonists' falsified evidence. While Akira brings up substantial points, his reasoning falls on many deaf ears that prefer echo chambers over equality.  The general public, meanwhile, becomes so polarized and susceptible to manipulation and propaganda that they are willing to engage in blackmail and witch hunts, becoming as corrupt as the worst members of court, to maintain the status quo.

Although the court drama and resulting conflicts accelerated the pace of the story, parts of Descendant of the Crane were, at times, difficult to follow. The roles of the sooths, the kingdom of Kendi'a, and the Eleven were initially confusing until later sub-plots clarified their significance. Hesina follows the advice of the first sooth woman she meets verbatim, even though the sooth advises the queen to make a prisoner her representative in court. Hesina's trust in this advice and her later romance with Akira felt rushed and underdeveloped-- a contrast to the slow pace of Hesina's quest for the crown in the first half of the novel. Later in the book, many conflicts ensue simultaneously, including a journey to Kendi'a, that distract from the search for the king's murderer. In these moments, the investigation into the king's killer, a major focus of the beginning of the book, felt like an afterthought.

Still, thanks to He's characters, the plot twists in this novel are unpredictable and exciting. It's a rare occasion that I am surprised by the conclusion of a book, but Descendant of the Crane packs some potent punches.

- ★★ -


  1. This sounds like it had some great qualities. I don't like it when a book confuses me but it does sounds exciting and the characters sound wonderful.

  2. Despite the confusion in the middle and the murder feeling like an afterthought, this sounds like it has some lovely elements and characters.

  3. I absolutely love how you have written this review! I've had this book on my TBR for a little while, but knowing a bit more about it makes me more excited to pick it up. I don't tend to mind being a bit confused throughout a book, so hopefully that won't bother me as much when I eventually get around to reading it!

  4. "do the ends justify the means?" is a question people have asked and argued about for ages. Sounds like some compelling issues here. Sorry to hear the romance was a bit rushed.

  5. Glad you enjoyed this one overall. The whole "ends justifying the means" is always an intriguing question, especially in books!


  6. Sounds like a book that makes you think! Love how you write your thoughts in a journal!