arc review | strike the zither – joan he

Strike the Zither by Joan He

Series: Kingdom of Three #1
Published on October 25th 2022 by Roaring Brook Press
Age Range: Young Adult
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance, Retelling
Representation: Chinese


Rating: 4 out of 5.


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.


Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review!

trigger and content warnings:
  • war, blood, violence, deaths, major character death, animal death (non-graphic), eye horror, death of parents (off page), vomiting, verbal and physical abuse from a guardian figure, starvation and famine, body shaming (in the context of an ancient era that glorified warriors), xenophobia (in the context of regional prejudices between the North and South), offensive language in dialogue
  • taken from joan he’s goodreads

Known as the Rising Zephyr, Qilin is the sole strategist for Xin Ren, a lordess wanting to restore peace and protect the throne, entrusting it to the rightful person. Zephyr has strategists up her sleeves and she knows when to employ them. While she infiltrated an enemy’s camp, Zephyr needs to ensure she keeps her head on her body and her wits close. Meeting Crow, the opposing strategy, wasn’t supposed to end up with them playing zithers together. Zephyr will betray. In the latter half, Zephyr will find out that her identity isn’t all that it seems. She will know why the sister she remembers doesn’t treat her as a sister but rather, as a stranger.

Some people never leave.

Joan He was inspired by Three Kingdoms (三國演義). A classic in Chinese Literature that most kids growing up surrounded by Chinese cultures would know. While the author didn’t use the names of the characters in the classic verbatim, I recognized elements of the original work like Zhuge Liang and Liu Bei. Also, familiar aspects and plots, especially the 草船借箭 scene, were pretty cool too. What a nostalgic throwback. It’s probably the most iconic and memorable strategy in the Three Kingdoms. With that, Joan He brilliantly crafted a story that surpassed all my expectations. Stanza Two was a whole other beast. I want to say more but I can’t!

Not going to lie, with how we were thrown straight into the war zone and the chaos that quickly ensued, it took a while to orient me. Not too long though. Joan He’s writing style just sucked me into the world. Zephyr’s character and her role in the story were introduced immediately so we knew who she was. The usage of the sobriquet, names given during a person’s coming of age, was interesting too. For Pan Qilin, her sobriquet is Zephyr and it is what everyone calls her instead of her given name. 

Ren, despite not having a strong backing or even a proper army, refuses to employ underhanded methods. She sticks to her own beliefs, integrity, and honor throughout the whole fight against Miasma. The three swornsisters–Ren, Cloud, and Lotus–have a bond that will never break. They swore to always speak the truth to one another. 

The situation between Crow and Zephyr is bittersweet. Knowing that they care for each other but can’t be together since they are fighting against one another, is painful. For them, duty first.

“Blame me, or blame the heavens for placing us on different sides of this war. May we meet in another life.” 

I just kept waiting for something bad to happen. Honestly, what can I expect during the war? Hoping for everyone to be safe and sound by the end is definitely wishful thinking. Strike the Zither is a brilliant reimagination of Three Kingdoms. I can’t even begin to imagine the stress on Joan He. 

Strike the Zither was definitely a rollercoaster ride. With Ren’s weak positioning in this war, it’s pretty hard to predict if things will be positive for her camp. However, Ren has loyal generals and a strategist willing to make sure her plan will come to fruition. Not knowing what will happen, every situation is life and death. Joan He pulled me into Strike the Zither so quickly, I couldn’t stop reading.

spoiler thoughts

  • crow and zephyr: i really want them to be together. they’re on opposite sides + crow is dying from consumption. what a great pair of strategists. also, he went to the enemy’s camp to pay respect when zephyr died. book two better have some scenes between them even though zephyr is dead and in lotus’s body.

  • betrayal: considering how cicada and november are plotting against ren, book two is going to be pretty brutal for zephyr and the rest. now that cloud knows that lotus is gone for good, what will happen within ren’s own camp? will ren find out that zephyr is in lotus’s body? will crow?

  • book two: “sound the gong”? sounds ominous

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