Joan He is one of the most exciting fantasy and science fiction writers working today. Her debut mystery, Descendant of the Crane, introduced readers to her propulsive and engaging storytelling. We loved her her immersive and heartbreaking sci-fi YA novel, The Ones We’re Meant to Find. He’s newest novel, Strike the Zither, is a vibrant reimagining of the Chinese historical epic Three Kingdoms. It’s a dynamic fantasy tale of adventure and self-discovery which will delight and devastate readers. In the lead up to the book’s release we chatted to He over email. He told us about her newest book, its beginnings, and what she can’t wait for readers to discover.
Nerdist: Could you tell me about the origin of Strike the Zither and why you decided to reimagine Three Kingdoms?
Joan He: Three Kingdoms might not seem like an obvious choice to reimagine for a young adult audience at a glance, but it felt right to me. The novels are full of historical figures fictionalized into heroes and villains, warriors and strategists, all grouping themselves into archetypes and not straying from what they’re known for, much like teens sorting themselves into jocks and geeks in a high school cafeteria.
Like many kids of the Chinese diaspora, I was told stories about these larger-than-life figures growing up, but it wasn’t until college that I really read and analyzed the text in full. As I thought more deeply about the enduring legacy of the story, I came up with a “what if” question that I ultimately decided to explore through my midpoint twist (from which my stories tend to spring). If you’re familiar with how certain characters of Three Kingdoms are worshiped to this day in Chinese society, then you’ll see how Strike the Zither is my textual response to that worship.
Your books always feature complex and layered female characters and Zephyr continues that tradition delightfully. What made her your perfect lead?
He: Interestingly enough, Zephyr in some ways to me feels like a departure from the characters I’ve written before, largely because of her confidence. Most of my previous POV characters all have an obvious insecurity or inadequacy that they then overcome or reconcile with as a part of their arcs. It’s during that painful process that I weave in complexity. Zephyr is the opposite of insecure; in my mind, she’s much more of a traditional YA main character, the kinds that I often encountered in books as a teen, full of bluster and armed with a scathing quip whenever an opening arises.
But this is exactly the kind of personality that I thought a young adult-tified Zhuge Liang—the figure that Zephyr is inspired by—would have. He is, after all, one of the greatest strategists in Chinese history. There’s literally nothing in the original Three Kingdoms books that he can’t do. So I wanted to give Zephyr her arrogance, but I also wanted to make sure that her arrogance felt earned—and to unleash the most dire of consequences upon her the second it’s not. It’s when characters fall down that they’re forced to look at the lie they’ve been telling themselves, and Zephyr has to face her lie—that the world will only remember her if she’s the best strategist—big time.
It feels radical to read such an epic book that features a nearly all female cast. Could you talk about that choice and how it shaped the book?
He: In the original books, the cast is 99% male (there are over 1000—yes, 1000—named male characters, and probably fewer than 10 named female characters for comparison). And no one questions why that is—it just is, because of how Confucian values had molded China into a very patriarchal society. However, I always knew from the start that my book wouldn’t be set in China-China, just like Descendant of the Crane isn’t set in a real historical era of China.
There are many books that do a fantastic job at unpacking traditional Chinese gender roles, such as She Who Became the Sun and Iron Widow—but mine are not that. It’s just not something that I, as a creator, feel like I have the emotional bandwidth to explore, and setting my Chinese- inspired books in alternate universes where I can keep most of the culture but remake the social mores without the 重男轻女 (“revere the man over the woman”) component of Confucian values is my little bit of indulgent escapism, you could say.
So since I have the freedom to create my own world, I figured why not flip it? If people are able to accept the mostly-male cast for the classic, shouldn’t they be able to accept the alternative in my reimagined spin on it? Is that really that radical?
What were the challenges of balancing intrigue, action, and deep character development?
He: I think as readers, we often want to see more of everything. More of the plot, more of the world, more of the characters. I definitely empathize, as a reader myself! The challenge for me is trying not to listen to that voice when I’m in writer mode, because there’s no way to tell a completely balanced tale when you’re writing a very close point of view. Why? Because people themselves are not balanced.
In Strike, we see the world and the cast through Zephyr’s eyes, and this is just one example of imbalance, but she definitely isn’t going to spend as much time interacting with every character she meets. Some characters, she has a first impression of that’s going to be very difficult to change, either because she doesn’t respect them or care to understand them deeper. Those characters, unfortunately, won’t develop until Zephyr develops. So not to be contrary, but the challenge is really listening to the story and letting the character take the reins and embracing the imbalance.
One of the things that really struck me about this is the importance of sisterhood and building a believable sisterhood. Why did that matter for this book?
He: This is actually something that was extremely well done in the original Three Kingdoms books—the brotherhoods, that is. Despite there also being a heavy thread on the importance of belonging to the correct bloodline and fighting for your relatives, some of the best relationships are those that we would nowadays consider found family. The names Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei (Xin Ren, Cloud, and Lotus in my book) are synonymous with brotherhood, and in a tome filled with advisors who don’t hesitate to switch sides when their own lords fall, Zhuge Liang’s undying loyalty to Liu Bei, as a strategist to his lord, really hit me as the heart of the book.
Now, I must clarify that the relationship between Zhuge Liang and Liu Bei isn’t really that of a brotherhood (or sisterhood, in the case of Zephyr and Ren). It’s a relationship laced through with Confucian values—a loyalty born not out of romance or personal debt or familial (found or not) obligation, but ordained by the most righteous of natural orders. And this was a Confucian construct I absolutely wanted to preserve the spirit of, even if I was flipping some of the genders.
Is there a particular moment you’re most excited for readers to discover when they pick up the book?
He: I’m very excited for readers to reach the epilogue (or should I say Intermezzo)! If you’ve read my previous books, then you know I always like to save some twists for last just when you think you’re out of the woods. Strike the Zither is no different, and because I’m lucky enough to be writing this as a duology, I saved one of my meanest reveals for last!
Strike the Zither is available now wherever you buy books.