Watching a Chinese drama — that’s what reading Joan He’s Strike the Zither, a reimagining of the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, feels a lot like. The sheer amount of characters, the epic dynamics, and the power struggles all exemplify the essence of a Chinese television drama, complete with the historical costuming and richly evocative setting. One has to applaud He for taking such an esteemed story into her own creative hands.
However, being similar to a Chinese drama means that Strike the Zither also suffers from similar problems that such dramas encounter. These problems include an inability to distinguish between different characters’ significance, transmigration into another body that reads as wildly predictable and contrived, and all in all, difficulty comprehending exactly what is going on.
It should be noted that this is, of course, a subjective experience; those who are familiar with and have a deeper understanding of the (oftentimes convoluted) intricacies of Chinese TV dramas will find Strike the Zither to be a wonderful homage to Chinese history and culture. It is epic, and the author herself writes in a statement on Goodreads that the book will not appeal to everyone, especially if readers don’t understand the references. He’s writing style is refined and effective — a formidable force that is suited for such a reimagining. If not the gifted writer He, then who else would take on this challenge?
Strike the Zither demonstrates the strength of Chinese representation, in many ways. Not fully understanding the book is no reason to disregard the significance of He writing it, especially since doing so brings Chinese classic literature in an exciting fashion to a modern young adult audience.
Even so, the ambition of He in writing this novel doesn’t quite change the fact that Strike the Zither starts with an intriguing concept but doesn’t appear to execute it in a captivating enough way. It’s unfortunate that lack of understanding on the reader’s part might affect the enjoyment of the book, but in this case, that’s the sad reality.
The whole story is essentially about Zephyr, a strategist for the warlordess Xin Ren, attempting to help Xin Ren achieve influence and power through plotting. That seems to be the gist of the novel, and it’s difficult to summarize anything else that happens just because there’s so much going on. He does her best, though; the descriptions of the setting are absolutely transfixing with how He has incorporated Chinese drama-like elements into the world. The zither is a nice touch and bears symbolic meaning throughout the book, which adds a cultural weight.
What’s in the setting doesn’t quite live up to what’s in the plot. Zephyr is a hard character to empathize with mostly because her attachment to Ku, her sister, seems shoveled in to add the aforementioned empathy. Her narrative voice isn’t truly three-dimensional. Even though readers hear that Zephyr is a strong strategist from others, her first-person point of view doesn’t really make a case for that. The first half of the novel has Zephyr emphasizing what goes into her strategist position without clearly examining the importance of her strategy-making processes or how they came to be. Following that, He throws readers into the story with such a fast momentum that it’s easy to become indifferent to Zephyr’s struggles.
The romance between Zephyr and opposing strategist Crow promises heated tension with the enemies-to-lovers trope, but that tension doesn’t come to fruition. As a result, the relationship also doesn’t feel necessary. Crow as a character elicits slim to no emotional reaction, and the parts that should be hard-hitting or swoon-worthy fly by. The relationship is monotonous and Zephyr’s repetition of her supposed attraction to him grows tedious the more it occurs. There’s so many characters involved in Strike the Zither that Crow fades into the background, and no matter how many attempts Zephyr makes to convince readers that she feels strongly for him, it doesn’t get across.
As for everything else, the political aspects of the novel are truly layered and He does examine every inch of character motivation, a technique that somewhat complicates the book. Her devotion to worldbuilding is a strength because He is able to grapple with so many different aspects eloquently and in a manner that shows her writing skills. In that light, however, every time a particular storyline gets particularly interesting, it’s edged out in favor of another development.
There’s a transmigration part that has a lot of potential, especially since that’s often the most exciting part of Chinese dramas, but that part seems to take itself too seriously when it could have emphasized Zephyr’s adaptation to the body more. Later, there are mentions of immortality and mortality that are surprising in the context of Zephyr’s character arc. However, they quickly transition to something else. Strike the Zither should require clarity to read and love — and it does. Regretfully, that’s what makes it challenging to get through. It’s a distinctive work that requires dedication, and He gives it. It’s undeniable that the zither produces a beautiful sound, but perhaps this reader just doesn’t understand the music.