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Strike the Zither  (Kingdom of Three, volume 1)

By Joan He 

4 Nov, 2022

Doing the WFC's Homework

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2022’s Strike the Zither is the first volume in Joan He’s Kingdom of Three series.

The Xin Empire is eternal and indivisible. Or so its elite believes. It has recently suffered setbacks: the elite have split into factions and several regional governments have rashly decided to go it alone. But thanks to the hard work of Prime Ministeress Miasma, in whose resolute care the Empress Xin Bao resides, the Empire is well on its way back to its ordained unity. Or so the ruling faction believes.

This would be wonderful news to strategist Rising Zephyr (Pan Qilin) were she one of Miasma’s retainers. As she is strategist to Xin Ren, the least powerful leader of the remaining elite factions, life is a sequence of narrow escapes from Miasma’s superior forces.

Zephyr’s canny strategies have managed thus far to preserve Xin Ren’s army and the peasants that support it. It is painfully clear that all she is doing is buying time. Unless Ren secures some game-changing new resources — an ally, an easily defended province for her own, something, anything — eventually Zephyr’s best won’t be good enough. Ren and her retinue will perish.

Rather than continue to play a losing hand, Zephyr defects to Miasma. True, Miasma is a homicidal sadist whose alleged protection of the rightful empress would be better termed imprisonment until it’s time to kill and replace her.” However, Miasma is not only brilliant in her own right but listens to her advisors (until she murders them for one slight or another). Why not be one of those advisors?

And yet … Miasma isn’t the sort of amoral murderous narcissist who will take Zephyr’s defection at face value. It could be a ruse intended to weaken Miasma and strengthen Xin Ren. Proving that her defection is not a ruse is doubly difficult for Zephyr, since it is exactly the cunning gambit Miasma and her established advisors believe it might be.

Zephyr’s confidence appears well-founded. In the guise of proving herself, she strengthens Xin Ren’s position. It’s an impressive achievement, particularly as she manages this under the nose of Crow, Miasma’s most talented strategist. All is going well until an unforeseen ambush that leaves Zephyr face-down and dead in the mud. 

At which point Zephyr discovers that for all her genius, there are important facts of which she was previously unapprised. 


Bad stuff first: I am not crazy about some of the terminology. I assume it is to establish that roles traditionally reserved for men are in this setting open to all. 

CLIFFHANGER WARNING: this ends on a cliffhanger and not the one you might be expecting. 

I know I often assert things along the lines of it is unlikely that the protagonist of an N book series died in book one.” Unlikely events still occur! The career arc of imperial strategists is generally spectacular and short1, ending about the time the strategist discovers that they were unaware of important facts or that even the brightest person cannot out-think chance or circumstance2. Zephyr is very bright, possessed of resources even she underestimates, but even she cannot overcome circumstance.

Which isn’t to say her story ends with this volume but to explain how that works would be an enormous spoiler.

Zither is, as some readers may have realized, loosely based on The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the four great Chinese epics. Some incidents in the novel will be very familiar to those who know The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. That said, this is not just a gender-flipped The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Empire is not China, and none of the characters map one to one onto any of the characters of the novel. However, that one hundred thousand arrow incident — you know the one I mean — does appear3.

At the end there’s a handy note from the author outlining the similarities and differences between this work and the earlier epic.

Aside from the fact I am now waiting for the next instalment of this series, this was an engaging novel. The plots moves along nicely, having read the source material won’t let you see the twists coming, and Zephyr is a surprisingly sympathetic character for someone hired as a ruthless genius in a system that prioritizes power and success over other qualities. 

Strike the Zither is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: At least strategists get a better deal than peasants, even if their tenure is short. Peasant lives are squalid and even shorter, thanks to famine, war, aristocratic bloodthirstiness, and occasional acts of God. 

2: In Basic Roleplaying Game terms, intelligence does not confer armour points. 

3: In subsequent civil wars, did warlords ever try to duplicate Chancellor Zhuge Liang’s hundred thousand arrow gambit (sending rival boats cruising up and down rivers, hoping to encounter enemies who had never heard that particular legend)?