My thanks to Hodder and Stoughton and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
Six Crimson Cranes is a retelling of the Wild Swans fairy tale but set in (fantasy) East Asia and with its own spin. The first of (I think) a duology, it takes us to the kingdom of Kiata where the Emperor has six sons and a daughter, our ‘heroine’ Shiori. The children’s mother, beloved by the Emperor is dead, and the Emperor is now married to the beautiful, yet cold Raikama, who has snakes for pets. Magic is abhorred in the kingdom and anyone discovered to possess it is exiled or even executed.
As our story opens, Shiori is heading to her betrothal ceremony, something she is dreading for her chosen husband is from the north, where she believes only barbarians reside. She is deeply attached to her brothers and wishes (not unreasonably for she is little more than a child) life would remain unchanged. But Shiori herself has magic in her and as she is walking towards the hall for the ceremony, a paper (origami) bird, Kiki, she has breathed life into suddenly escapes. Terrified of her powers being discovered, she runs after it and ends up jumping into a lake. As a consequence, her engagement is postponed (to her relief) and she meets a strange boy (in fact, a dragon) who begins to teach her magic.
But Shiori isn’t the only one in Kiata to possess magic; it seems her stepmother, Raikama, too, is a sorceress and before she knows it Shiori’s brothers are turned into swans and Shiori herself is cursed so that she cannot be recognised by anyone, nor make herself known, and worse, with each sound she utters, one of her brothers will die. Alone, far away from home, separated from her brothers, she must search for them and also a way to break the curse. This will take her to places she’s never been before, make her face hardships she has never even imagined, and test her character in many ways. Does she reunite with her brothers? Can the curse be broken?
This was an interesting and very readable version of the Wild Swans story. While the basic idea of a princess whose brothers are turned into swans (here cranes) and must be turned back is the same, the author has given it her own spin, added various twists and turns (including the ending), and blended in folklore and legends from the east. I loved the fairy tale feel and elements that the author manages to retain throughout the story with the many adventures Shiori has and the places she ends up in—the tropes may not be new but the story was so well told, that I enjoyed reading every bit of it. There is also a romance sub-thread in the story, and I quite liked the way the author built that up as well.
Among the characters, Shori herself was most interesting (and of course as the tale is told in her voice, we get to know her best). Shiori when the story starts off is very reckless, perhaps a little arrogant, certainly a little childish and also somewhat self-centred, but as troubles begin to come her way and she has to face many dangers and tests of character, she grows into a different and far better person—this was an element I liked very much; the growth she shows makes one like her and root for her all the more. In the process she has to question her assumptions, and ends up understanding others a little better than she did or perhaps even attempted to).
The dragon boy/prince Seryu was also a very intriguing character, and though we didn’t see very much of him, I think we will in the next book. Takkan, even if his role is more a supporting one was also an interesting character for me. I loved the paper bird Kiki very much as well—she might have been created by Shiori, but she has a personality of her own. While Shiori’s brothers were well drawn out as characters (their distinct personalities), I felt we didn’t get to know them too well.
Besides Shiori, Raikama too, the ‘evil’ stepmother is a very interesting character, and with many shades and complexities to her. While initially one might be tempted to view her as the archetypical stepmother, with Shiori one begins to wonder about her—were she came from, what made her as she was, what made her act as she did? And some of the answers when they come are indeed eye-opening and moving.
This was a well-told tale, with interesting and likeable characters and an interesting plot, and kept me engaged all through.
Looking forward to the sequel!