Title: Six Crimson Cranes
Author: Elizabeth Lim
Book 21 of 2021
Reading Time: 4hrs 23mins
Date Finished: July 31, 2021
Content Warnings: Westernized Asian names, attempted murder, belittlement of a child, mistreatment of a young woman, mild violence
What Worked For Me: The concept, the magic, the mopey dragon boy
What Didn’t Work For Me: Westernized Asian names, large cast of male characters, slow middle portion, the love interest
I was really excited about this when I first heard about it. Somehow, I’d managed to get approved for an e-ARC on NetGalley, but amidst the international move and settling into Singapore, I didn’t quite get to it in time before it was published.
The book follows Princess Shiori, a secret magic wielder in a land that no longer has magic. When she disobeys her step-mother, her six brothers get turned into cranes. Shiori embarks on a journey to return her brothers to their human form and reveal her step-mother’s evil nature. Also there’s a dragon boy and Shiori is cursed to silence unless she wants her brothers to die. And there’s a wooden bowl stuck to her head so no one can see her face.
As the first in a fantasy duology, I liked it enough. The plot was interesting and I really enjoyed the relationship Shiori had with a paper crane she secretly enchanted. The sassy banter between them kept me reading during the slow parts, and I’m all for having unconventional pet friends. It was like a physical manifestation of Shiori’s innermost thoughts as she tried her best to find her brothers and break the curse placed on her. The bird, Kiki, served as well-timed comic relief too, often teasing Shiori about events that just happened or reminding her that they need to stay focused.
Magic being one of the main reasons conflict happens in the book, it had a surprisingly limited appearance. The edition of the book I read had nearly 500 pages and I think magic was present or discussed for about 75 of them. It didn’t quite make sense why there was so little about it when it was needed to fix everything. I knew that Shiori had to stay safe and not practice magic, but I thought it would have been a greater part of the story since she’s trying to keep it a secret while learning everything she can. Instead, I think we spent more time talking about her cooking skills than her magic skills.
From what I understand, the story of the girl with a bowl on her head is from a Japanese folktale. It’s not a folktale I’m familiar with, so I liked that I was being introduced to something new. However, this became the first of several issues I had with how Asian culture was represented in the book.
The author is American-Chinese, so I expected something more from her. When I learned that the folktale was Japanese, I thought this would learn into that culture. It didn’t. Not entirely. What actually came of it was a mishmash of Chinese, Japanese, and occasionally Korean culture. Everything picked and blended into one without committing to anything fully. That was most obvious in the character names.
Shiori had the most Japanese-sounding name out of everyone, and is the closest to what would be an actual Japanese name. Everyone else got some weird blend of Asian-sounding names that felt like they were made up by a white person. All of Shiori’s brothers had increasingly weird names (which only confused me as a I read the book) and the love interest’s name sounded like a white person coming up with what they thought was a Japanese name.
It felt like the author was trying to write an Asian-inspired fantasy but cater it to white people so that it would be more “widely accessible and readable.” Rather than choosing to adhere to a single Asian culture, it was blended so anyone who is a mild fan of Asian culture could recognize something. Rather than giving real Asian names, it was all Westernized “for ease” so that white readers could pronounce it more easily. I stand by the opinion that if readers wanted to learn how to read an Asian name, they would. They do it with K-pop and anime, so why not Asian-inspired fantasy by an Asian author?
One of my good friends on Bookstagram, Lyn, started a great discussion on why stuff like this is problematic for authors and readers. As minorities in Western culture, we already cater so much to them and sacrifice our own culture to make it easier for white people. But that has to stop. It’s important to represent ourselves the way we actually are, not to make our cultures, names, and languages easier for white people just because they “can’t pronounce Asian names.” Trust me, if they cared, they would. After all, they can learn Klingon and Elvish for those fandoms and Korean for the sake of K-pop/K-dramas, so why not learn how to pronounce a few Asian names for the book they’re reading?
Taking a bit of turn into something more positive, I really loved the dragon boy character. Seryu (not a real Asian name) was a lot of fun to read about and I wish he had a bigger role in this book. I missed him more than any other character and kept waiting for a time when he would show up again. He’s my little mopey dragon boy and I would do anything to protect him. Plus, he’s really sweet and well-meaning. All the time he spends trying to help Shiori goes largely unacknowledged by her, but that’s okay because I’ll appreciate Seryu instead. Really looking forward to seeing more of him in the sequel and reading his sass again.
I’m 90% sure that Seryu was introduced to be set up as a love interest. I actually thought he was going to be the main love interest until he disappeared for a few hundred pages and some dude named Takkan (also not a real Asian name) showed up. Having read all of Seryu’s sassy and moody dialogue, Takkan felt like a really bland character. He has no real personality outside of being nice. As much as I like a nice guy, I still want somene who is actually interesting. The romance didn’t make sense to me and I couldn’t buy the attraction between the characters.
The last negative thing I’ll say is that the cast of male characters was too large for me. Shiori has six brothers, there are two male love interests, at least four different generals, and an annoying guy. Plus some of the servants we meet along the way. That’s so many names and so little reason to keep track of them. It got to the point where I assumed that all the generals were bad because I couldn’t remember who was actually the creep. As far as Shiori’s brothers go, I only remember one name and that’s Andahai (not a real Asian name and kind of sounds like a Chinese medicine brand). Do I remember which one he is? I think he’s the oldest but I’m not sure. There’s one she likes best and I don’t remember his name, then there’s everyone else who gets a few speaking lines here and there. Did we really need this many men?
I know it sounds like quite a lot of negative things to say. That’s largely because it stands out more than the positives. I did enjoy the book for the most part though I think about 80 pages could have been cut out. Reading this made me better friends with Lyn, as we talked about it around the same time. It really boils down to the way Asian representation was handled by an Asian author that left me feeling really disappointed. But I am looking forward to the sequel and remain hopefully that my mopey dragon boy will get the love he deserves.