Elizabeth Lim borrows from Hans Christian Andersen and East Asian folklore to breathe life into Six Crimson Cranes, the first book in a duology set in the same world as her previous book, Spin the Dawn, and its sequel.
In Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Wild Swans,” a wicked queen transforms her husband’s sons into swans, leaving their sister to break the curse. She does this by taking a vow of silence and weaving shirts of nettles that will transform her brothers back. Alternate versions of this story from the Brothers Grimm and others vary the number of brothers and type of bird. Here, Lim’s six princes are transformed into magnificent red-crowned cranes by their stepmother, a sorceress with a dragon pearl hidden in her heart. The nettle-weaving heroine is their sister Shiori, a headstrong princess with a secret gift for magic, which is forbidden in her kingdom of Kiata.
Trained by a dragon prince she meets by the water, Shiori keeps her magic secret even from her beloved brothers. All that changes the day she learns of her stepmother’s magic and her brothers are turned into cranes. Shiori is cursed, too. Her magic has been taken from her, and every word she speaks will mean the death of one brother. The final element of Shiori’s curse is the most bizarre. A large bowl is magicked onto her head as a hat, hiding her eyes from the people she meets, although she can see through it. The detail is so wonderfully strange that I was sure it was lifted straight from the Andersen fairy tale. I was half right—the girl-with-bowl-on-head story seems to come from Japanese folklore. (The book has a beautiful cover, but I almost wish the artist had committed to including the bowl-hat that shades Shiori’s face for most of the story.)
Her castle no longer safe, Shiori goes north to seek her brothers and find a way to break the curse. Like Andersen’s princess, Shiori must weave the painful, magical nettles she collects. Here, she must turn them into a net to capture the dragon’s pearl that belongs to her stepmother. As she pursues an end to the curse, Shiori makes new friends and enemies. She also meets Takkan, the northern boy to whom she was once betrothed. Shiori had always dreaded the marriage, but she finds herself falling for Takkan, even though he doesn’t know her identity.
Unfortunately, I think Lim was somewhat hobbled by the story she chose to follow. Six brothers is a lot! It’s difficult to make them stand out in the reader’s mind as distinct characters, even when the book is a hefty 464 pages. Shiori also can’t speak for about three quarters of the book. This means the story has some of the same problems Disney’s The Little Mermaid runs into in its second half. It’s hard to construct a believable love story when one person can only speak with gestures and the occasional written note. This is especially true when you remember that her head is also half-covered with a bowl in each scene.
Some readers might also feel unsatisfied by the plot twists that come near the book’s climax and set up the second book. Still, the take on the fairy tale is fresh and interesting, the world is well-imagined, and Shiori is a good character to spend a book with. I rate it six crimson cranes out of ten.
Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim was released on July 6, 2021.