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In “Six Crimson Cranes,” tradition and transformation come together

Fairytales are deceiving. We think we know what we’re getting ourselves into: there is a beautiful princess, an evil villain, swoon-worthy princes, and emotional-support critters. But in that same breath, we realize that the beast is a prince, the grandmother is a wolf, the sisters’ feet are bleeding through glass slippers, and the emperor is naked. At its core, the genre of fairytales is about transformation and revelation; and in this tradition, Elizabeth Lim’s Six Crimson Cranes is in familiar territory. 

In an interview with The Tempest, Elizabeth Lim describes her young-adult fantasy novel as a reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans. “There really weren’t many books that featured Asian characters—and those that existed were either biographies or historical fiction. There were extremely few fantasies,” she said, reflecting on her childhood. “My parents were able to procure a few collections of Asian folktales for me while visiting Hong Kong and Singapore. I treasured those anthologies.”

It’s a fairytale so, of course, it must begin with a beautiful princess. Princess Shiori’anama is headed to her betrothal ceremony when a paper crane that she accidentally brought to life escapes, almost revealing her powers in her country where magic is banned. But in chasing after the paper crane, she falls into a lake and comes face to face with a dragon. 

The fairytale elements are all there: enough brothers for a Weasley family, an evil witch stepmother, a handsome prince, a potential love triangle, a mysterious dragon mentor, and a sidekick magical creature (or rather, ahem, paper crane). In line with the author’s inspiration, The Wild Swans, the stepmother turns the brothers into cranes and curses Shiori so that, with every word she speaks, one of her brothers will die. But it wouldn’t be a fairytale without the realization that things aren’t as obvious as they seem.

“It’s funny, my first contact with The Wild Swans was through a picture book series my parents bought [while traveling through Asia] so I’d originally thought it an East Asian fairytale,” Lim admitted. “Of course, later I learned that it was in fact a western story by Hans Christian Andersen, but the fairytale stayed with me as I grew up, and it’s always been one of my favorites.”

But Hans Christen Andersen isn’t alone in this storyline. The Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) Index is a catalog of folktale tropes. Under the listing for “Brothers who Turned into Birds,” adaptations are numerous: the Norweigan Twelve Wild Ducks, the North African Udea & her Seven Brothers, the Russian Magic Swan Geese, or the Grimm Brothers’ variations of Twelve Brothers, or Six Swans, or Seven Ravens. It seems like no one can agree on the species or number of birds. But it’s worth noting that the ATU doesn’t account for much South and East Asian folklore—something the Lim brings to Six Crimson Cranes from her own childhood.

Among these stories, Lim references Chinese dragon folklore, Japanese myths of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, The Girl with the Black Bowl, the Chinese-derived Madame White Snake, and the legend of the moon lady Chang’e. “I’ve been passionate about writing these fantasies I wish I had when I was young, and that means imbuing my books with a sense of the culture and traditions I grew up with,” she said. 

Six Crimson Cranes is Lim’s fifth novel and it’s clear that she is no rookie around fairytales. Her past work includes two books in the Disney A Twisted Tale series and her Blood of Stars duology—a series with (surprise!) ties to Six Crimson Cranes

Lim, herself, has also had some fairytale transformation in her life. “It’s still a very pleasant surprise to me that I’m an author!” she admits. For most of her life, Lim was a musician in training to become a classical composer with the dream of writing film scores for Hollywood. “Though you might think it right away, music is often very narrative-heavy, and instead of characters and world and plot, you have musical themes and forms and harmony and rhythm. So many of the ingredients are different, but the way of cooking them, I’d say, is extremely similar,” Lim said. 

It’s no surprise then, how Lim places hints for Shiori’s story from the beginning and skillfully paces the novel. The plot twists of Six Crimson Cranes come not so much of a sudden shock, but rather the careful revelation of a Japanese puzzle box. 

In Six Crimson Cranes, Shiori blossoms off the page with personality, character growth, and strength of character – she’s a heroine I knew from the start that I could get behind. And in a central plot twist, the stepmother is given the justice that so few “evil” stepmothers get in fairytales. On the other hand, despite or rather, because of their number, the men in this story tend to blend together. While the story seems to be tee-ing up to a love triangle, I don’t particularly care too much for the men in Shiori’s life yet.

For what it lacks in convincing character romance, the novel makes up in magical romanticism and fantasy world-building. As a reader who was unfamiliar with Lim’s Blood of Stars series, I was unaware of the connection until she revealed it in the interview. But the realization that Six Crimson Cranes was connected to another series clarified the feeling I had throughout: there was more to this fantasy world that was simply out of sight. What was familiar to me were the hints of Chinese folktale here and there. Admittedly, it felt disorienting to see those stories so removed from their original molds, but then again, aren’t fairytales about transformation and change?

As the first part in a duology, Six Crimson Cranes is expected to have a sequel in 2022. It seems like it will delve more into the world of magic that Shiori finds herself drawn toward and potentially build up the love triangle established in the first book. Lim hints, “There will be more dragons… and the return of a main character from The Blood of Stars duology.” 

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By Helena Ong

Helena Ong is an editorial production associate at The New Yorker and a freelance journalist. In the past, she's worked for San Francisco Public Press, World Policy Journal, and NBC4 Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @hihellohelena.