It’s no secret that I love Sailor Moon; it’s pretty much become my personal brand around here. So when I see a book pitched as Sailor Moon meets Cinder(ella) you KNOW I’m going to be onboard. I was incredibly delighted to find that while S. Jae-Jones’ Guardians of Dawn: Zhara is a little bit of those things, it’s also wholly its own incredibly enjoyable thing.
Set in a medieval Korean inspired world, S. Jae-Jones draws on her own heritage while also pulling elements from the story of Cinderella. Jae-Jones actually manages to do it so skillfully that I didn’t even realize how strong the Cinderella allegory was until I was talking about it on our Halfway Through 2023 episode of No Page Unturned. Jin Zhara (Jin is the family name because we’re rolling Korean style here) has dead parents, an evil stepmother, sleeps by the fire and does all the housework for free, and yet Jae-Jones manages to make the story unique enough that it doesn’t feel like a retelling. Zhara has more agency and motivation in her life than any fairy tale princess and from the jump she’s not just a sad orphan girl but a young woman who wants things. Some of those things are manageable, like the newest entry in a romance novel series. Some are less so: she’s a magician in a world where that could get her burned alive.
Probably the best thing about the book is the quick and solid character building that Jae-Jones does. All the characters, not just Zhara, are established early on and feel real and earned, not just like shells. Each character is also distinct in voice and motivations. It seems like such a simple feat but it’s actually pretty hard to pull off especially when you’re also establishing a whole world. The worldbuilding definitely takes longer, verging on a bit of “okay can we get going here?” for a moment around the middle of the book but ultimately pays off in a very satisfying way. I can’t fault Jae-Jones for it, she even has an author’s note at the beginning talking about how despite her Korean heritage she resisted using a Korean-inspired setting for a long time. Most English-speaking fantasy readers have an understanding of European culture to build on, but Korea not so much, and Jae-Jones was worried about translating that literally and metaphorically. I would take a book with a new setting that takes longer to build over another European-inspired medieval fantasy any damn day, so I am thrilled that she took that time.
It’s not all medieval history: BTS makes a cameo in this book! Because Guardians of Dawn: Zhara, on top of being well written, is just pretty damn fun as well. The main love interest is a sweet himbo who just wants to lift weights, write poetry, and protect his little brother (more on that in a moment). His long suffering friend just wants to keep him alive to meet his majority. There are great fight scenes, interesting lore, delicious food descriptions and like all good fantasy novels: a ball. What can I say, that’s a classic I’m a sucker for.
For me, the defining strength of the book was the relationships between the two main characters and their younger siblings. Zhara feels obligated to care for her sister Suzhan after accidentally blinding her with magic when they were young. And Han (the aforementioned himbo) is desperate to protect his magician younger brother Anyang from being discovered and burned alive. The love and stakes of those relationships are established quickly and provide some of the book’s most sweet and heart-wrenching moments.
By its very name, it will probably not surprise anybody that Guardians of Dawn: Zhara will have a sequel. My understanding is that it’s meant to be a duology at the moment, but I can’t say I’d be mad if there were more than that. I also appreciate a book that basically advertises from the top that it’s going to be a series. There’s heavy foreshadowing throughout the book which occasionally detracts from the experience of this book but nothing unforgivable. Again, I’d rather have a book that is honest about its nature rather than a surprise sequel right at the end and nothing wrapped up. I, for one, will be absolutely picking up the next installment.
Guardians of Dawn: Zhara is out now and is a fun, unique read for any fantasy, anime, or BTS fan. Or anybody. Enjoy!