“Some people are connected and will always be connected,” mused author June CL Tan. Her Singaporean roots are clear in her soft lilt, in the warmth and roundedness of her vowels. 

Next to June in the Zoom call, sat fellow author and friend Joan He, creator of The Kingdom of Three duology (Strike the Zither and Sound the Gong, the latter released today). The sun was bright behind the New York Times-bestselling author, as it spilled through a wide window in the background. June’s set-up also radiated a certain kind of familiarity, but through the book goodies taped to her wall. Of course, the blown-up cover of Darker By Four, her new book that was released on April 2, took up most of her Zoom background.

When people think “connected” in stories, many minds may go straight to the connection between lovers, possibly friends, too. In East Asian cultures, there is the concept of the “red string of fate.” Rather than just being drawn to another in this lifetime, these people can be connected through multiple lifetimes — and maybe even through different forms (a.k.a. not exclusively as human beings). 

The story of how June and Joan met, too, is one you might call “fated.” Since their first meeting on X (formerly Twitter), the two author friends have published their debut works: first, Descendent of the Crane by Joan in 2019; then, Jade FIre Gold by June in 2021. Joan also published The Ones We’re Meant to Find, her bestselling novel about floating islands and the devastating consequences of climate change. The predecessor to Sound the GongStrike the Zither — came out in October of 2022. 

To carry this idea of fate even further, there are strong threads of fate woven in Joan and June’s newest books. Darker By Four (April 2) and Sound the Gong (April 30) explore their characters’ relationships with fate, particularly the concept of that special connection with a person, or multiple people. 

EnVi chatted over video with June CL Tan and Joan He ahead of their April publication dates, where they shared how they first met, the twists and turns of fate in their novels, and how their respective characters would react to each other. 


When the three of us joined the Zoom, the atmosphere automatically felt comfortable. It was as if we were meeting old friends — and well, that’s because it was true! During the beginning of the interview, Joan and June tried to remember the details of how they met originally. They knew it had to do with author Twitter (now X), back when it was easier to make writer friends on the platform and before it became extremely algorithm-driven. 

June mentioned with a laugh, “I’m kind of glad Joan doesn’t remember how we met.” But then Joan did remember, as if the utterance jostled the last piece of the memory puzzle into place. 

“Oh wait, now I remember!” she exclaimed. 

But first, let’s set the scene: It’s the fall of 2017. Joan is getting ready to officially announce her debut novel, Descendant of the Crane. June and Joan are mutuals on Twitter, and they have both read each other’s manuscripts, since they run in similar writing circles. 

In the publishing world, it’s an unspoken rule that the author is the first person to make any major announcements. Following that initial post from the creator, others can publicly show their support, too. Except June got a little too caught up in her excitement for Joan’s book. “I just tweeted, ‘I’m so excited for this!’” June admitted during our chat. “And then I realized that [Joan] hadn’t done the announcement tweet yet. It was up on PublishersWeekly or something like that,” she remembered. 

In the end, June DM’d Joan her apologies and deleted the tweet. Luckily, Joan did not mind this early excitement, since the two were both relatively new to the publishing space at the time. Now speaking seven years later with two plus published books under their belts, it’s clear Joan and June have also gained firmer footings in the industry as they gain more experience. They know the highs-and-lows that come with debuting; they are familiar with cover reveal etiquette (reply or quote tweet the original post to boost engagement); and they understand that publishing is — more often than not — a waiting game. 


Sometimes, though, everything just lines up. Yes, even in the predictably unpredictable publishing world. In the online author world, there is something called a “heart book,” which is exactly what it sounds like. As the follow-up to Joan’s “book of [her] scheming heart” (Strike the Zither), Sound the Gong also holds a special place. The now-completed duology reimagines the huge Chinese classic Three Kingdoms and the famous strategist Zhuge Liang. However, the main voice in Joan’s reimagining is the whip-smart, albeit “peacock”-esque, strategist Zephyr. In Joan’s words, Sound the Gong continues Zephyr’s story and her “journey to help her lordess unite the realm and end the war.” Zephyr also “needs to get revenge, essentially on a strategist who may or may not have outsmarted her in [book] one.” (We’re side-eying someone named Crow, right now.)

For those who are new to Zephyr and The Kingdom of Three duology, Joan offered this description: “I love to write characters where their strongest trait is also their weakest trait.” In Zephyr’s case, that means arrogance. But writing Strike the Zither and its sequel meant more than deciding to make the main cast of characters all female. To craft her reimagining, Joan first asked questions. She questioned how readers of the original text are expected to just accept so many things, like how the main strategist character has incredible, otherworldly powers that always seem to work in his favor.

“People just accept that [Zhuge Liang is] godlike. So it’s that level of him being put on a pedestal that made me want to kind of troll people a bit and be like, well, ‘what if,’ right? He’s not just this amazing character who’s really smart and worked really hard,” Joan pointed out. “What if we can explain some of these things with a fantastical bend?”

The seeds of Darker By Four, the first book in June’s new duology, too, were planted through the author’s questions. In this thrilling novel, a King of Hell disappears; a powerful girl loses her magic; a mysterious boy refuses to follow anyone; and another boy believes he is powerless — until he accidentally gains far more power than he could have ever expected. “I was just thinking, what if the protagonist…has magic at the start, or has powers, and they lost it really early on?” June said, as she took us into her original thought process. “What are they going to do?”

Pitched as the Shadowhunter Chronicles by Cassie Clare mixed with a healthy dose of Chinese underworld mythology, Darker By Four reads as a “modern C-drama/K-drama with lots of anime fight scenes and vibes,” June noted. There’s Hell, its 10 Kings, which is often found in East Asian mythology, and the chaos that comes with them. While the city setting in Darker By Four is fictional, the author pulled inspiration from “sleek, modern [cities],” including Singapore, where she grew up, and many other Asian cities. 

Haw Par Villa in Singapore also provided crucial worldbuilding inspiration. June aptly described the cultural park as Disneyland’s It’s a Small World ride, “except the small world is horrific stuff” that’s also just “bizarre.” She also remembered how Haw Par Villa was an effective mild threat for naughty children to behave. “Oh, if you’re naughty, you’re going to this level of hell or this Court of Hell,” she added. June teased that the now-cultural theme park and its portrayals of the underworld will play a more significant role in the upcoming second book. 


Although Darker By Four came together in bits and pieces, June knew what she wanted this book to be. As she explained her writing process, she joked, “I [didn’t] want to [write a] rom-com, I want[ed] to write a rom-sad.”

Darker By Four officially hit shelves on April 2, but June had started working on the 400-page novel in early 2018. For any writer who is familiar with the “submission trenches” — when an author’s agent sends a manuscript to editors in hopes to sell the project — it can be brutal. So when June’s debut, Jade Fire Gold, was in that stage of publishing, she turned to her anime-crossed-with-the-Chinese-underworld idea. 

Fast forward to the end of 2018, and writing Darker By Four became another kind of escape for June. This time, as an escape from the brutal reality of cancer treatment filled with chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. “I just felt like I need[ed] an escape,” she said. “So I started working on this book, and strangely, a lot of it tied in with the protagonist losing her powers, but still looking the same, but not feeling the same inside,” June continued, delving a bit deeper into the headspace she wrote from and how it connected with her then-ongoing cancer treatment. “There’s a lot of yearning and wanting and thinking about existential matters in the book.” 

Joan, too, started writing her Kingdom of Three duology during a time of waiting. Strike the Zither and Sound the Gong, she explained, kept her company in between publishing her debut (Descendant of the Crane) and putting her other books on submission to editors. And it all boiled down to writing what she wanted to read. Joan replayed her thought process during our conversation, noting, “This would be a great way to mash this military historical epic [Three Kingdoms] with these Chinese fantasies that I personally love.”

It was crystal clear from the way Joan talked about these books that they hold very special places in her heart. Originally, she had mapped out the events of an 800-page book, until this book was broken into two parts — Strike the Zither with Sound the Gong following soon after. Joan spoke with an expert’s touch, something that had been refined over time from knowing the source material and her distinct story down to the barebones of its prose. 

Sound the Gong came out today, April 30, but Joan has been wrangling, wondering, and writing for years. Finally, readers get to experience the “scenes [she has] always thought of” while in this long-haul of a journey. “I have been waiting since 2017,” she emphasized.


A connecting thread between Joan and June’s new books is the concept of “fate.” However, their stories investigate different aspects of the concept. 

“I was thinking more of yuánfèn [緣分], which is kind of like fate,” mused June. “It’s a little bit more complex” though than just “fate.” Yuánfèn is closer to “whether two people…are fated to meet, fated to know each other or hate each other,” she explained. June continued, adding, “Basically, whether you’re tied together through events that might have happened in your past life, or past lives…” 

Yuánfèn can be better explained next to the red string of fate, and this idea forms the foundation — and the “overarching concept” — of Darker By Four. In the novel and among her cast of characters, June explores fate, mostly through the lens of people meeting. She asked herself frequently, was the meeting a coincidence? Or was something else at work?

“So you have friends who are fated, and you have lovers who are fated, and then sometimes that fate…that binds you together, it’s not a happy one,” said June, albeit a bit wryly. “And the cycle just keeps repeat[ing] when you’re reborn in different circumstances or different lives.” It’s a connection across time, space, and even maybe form. 

Joan approached a different angle of fate in Sound the Gong. “It’s a bit easier [for me] in the sense that fate…is canon,” she said, noting that she was working with a specific source of inspiration for her duology — the Three Kingdoms classic. 

“I just treat that the canon was set to go down as fate and that ends up being the thing that Zephyr rails against.” And boy does Zephyr try (through any means necessary). But the first layer of fate in Strike the Zither and Sound the Gong is Zephyr the strategist and her lordess Ren’s relationship. In both the classic and in Joan’s reimagining, these two characters are “fated” to be together as lordess and strategist. 

“I feel like it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that you could devote your whole life to someone without feeling any personal indebtedness or personal feelings,” Joan noted. The relationship between Zephyr and Ren is one of “a loyalty beyond reason,” and readers witness just how far Zephyr would go to ensure fate is in Ren’s favor.  

So “fate” is not a passive player in Sound the Gong; but rather, it is something Zephyr puts her all into fighting against for the outcomes she desires most. Ren, alongside her army and her swornsisters, are fighting against two powerful fronts in a world that has been fractured for years. “This is something that Zephyr is trying very hard to stop — to stop fate from rolling on to its chosen victor,” emphasized Joan. “That’s kind of how I treat fate,” she added. Essentially, in the world of Sound the Gong, “This is how it’s set to happen, and, obviously, it isn’t aligned with what Zephyr wants.” 

Regardless of what Zephyr wants — or what Rui, Yiran, and Zizi of Darker by Four want — the authors use their characters’ desires as a springboard to investigate complex ideas with nuance. Because June and Joan know their characters so well (they are the creators, after all), EnVi asked the two authors how the characters of their respective books would react to each other. Here is the text message exchange Joan and June shared to answer the question: 

*Editor’s Note: Responses have been edited slightly for clarity.

Joan He: Cloud / Tourmaline would love to spar with Rui. All STZ characters would be very intrigued by the use of magic in DBF, and all the warriors would ask to duel with the strongest characters in DBF. By the way, who do you consider the smartest in DBF?

June Tan: I think Zizi n Crow would like each other, and commiserate with each other about their relationship with Rui and Zephyr, respectively. 

Joan He: Yes! Crow could help Zizi with his love poems haha. I think Zephyr and Yiran would have the biggest beef with each other. Zephyr would scorn that his power isn’t actually his, innate OR trained. Whereas Ren would have more empathy for Yiran since she knows what it’s like to carry around a family name that you didn’t necessarily ask for. And since Cicada has a “I’m forever overshadowed by my dead older sister” chip on her shoulder, she’ll probably have a beef with Yiran too.

June Tan: Everyone has beef with Yiran!

Joan He: As the “strongest” are fighting, Cicada and Yiran would probably be watching from the sidelines

June Tan: They would have a “who has a more annoying over achieving older sibling” competition for sure. You know, we could literally write a college au with all our characters – STEM rivals, jocks with athletic scholarships, and so on…

Joan He: That would be fun

June Tan: Anyway, Cicada would be like, “I win because my sis is dead” [is this a spoiler?]

Joan He: “You think you have it bad? Imagine if Ash were dead.”

June Tan: Yiran will feel so bad because he does love his big brother and he’s a softie inside. So he’ll offer to buy Cicada dinner but he’ll be so Yiran about it that Cicada will be insulted instead. Meanwhile, the warrior-jocks are still fighting and having a good time. 


Since June and Joan are good friends, EnVi also asked them to prepare a question or two for each other. Joan asked June if she could write a spinoff of Darker By Four, which character’s POV would she choose? In response, June laughed a little, saying, “In a perfect world, I could have many spin offs.” But, she decided a spinoff series about “the generation in-between” would be her choice. “Someone else’s action can affect” so many generations and “lifetimes down the road,” June noted, as readers clearly understand after reading Darker By Four

June’s question for Joan also was writing-related (can you tell they’re authors?). If Joan could add one scene to Sound the Gong, what would she choose? Actually, as Joan pointed out, she did indeed add a fluffy extra story to the very end of the duology. Titled “In Another Life,” the bound and designed version was an incentive for pre-orders from Books of Wonder, an indie bookstore in New York City. 

Joan firmly stressed that this fluffy story was not canon. However, sometimes you just need to indulge in some happiness and get that serotonin boosted. So, “In Another Life” muses over the sentiment of “May we meet in another life” and plays with the idea of yuánfèn. Because, again, pain but also happiness. 

Sound the Gong officially hit shelves today (April 30), and Darker By Four was published at the start of the month on April 2. But since writers are gonna write, both June and Joan are working on more (unannounced) projects. Joan is staying in the young adult (YA) space for now. “It’s in a different genre from the SF/F I’ve written before, but still inspired by my heritage,” she said of her new YA novel. 

Meanwhile, June is working on Darker By Four’s sequel — yes, even though the first book just came out. Other projects she has brewing include a dark academia fantasy, a queer retelling of something (she didn’t mention what), a story in the dystopia/sci-fi realm, and even a cozy romcom romantasy. On the latter, June joked that “though knowing me, I’m going to end up making it an epic and angsty rom-sad romantasy with big stakes.”

As April is about to turn over into May and Sound the Gong and Darker By Four are out in the world in readers’ hands, Joan He and June CL Tan have gone through quite the journey — both as authors of their own books and as friends. But, some things happen for a reason — like new authors connecting online and, seven years later, releasing their new novels in the same month. You might even call it fate. 

Keep up with Joan and June their books on social media: Find June on Instagram, X (formerly Twitter), and TikTok, and find Joan on Instagram and X

Darker By Four and the Kingdom of Three duology are available wherever you purchase books. Specific retailers can be found on June and Joan’s websites.

Want more author interviews? Check out EnVi’s chat with author Kyla Zhao on her new novel Valley Verified and navigating male-dominated spaces here!