Jen reviews The Red Palace, a standalone Historical Fiction novel by June Hur.
|Genre: Historical Murder Mystery
|Date of Publishing: January 25, 2022
|Trigger Warnings: Blood, torture, misogyny/sexism, murder, violence
|Page count: 352
|Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
To enter the palace means to walk a path stained in blood…
Joseon (Korea), 1758. There are few options available to illegitimate daughters in the capital city, but through hard work and study, eighteen-year-old Hyeon has earned a position as a palace nurse. All she wants is to keep her head down, do a good job, and perhaps finally win her estranged father’s approval.
But Hyeon is suddenly thrust into the dark and dangerous world of court politics when someone murders four women in a single night, and the prime suspect is Hyeon’s closest friend and mentor. Determined to prove her beloved teacher’s innocence, Hyeon launches her own secret investigation.
In her hunt for the truth, she encounters Eojin, a young police inspector also searching for the killer. When evidence begins to point to the Crown Prince himself as the murderer, Hyeon and Eojin must work together to search the darkest corners of the palace to uncover the deadly secrets behind the bloodshed.
She took another puff of her pipe, then studied the table, the dragons inlaid and lacquered. Softly, she murmured, “If you do continue with this investigation, remember this: Everyone must choose the paths they will walk. And when you choose, remember to count the cost. Do not live with regrets.”
Be Yourself by Audioslave
I read June Hur’s Silence of Bones last year and liked it a lot. I returned for The Red Palace for a few reasons, the biggest one was the setting – you don’t find a huge amount of crime stories that take place in Joseon Korea, and in this case, I knew a little about the prince. The other reason was because I saw there was supposed to be a little romance in The Red Palace and I am always up for some romance mixed in with my crime.
I enjoyed this. It was a quick, easy read, and by that, I mean easy to relax into the story and let it do its thing. (People always assume easy=young). The writing is capable and there is a sparseness to the style, that feels more modern, but it’s a style I appreciate for the ease in which it lets you fall into the story, without being distracted by the text.
(Three books has taken that careful feeling that comes with new writers and replaced it with a much more confident and assured writing style.)
Baek Hyeon is a young nurse. She spent six years studying, working her way to get to this important position in the palace. Hyeon is driven by the need to be acknowledged by society, and especially her father, Lord Shin, who is a noble – and a typical high-born man of his time, with all the views of women and commoners that come with it. Her mother – a concubine, is the lowest in his eyes, and because of this, he looks down on Hyeon, and is just a big jerk, in my opinion.
Hyeon is young (hey I’m old, 18 is young to me these days) but is relatable on that level where we can say we have experienced similar…ok, maybe not circumstances (goodness, I hope not anyway) but definitely emotions. No matter your age, that need to belong somewhere – whether it be with friends, work, or family, and to have your worth be recognized by your peers, is something I would think everyone has experienced at some point.
Anyway, Hyeon, grows a lot as a character – learning what it means to be strong and that loving someone doesn’t always look like what you think it should. As the story unfolds, that growth comes with realisations that there is a one-sidedness to some of her viewpoints – allowing her to come to terms with herself and mend some relationships with others.
She is a fully-realized character which is good because she is our window into this time, but her fullness makes some of the peripheral characters feel a little blurry and faceless in comparison.
(Oddly the prince, was very clear to me but I had a little knowledge of the real prince Sado, with whom he was somewhat modeled after and that probably filled in some of the edges. There is a great write-up at the end of the book about him and his history, that is well-worth reading after you have finished the story, so don’t miss it.)
The romance between Seo Eojin and Hyeon was as sweet and as chaste as a kdrama romance. I like that he admired her strength, and I was grateful for a non-open ending to their relationship because I don’t want to guess if they got together or not. I wanted more of them, but I didn’t expect it either. This is first and foremost a crime story.
The scene-setting was beautiful, again the sparseness in style lets our minds do the heavy lifting. As someone who tries to paint occasionally, the biggest lesson is knowing when to stop, and I find that just as true in writing.
There are some nice tidbits of history, that were interesting without being too much. The setting and customs are more familiar since I read the first book of June Hur‘s but I also think they’re easier to digest this time around, because the writing is clearer, and not so weighed down in making sure we understand.
The mystery is just complicated enough that the obvious suspect/s, aren’t that obvious, and the pacing was good and quick. Although occasionally information and clues felt quite easy – it’s the trade-off for keeping things moving along. And it definitely does that, The Red Palace is a real page-turner. I blew through it in just a few days.