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REVIEW: Prophecy by Ellen Oh

Dear Ellen Oh:

I’m on an endless quest to find traditional fantasies featuring worldbuilding not based on Western culture. This desire is not without its pitfalls, of course. Sometimes it’s led me horribly awry. But I keep trying because I’m hopeful (and stubborn). My first exposure to your writing was through the Diverse Energies anthology. While your short story about a World War II that never ended didn’t impress me, I had hopes that your full-length debut drawing upon Korean culture and mythology would fare better.

ellen-oh-prophecyGolden-eyed Kira is the only woman in the King’s army. Able to see the demons that can possess humans, she is also charged with the task of dispatching them. This duty is made more difficult because the King insists upon keeping the looming demon threat a secret from the general populace. (Side note: Why do rulers always insist on keeping crucial life-threatening things secret?) The imposed ignorance only serves to ostracize Kira and make everyone think she’s cursed.

In addition to being the King’s demon slayer, Kira is also the bodyguard of the crown prince, her cousin Taejo. When their kingdom is attacked, she is forced to take the prince and escape. As one neighboring kingdom after another falls to the onslaught, it becomes increasingly apparent that demonic influences are at work. According to an ancient prophecy, Taejo may be the world’s only savior — and Kira is the only one who can protect him.

I had high hopes for Prophecy. I love women warriors and I especially love female bodyguards. Kira seemed like she’d be a protagonist right up my alley. But right from the beginning, we hit a speedbump. You see, Kira is what I call the Exceptional Girl. She’s the only female warrior. She dislikes girlish things. She doesn’t want to get married. This is all meant to be empowering, I’m sure.

It’s not. It’s a trap many supposedly girl-positive narratives fall prey to. Make the protagonist a girl who’s not like all those other girls. She wears pants, not dresses. She wields swords, not fans. She kills demons, nd doesn’t serve tea. But by setting the heroine apart in this way, by inadvertently pitting her against the other female characters in the narrative, the story reinforces the notion that you can only have one “type” of Strong Female Character and dismisses anything else.

In Prophecy, this is further supported when Kira is the only major female character among a cast of guys. We briefly meet her mother and aunt at the beginning of the story, and then later in brief glimpses throughout the book, but this is not the same as having an active role in affecting the plot. There’s no true reason for this oversight. Even if Kira were the only female warrior in what was constructed as a misogynistic world where that is frowned upon, that doesn’t mean there can’t be other women with roles to play in the story. From what I remember, the roles delegated to women were warrior, captive, and dead. That’s hardly empowering, considering the warrior role was assigned to only one female character.

That said, I did enjoy the worldbuilding and cultural details. It was very clear, and I caught nods to various aspects of Korean history: the references to Korea’s very conflicted past where it faced constant attack from outside forces and, of course, Nongae. My knowledge of the Korean language is minimal but I liked the inclusion of Korean honorifics. Given how often Japanese honorifics are used (and abused) in fiction, it was nice to see this convention followed on the Korean side of things.

The world presented, however, did not make up for the characterization. The execution was clunky and inconsistent at best. I think the fault rests with the writing, which was heavy on the telling and not enough with the showing. Normally, I dislike YA novels that focus almost too lovingly on the internal thought processes of their characters but I actually think Prophecy needed more of that to make me believe the characters’ decisions and actions. And since, for me, characters are what make a story worthwhile, I was left feeling distinctly unsatisfied when I finished the book.

Don’t get me wrong. Prophecy is fast read. The plot is serviceable and action-packed. But with the flawed characterization, it read somewhat unbalanced. Part of me wonders if this novel would have been better suited as a middle-grade novel rather than young adult. Despite some of the themes and violence, its structure and execution felt young in many ways.

I always think there’s more room for fantasy that doesn’t draw upon Western-based milieus. Especially if those novels do their research respectfully and don’t appropriate the sources they draw upon. And while I think Prophecy succeeds on that front, the other bits and pieces that make up a story — characterization, execution — fail to do it justice. C-

My regards,
Jia

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Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

12 Comments

  1. Nadia Lee
    Jan 25, 2013 @ 09:18:11

    Thanks for the review. I heard about that book a while back, but forgotten about its release date.

    BTW — the name Taejo drives me a bit batty since it’s generally a (posthumous) title/name given to the founder of a dynasty, separate from his birth, courtesy and/or pen names. There are 4 Taejos that I can remember right now (though I’m 99.9% certain there are more), and two of them were the kings of Goguryoe and Silla, two of the 3 ancient Kingdoms.

  2. Jeannie Lin
    Jan 25, 2013 @ 10:13:22

    I bought this book the day it came out, I was so excited. Not done yet. I do see many of the typical/standard elements of heroic fantasy, as the review mentioned, but the Korean-inspired setting and culture does keep things interesting.

  3. AmyW
    Jan 25, 2013 @ 11:06:01

    But right from the beginning, we hit a speedbump. You see, Kira is what I call the Exceptional Girl. She’s the only female warrior. She dislikes girlish things. She doesn’t want to get married. This is all meant to be empowering, I’m sure.

    It’s not. It’s a trap many supposedly girl-positive narratives fall prey to. Make the protagonist a girl who’s not like all those other girls. She wears pants, not dresses.

    This exactly describes the problem I’ve been having with YA fantasy lately — all the heroines seem the same.

  4. carmen webster buxton
    Jan 25, 2013 @ 12:30:15

    Interesting. “…warrior, captive, and dead” does sound very limited. I hate when all the supporting characters in a story are male when there is absolutely no need for them to be. It’s flat out annoying.

    If you’re looking for unusual fantasy settings, I just started reading a fantasy set in a world based on ancient Mesopotamia. Not sure if that counts as “Western’ or not. It’s interesting reading, but I do have a problem with the way the clay tablets they write on never seem to suffer the breakage/fragility problems I would expect clay tablets to suffer (well, I guess it is a fantasy). It’s called The Pale Queen’s Courtyard, and it’s by a guy named Marcin Wrona who is Polish-Canadian. I can’t tell if there is any romance in it yet, but there have been references to the male protagonist (at least I think he’s going to be the protag) having a lost love. The Kindle version is free at the mo, if anyone wants to pick it up.

  5. cbackson
    Jan 25, 2013 @ 12:36:14

    You’ve hit on something that I feel quite strongly about – I hate it when a creator (of books, of movies, of TV) promotes a rejection of anything traditionally feminine as the defining characteristic of a “strong woman.” It’s part of why I love Firefly so much: although some of Joss Whedon’s quirks drive me nuts, the fact that Inara isn’t portrayed as weaker than Zoe is something I have always appreciated.

  6. Kelly L.
    Jan 25, 2013 @ 12:53:04

    @cbackson: And Kaylee gets to fix things *and* wear a floofy pink dress.

  7. Erin Satie
    Jan 25, 2013 @ 13:18:07

    If you haven’t read Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker books (a trilogy, third book not yet out, starts with COLD MAGIC) I recommend it. It takes place in an alt-Europe during an alt-Napoleonic war, but culture of the continent is defined in a large part by a massive exodus from Africa that took place some hundreds of years in the past. The result is a sort of Roman-West African mashup (Roman because in this world the Roman empire never fell; African because the exiles have transformed the culture) & almost the entire cast of characters are people of color.

    I’m in the middle of the second book now and enjoying it a lot.

  8. Jia
    Jan 25, 2013 @ 15:14:37

    @Nadia Lee: Interesting. Based on what you said, I would say the name was given to the prince deliberately but whether that actually works in a fantasy setting given the real world connotations is another matter entirely.

    @Erin Satie: Thanks for the recs, but I’ve read and reviewed both Cold Magic and Cold Fire.

  9. Faye
    Jan 25, 2013 @ 15:14:47

    If you haven’t read The Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I heard about it in the DA comment section and it’s absolutely wonderful: YA fantasy in a Mongolia-based world, with a heroine who is more comfortable in the background of things and whose accomplishments are based on her strength of character, humble roots, and quick mind. She doesn’t scorn femininity, either. Seriously, everyone, go read this book. I’m going to re-read it again right now. Added bonus: the kindle version is only $1.99.

  10. Jeannie Lin
    Jan 25, 2013 @ 22:16:33

    I’m hanging around this thread just for the book recs. Two new buys already. Thanks!

  11. Claire Yang
    Jul 19, 2013 @ 16:52:46

    This summary is great! I have read it a little bit before. Lauren has been letting me read the book a little. You are a fantastic, creative, great author and for right now, your books are the best.

  12. Claire Yang
    Jul 19, 2013 @ 16:58:59

    Also, I forgot to tell you his, but I am Korean. I also, love K-pop too! You would never know this, but I am so obsessed about everything Korean. By the way, what is your real Korean name? I am doing this so that I can call you bye my Korean name when I want to talk to you again. 엘렌 오, 아 맞다 지금 안녕!: Bye for right now Ellen Oh!

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