REVIEW: The Red Palace by June Hur
A young palace nurse investigates a pattern of grisly murders in this romantic YA historical mystery from the author of The Silence of Bones.
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 palace nurses in a single night, and the prime suspect is Hyeon’s closest friend and mentor.
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, Hyeon and Eojin must work together to search the darkest corners of the palace to uncover the secrets behind the bloodshed.
CW – violence
I had heard wonderful things about your books written in Joseon Dynasty Korea and admit I jumped on the chance to read this one despite the fact that it’s mainly a murder mystery inquiry. There is a thread of a romance winding through it and I dearly hope that you will turn this into a series but for romance fans, that isn’t a reason to try this book. What is an added attraction is the fact that it’s an immersive journey into a world I knew little about and which I ultimately found fascinating.
Baek-Hyeon is an eighteen year old nurse who works in the Changdeokgung Palace helping to take care of the women there. According to Confucian tradition, unrelated men and women can’t touch each other so the female nurses examine female patients and relay the information to male physicians. Hyeon is the illegitimate daughter of a high ranking noble and his concubine and has worked hard since the age of eleven to finally achieve this goal all in the hope that her (frankly he’s a dick) father will acknowledge her and be proud of her.
Late one evening, she and a friend are called to the pavilion housing the Crown Prince. They immediately realize something is going on but it’s not until morning that word reaches them that four women have been brutally slain at the nursing school. Hyeon races there and is heartbroken to learn their identities as well as appalled at their wounds. Three of them fought hard for their lives while one had no defensive wounds. Sneaking away from the police on the grounds, she runs into another servant who questions her but helps her escape over the wall. Then comes the worst news; her beloved mentor, the woman who saved her and taught her, is now suspected and will be “questioned” (eg tortured) by the police in a matter of days if she won’t speak up. Allying herself with an inspector who recognizes her skills and knowledge might be the only way to save her mentor. But at what cost?
It took me a little while to get my feet under me with this book. I know precious little about historical Korea and had a steep learning curve to climb. Once I could ease up on frantically trying to keep my head above water, things began to make sense. Bits of information needed to understand why these characters are acting as they do are carefully doled out when needed without it seeming like a social history lesson. But there are a lot of things to know both in regard to the roles of these people in society and in their families. This turned out to be a fascinating social and historical tour.
I will admit to heading to the Internet to get a better idea of the fashions worn and places mentioned so I could get my mental bearings. One thing I have discovered over the years is that while I’m reading, frequently I’m visualizing the scene. The Internet came through for me. Thank goodness for images from K-dramas, eh?
This is the type of investigation that proceeds slowly, with clues gradually building to a final understanding. There is a climactic final conflict but this occurs after Hyeon and Eojin have put all the pieces together. Yes, there is a little villain exposition but that does clear up a few blanks in Hyeon’s knowledge and lets her actually save the day. Yay female intuition, ingenuity, and problem solving! Also yay that Korean culture figures prominently in solving the investigation. This truly is a story that couldn’t have taken place anywhere else or been solved any other way.
There was one issue for me. Several times in the investigation, characters revealed clues and information to Hyeon seemingly for little reason. After a while this began to be hard to believe. Really – this high ranking person is going to spill this stuff to one they considered a servant? Still that did help get the job done and as this is told in first person, it was probably the only way to convey what needed to be told.
Hyeon grows as a character. She began not quite as a squashed cabbage but definitely as a woman without a great deal of self esteem and with a large chip on her shoulder. As the story continued, she learned a few things she didn’t know and revised her feelings about a few people and herself. Her final triumph was something I didn’t see coming but wow, she nailed it and will be able to move on past that person. You go, Hyeon! As I said, I hope that there will be a sequel because I’m attached to Hyeon and Eojin now and I want to see her, and maybe them, blossom even more. B+