The Red Palace by June Hur

“I wanted to love and be loved. I wanted to be known. I wanted to be understood and accepted.”

The Red Palace makes for a fairly suspenseful read, one that will definitely appeal to fans of YA mysteries where the lead girl goes all Nancy Drew trying to figure out who the culprit is. And of course, given the setting, Korea in 1758, The Red Palace will likely appeal to fans of historical K-dramas. Personally, I think The Red Palace is the kind of book I would have loved 10 years or so ago. Now, I am a bit more nitpicky and there are a few things that prevented me from being fully immersed in Hyeon’s story.

“We are women,” she continued, “and nothing short of death stops us from doing precisely what we wish to do. That is what the laws and restrictions binding our lives breed: determination and cunning. The likes of you will not obey me. You will tell me that you intend to be as still as a rock, and yet I know you will dart from shadow to shadow like a fish.”

Hyeon is the illegitimate daughter of Lord Shin, who refuses to acknowledge her as his daughter. In their kingdom, Hyeon is seen as ‘belonging’ only to her mother, one of Lord Shin’s concubines, and therefore belongs to the ‘cheonmin class’ which she describes as ‘the lowest of the low’. Hyeon refuses to grow up into her mother however and dedicates herself to the study of medicine, eventually earning the coveted position of palace nurse. Hyeon hopes that her hard-work and ambition will result in her father’s approval but he continues to largely ignore her existence.
Hyeon’s life is upended when four women are murdered at the palace, most of whom were nurses like her. After her beloved mentor is accused and arrested for these murders Hyeon is determined to clear her name. Concerning rumours around the city claim that the Crown Prince is the killer, and Hyeon has no choice but to pursue this lead, even if doing so could potentially result in her ruin. Thankfully, Hyeon doesn’t have to navigate this world of dangerous court intrigues alone as she is aided by Eojin, an actual police officer. Eojin has some personal reasons for wanting to find the real killer so the two decide to combine their efforts. As they confront various people of interest they slowly begin to untangle the truth…of course, not everyone is happy with that and Hyeon risks losing what she’s worked so hard for.

The stakes were certainly high in this novel so I found myself reading this in quite a short amount of time, wanting to find out how our leads would manage to bring the real killer to justice.
The historical setting is the most well-developed aspect of the narrative. While there were some interactions that had slightly ‘modern’ dynamics (especially between the two leads), overall I liked the amount of detail that went into the setting. The author does use Hyeon as an ‘intermediary’ to the Joseon period (she sometimes forget certain key factors of her society, and asks someone to fill her in, other times she explains about Confucianism or other things that she would not really need to ‘explain’ to herself) but it kind of works as Hyeon does function as an extension of the reader. Her Daddy Issues™ and her role as a nurse are her main defining characteristic, which didn’t make for a truly fleshed out and fully dimensional character. All of the characters, in general, were fairly one-note, even Eojin. The story was more interested in establishing and exploring the setting and the mystery than in developing its characters. I am the type of reader who prefers character-driven stories (rather than plot-driven) so I wasn’t quite able to love this as much as I hoped I would. The mystery itself was a bit predictable, but that’s probably because I have read a ton of thrillers and whodunnits…(and watched one too many scooby-doo episodes/movies). Still, even if the storyline was vaguely formulaic I liked learning more about the Joseon era and I appreciated that the story isn’t romance heavy. Hyeong struggle for self-worth and self-actualization in a society that sees her as ‘less than’ was compelling, and the author also does a good job in regards to her conflicted feelings towards her father (wanting his love and respect while at the same time resenting what he stands for and the way he has treated her and his mother). The writing was at times a bit too dramatic and cheesy for my tastes (“silence fell, as chilling as the shadows enveloping us”, “a thought lurked in the far shadows of my mind”, “we seemed to have, in that moment, merged into one mind with one purpose: find the killer, find the truth”, “revenge begets revenge […] we become the monsters we are trying to punish”, “[her] mouth parted as though in a silent scream”). Still, I recognize that this type of style may very well work for other readers.
The romance was surprisingly cute. In fact, the ‘partnership’ between our leads was one of the most enjoyable things about the story. During their shared scenes Hyeon character became a bit more rounded and interesting.

All in all, I liked The Red Palace well enough! I would definitely recommend you check this one out for yourself and make up your own mind about it.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆