April 05, 2022

The Red Palace

Written by June Hur
Feiwel and Friends
336 pp.
Ages 13-18
January 2022
Revenge begets revenge; the anger is unquenchable. We become the monsters we are trying to punish. Justice, however, brings closure, and that is what I want. It can only be achieved by remaining sober-minded and rational. (pg. 173)
It is 1758, and eighteen-year-old Baek-hyeon is a nurse (uniyeo) at Changdeok Palace, a position for which she has worked tirelessly in her efforts to gain the attention of her biological father, Lord Shin, and appreciation of her mother, one of his oft-neglected concubines. But the palace is a place of spies, secrets, and worse, and Hyeon learns first-hand to keep her counsel when she and her friend Nurse Jieun and a royal physician are called to the Crown Prince's chambers to participate in a charade of caring for Prince Jangheon who is AWOL. But then the nurses are alerted to a massacre at the Hyeminseo, the public medical office where Hyeon had studied to become a nurse. Two student nurses, Head Nurse Heejin and Court Lady Ahnbi, who served Madam Mun, the King's concubine, have all been violently murdered and Hyeon's mentor, Nurse Jeongsu, is Commander Song's prime suspect.
Hyeon vows to prove Nurse Jeongsu's innocence, even as Commander Song endeavours to torture a confession from her. It seems someone else thinks the same, peppering the capital with handbills declaring the Crown Prince to be a murderer. Undertaking her own investigation, speaking with several nurses including Nurse Inyeong who'd reported the murders, with Royal Physician Khun who'd been seen arguing with Court Lady Ahnbi, and with Sulbi, a damo working for the police bureau, Hyeon forms an unlikely alliance with the young Police Inspector Seo whom she believes at first is only Eojin, a police servant. Together, the two young people work to uncover lies and truths, protect the innocent, thwart injustice and develop a relationship deemed socially improbable.

The Joseon dynasty which ruled Korea from the 1300s to the 1800s is not a familiar one for this reviewer or many readers. But June Hur skillfully takes us to this era and its society of classes ranging from royalty and the nobility to the cheonmin (vulgar commoners). It is a time when men kept concubines, sons were revered over daughters, and Confucian ideals were followed. From the clothing which marks the roles and status of many, like the nurse uniform of pale blue silk jacket and dark blue skirt and white apron with garima headpiece,  and meals of gukbap and sullungang, to naming protocols, June Hur makes us believe in this reality, with these people and these histories. Her "Author's Note" reveals the true history which she incorporated into her story but her characters and the mystery to be solved are all her own, intricate and vivid. As with her earlier books, The Silence of Bones (2020) and The Forest of Stolen Girls (2021), June Hur tells a story but readers do more than just absorb it. They become invested in it. Even as I learned of a different culture, I wanted justice for the honourable Hyeon, for the victims of violence, and for women who were limited by their birth. I wanted resolution. And, with tenderness, compassion and honesty to time and place, June Hur eloquently gives readers that.

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