I have a mouth, but I mustn’t speak;
Ears, but I mustn’t hear;
Eyes, but I mustn’t see.
1800, Joseon (Korea). Homesick and orphaned sixteen-year-old Seol is living out the ancient curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Indentured to the police bureau, she’s been tasked with assisting a well-respected young inspector with the investigation into the politically charged murder of a noblewoman.
As they delve deeper into the dead woman’s secrets, Seol forms an unlikely bond of friendship with the inspector. But her loyalty is tested when he becomes the prime suspect, and Seol may be the only one capable of discovering what truly happened on the night of the murder.
But in a land where silence and obedience are valued above all else, curiosity can be deadly.
Warnings: violence and physical abuse, murder and gore, misogyny, mention and description of animal abuse, mention and description of suicide, mention of infanticide
Taking cues from the historical context of the Joseon era, Hur writes a mystery that encloses the rich landscape of that time into a story about a girl looking for her lost brother. Seol has been indentured to serve as a damo in the police bureau of Hanyang, where she comes across her first murder case while serving under the decorated Inspector Han. She has always had a curious nature, and the increasing complexity of the case compels her to investigate on her own, as does the fact that she feels loyalty and affection for the Inspector who saw something in her, and whose name she wants to clear. The story begins from the murder of a highborn young woman, and goes onto to include the political landscape, the religious clashes and the challenges of a young woman in this era.
The murder mystery takes a lot of interesting turns and twists throughout the book, and by the second half it becomes about much more than that. With a sort of unreliable narrator like Seol – unreliable in that she doesn’t really remember much of her family history or the reason her brother ran away – the focus of the investigation keeps shifting. What starts as curiosity becomes a cause, and later a race for the truth. The atmosphere that the author builds into the novel is the highlight – you are truly transported there, with how Hur describes the life, the meaning of their expressions (while also not overdoing it), the particular circumstances in which this story functions, the limitations imposed upon Seol, everything. Seol’s characterization, though, sometimes feels a bit distant from the reader, because we don’t exactly always know what she is or is not aware of, and so sometimes the revelations feel convenient.
Her relationship with Han, and the power struggles there were an interesting arc of the storyline, because she starts from a point of admiration and mid-way she starts getting disillusioned about him, and then she starts digging into his motivations and everything, which sets them at opposing ends. On the historical events depicted – I feel the author did a fantastic job incorporating those elements, and the political issues in this story. I won’t say much about the ending, but the culprit was definitely a surprise for me, as was the motive.
On the whole, a wonderfully written mystery set in a historical time period that is unique for YA.
Is it diverse? OwnVoices historical Korean setting
Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Feiwel & Friends, via Edelweiss.
Releases on April 21, 2020